Murray, DeStefani left college hockey to play another season in juniors
By Tom Williams
The goal of every USHL player is to secure an opportunity to extend a career. Some turn pro, but for most, a college scholarship is the dream.
Sometimes, those plans don’t work out. Two members of the Youngstown Phantoms — forwards Brett Murray and Ethan DeStefani — have left college teams to return to the country’s top junior hockey league.
In December 2016, Murray was in his first season with the Phantoms after being drafted in the fourth round of the NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres. He scored seven goals and had 13 assists in 20 games.
Then at the Christmas break, the Bolton, Ont., native enrolled at Penn State University.
Joining an already established team proved problematic in regards to ice time. In 12 games with the Nittany Lions, Murray recorded one assist in the 2016-17 season.
Points also were hard to come by the following season. In 21 games, Murray scored one goal and made five assists.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder turned 20 last July, meaning he had one year of USHL eligibility remaining. Coming off a season in which the Phantoms qualified for the Clark Cup Finals for the first time and most of the scorers were off to college, Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson didn’t hesitate to welcome Murray back.
“We knew we were going to get significant [scoring] with Brett,” Patterson said after Wednesday’s practice at Deep Freeze. “He’s been terrific for us.”
Heading into tonight’s game in Illinois against the Chicago Steel, Murray is tied for the USHL scoring lead with the Waterloo Black Hawks’ Matej Blumel. Both have 39 points.
“He was physically mature when he came here the first time,” Patterson said. “What he picked up [at Penn State] was using his size and being a little more confident to play against bigger, stronger players.”
The left winger’s 16 goals lead the Phantoms. Center Conner MacEachern, right winger Jack Malone and Murray comprise the team’s top line.
“It was tough,” Murray said of his decision to leave Penn State. “I have a lot of friends at Penn State.”
Chalking it up as “a learning experience,” Murray said he’s using the switch “to excel, rather than dragging [me] down.”
DeStefani is the team’s newest member, joining the Phantoms on Dec. 26 just in time to get on the bus for three games in Iowa. His linemates are veterans and co-captains Craig Needham (center) and Joey Abate (left wing).
Stefani, a native of Bedford, N.H., attended the Phantoms’ tryout camp last spring, then decided to enroll at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass.
Two seasons ago, DeStefani played five games with Waterloo, then suffered a severe leg injury and missed the rest of the seaso.
In 2017-18, he played 53 games with the Minnesota Magicians of the NAHL, a lower tier than the USHL. He scored 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists).
The Phantoms drafted DeStefani last spring in case he decided to remain in junior hockey. DeStefani grew up going to Merrimack and University of New Hampshire hockey games.
“It was kind of a dream come true to commit to Merrimack,” he said.
Reality came to life when Mark Dennehy, the coach who recruited DeStefani, was fired last March after 13 seasons.
“That was a little bit of a shock to me,” DeStefani said.
In June, DeStefani was set on going to Merrimack, but attended the Phantoms’ tryout camp.
“I loved it,” DeStefani said, adding “that made for a “very tough decision.”
The 6-2, 195-pound DeStefani was familiar with Scott Borek, Merrimack’s new head coach, from his time leading New Hampshire and Providence. He chose college over the Mahoning Valley.
“I don’t necessarily regret [his decision], but I am happy I am here now — great team, great organization,” DeStefani said.
After going scoreless in four college games, he decided more time in junior hockey might be best. DeStefani will turn 20 on Feb. 16, so he has this season and one more year of eligibility, if needed, to attract another college offer.
Curtis Carr, the Phantoms head coach from 2010-11, is the associate head coach at Merrimack and helped DeStefani reach his decision to return to juniors.
“It really wasn’t working out,” DeStefani said, citing a lack of playing time and his desire “to get a year or two older, bigger, stronger — [that] would benefit me.
“I’m still a Merrimack fan, I left on good terms with everyone.”
Murray’s decision has paid off. Before summer ended, Miami University offered him a scholarship before he had scored one regular-season point.
He has two years of college eligibility remaining and will be a RedHawk in the fall.
Murray said his scoring success is a little surprising.
“I didn’t really have much expectations coming back, I just wanted to have a strong season, whether it’s putting up points or helping in the team in any [other] aspect,” Murray said. “Right now, it’s going well.”
DeStefani is enjoying Ohio.
“It’s definitely a friendlier environment than Waterloo,” DeStefani said. “The [Phantoms] coaching staff has been great.”
Murray has fond memories of his first stint in Youngstown and working with Patterson’s staff.
“I like the way they play the game,” Murray said. “I really like it here.
“It’s a unique atmosphere. The Covelli Centre is one of the best facilities in the league.”
As for the coaches, he said, “They’ve had success here, they stick to the script.”