Flexibility was a good trait to possess throughout the 2020-21 hockey season.
It certainly paid off for Mason Lohrei and Sean Farrell, two of the recipients of United States Hockey League season-ending awards.
Farrell was recognized for his role in the Chicago Steel’s Anderson Cup title, which was then followed up with a Clark Cup championship in the playoffs. He was named Player of the Year for a league in which he did not even plan to be a participant.
The 2020-21 season was supposed to the first of Farrell’s college career at Harvard University. When the pandemic led to the cancellation of the Ivy League season, Farrell continued his Harvard studies remotely and returned to Chicago for another season with the Steel.
Lohrei’s ability to produce points as a defenseman should come as no surprise. He was a forward until his 16U season. The selection of Lohrei from the Green Bay Gamblers as the USHL’s Defensive Player of the Year emphasizes the respect he has gained for progress on playing all aspects of the position.
Lohrei and Farrell were joined among the individual player awards announced in June by: Matthew Coronato of the Chicago Steel, Forward of the Year; Akira Schmid of the Sioux City Musketeers, Goaltender of the Year; and Cole Sillinger of the Sioux Falls Stampede as Rookie of the Year.
At Culver Academy as a sophomore in high school, Lohrei said he felt like he “barely made” the 16U team as a forward. The frequent scratches seemed to confirm that.
When two defensemen went down with shoulder injuries at the same time, Lohrei, who had played the position in one spring tournament to that point, seized the opportunity.
“I jumped in about February and just kind of ran with it from there,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve always had offensive instincts and that comes from being a forward, but I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in the past three or four years is being more physical and how to use my body more.”
Lohrei saw immediate results in the move, which, when made, was more about helping a team and getting more playing time than altering the path of his future.
Things changed in a hurry.
“The coaches never even knew that I had played D for two games in a spring tournament,” Lohrei said. “I knew we were short on D, so I just thought I should give it a try. I jumped in on a two-on-one drill and did pretty well in the drill and that was it.”
Lohrei kept playing defense in what turned out to be an extended season with a trip to the Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships. After being cut the year before as a forward, he made the national camp out of the Central District with his play as a defenseman that summer.
“It’s cool to see it start coming to fruition and just get rewarded in that way,” Lohrei said.
The rewards have kept coming.
Lohrei, a 20-year-old from Verona, Wisconsin, whose father served as head coach/general manager of the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers from 1991-97, landed a chance to play at Ohio State University. He was selected by the Boston Bruins in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft.
During a record-setting season for scoring by a Green Bay defenseman, he was named USHL Defenseman of the Week five times while scoring 19 goals, including six game-winners, and picked up 40 assists.
In a season Lohrei aimed to become stronger and more ready to try to step into a significant role in the Big Ten in the fall, the 6-foot-4, 204-pounder seemed to accomplish that goal.
“I definitely take pride in the defensive end of things — shutting down the rush, having a good stick, defending in my own zone,” Lohrei said. “I think I’m the kind of player that can play in any situation, but it’s nice to have my coaches believe that, too. Beginning of games, end of games, power play, penalty kill, stuff like that, they rely on me to do that every night and I take pride in doing it.”
Similarly, Farrell filled many roles for the Steel, which won its second straight Anderson Cup as regular-season champion and followed up the effort with a Clark Cup championship.
The Steel were already forming, but still had exhibition games left before the start of the regular season, when Farrell’s situation at Harvard changed.
“When the Ivies canceled their season, I went back to Chicago,” said Farrell, a fourth-round draft pick by the Montreal Canadiens. “I was there a couple weeks before the season opener, so it definitely gave me some time to get ready and get back with the team a little bit.”
Chicago coach Brock Sheahan said there was much more to Farrell’s season than his record-setting, 24-game scoring streak or his league-leading 72 assists and 101 points.
“I think Sean had the best season ever in USHL history,” Sheahan said of the 19-year-old from Hopkinton, Massachusetts. “… It was a significantly different year and I just feel like the level that he played at, both on and off the puck, was unique.
“… He became more of a threat to score, with his playmaking, which is what he’s really good at, but he’s a complete hockey player.”
Coronato, 19, from Huntington, New York, led the league with 48 goals to go along with 37 assists.
“Matt Coronato had 57 goals in 59 games, if you count playoffs,” Sheahan said. “In a league that is historically hard to score in, he did it in different ways. That’s a credit to the work that he’s put in.
“When we first got him, I thought he was an up-and-down player, who could beat guys one-on-one and score off the rush. He’s scored every single way that you can imagine this year and he’s done it consistently — off a pass, catch and shoot, around the net, obviously breaking guys down. Then, he became more of a playmaker, too. I feel like his vision improved. His separating trait is his work ethic; his compete level. I’ve never seen a guy work that hard, that consistently, at any level, so that bodes well for him in his future.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo from Chicago Steel