Three years after he starred at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Joe Pendenza’s confidence was shaken and his statistics were personally disappointing.
He had just been demoted from the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals — top farm team of the Nashville Predators — to the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.
“I had my car packed and I was ready to go home and start my after-hockey life,” recalled Pendenza, who was coached in the Everett youth hockey program by his father, Robert, and uncle, Vin.
He sought their advice and that of his mother, Rosa.
“They told me to stop worrying about things I couldn’t control and stick it out for the season,” he said, “and my love for the game returned.”
Seven years later, Pendenza, 32, is a popular and respected assistant captain and leading scorer with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL.
With 20 goals and 35 assists through 57 games, he was on pace to set career highs for goals and points and has been a spark in the team’s drive to finish high in the league’s South Division.
He had a hot February run with a nine game point streak (14 points on six goals and eight assists).
Formerly the East Coast Hockey League, the ECHL is considered the top development league for the American and National Hockey Leagues.
Pendenza’s dramatic tying goal last season with just 20 seconds to play in regulation in game four against visiting Toledo in the Kelly Cup championship final series led to an overtime victory.
“I loved being in that moment. It was the memory of a lifetime,” said Pendenza, who added an assist in game five, another home ice victory, that clinched the Cup. In 20 playoff games, he tallied five goals and 11 assists.
“Joe uncorked a big one-timer for that incredible tying goal and it was one of the biggest goals in team history,” said Everblades head coach Brad Ralph.
Everblades co-founder and general manager Craig Brush said that as long as Pendenza stays healthy and productive, “he can play here as long as he wants.”
Pendenza has come a long way from the day, as a 3-year-old, he cried after his first time on the ice because “I couldn’t skate like the Boston Bruins.”
His family moved to Wilmington when Pendenza was attending Arlington Catholic High and playing hockey for coach Dan Shine, who retired last season after 44 years behind the bench.
“Joe, a natural skater who I could always depend upon, had a vision and a goal to play Division 1 college hockey,” said Shine, now the school’s athletic director.
Pendenza’s plan included joining the Boston Jr. Bruins, for whom he scored at a point-per-game pace over two-plus seasons.
”My goal was to get more exposure and play for a Hockey East college,” he said.
Luckily, the lone scholarship offer came from coach Blaise MacDonald at Hockey East’s UMass Lowell.
“Blaise saw something in me and I would not be here today if not for him,” Pendenza said.
MacDonald, who left UMass Lowell after Pendenza’s freshman season and is head coach at Colby College, said that “If you had a bus full of Joe Pendenzas, you’d be the luckiest coach in the world.”
Current UML head coach Norm Bazin said Pendenza became his most trusted player.
“He was the quintessential team player, and one of the best I have ever coached in my 12 seasons here,” said Bazin, “a big-game player who could be counted on to check the opponent’s best player.”
During his junior season, Pendenza helped the streaking River Hawks reach the NCAA Tournament and advance to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
His third-period goal tied eventual champion Yale in the semifinal game, but UML lost in overtime and its dream season was over.
Pendenza, who said earning Bazin’s trust was a major factor in his development, was a second-team All-Conference selection and had a career best 38 points in 41 games that season.
Four years ago, when Pendenza determined the NHL was no longer a possibility, he signed with the Everblades. His grandparents, Grace and Enrico, lived in Naples, Fla.
Pendenza met his future wife, Lauren, a Cornell University graduate, while skating with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters.
Married in 2021, the couple recently moved into their new home in Naples, a short drive from the Everblades’ home rink, Hertz Arena, in Estero.
When Hurricane Ian devastated Southwest Florida last summer, Hertz Arena was used as a shelter for displaced area residents.
Pendenza and his teammates, including South Boston’s Cam Darcy, donated clothes and blankets and also delivered meals to the relief workers.
The Everblades also held a First Responders night fund-raiser at a January game.
“I have always appreciated players like Joe,” Brad Ralph said. “I appreciate the sacrifices they have made to play the game. They deserve a lot of respect.”
A three-sport athlete in high school who finds relaxation in board games and movies, Pendenza was invited to four NHL training camps and played in one pre-season game with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Although he was a phone call away from playing in the NHL, Pendenza has no regrets because “I always gave everything I had. I’m still playing the game I love and enjoying being with my teammates.
“And that never gets old.”
Marvin Pave can be reached at email@example.com.