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Russell’s hockey journeys lead him to NCAA D-I RedHawks

 

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One hour of public skating changed everything for young Rourke Russell.

Encouraged by his best friend, Hunter, and Hunter’s mom to try out for the Jr. Ice Dogs in the early 2000s, the Long Beach native first had to figure out to skate.

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“I was only 4 or 5, and I’d never skated before,” he said. “My mom (Debra) took me to an open skate at the (Lakewood) rink an hour before tryouts.”

For the record, Russell made the Mite team and hasn’t looked back. His friend, Hunter Epson, eventually decided to pursue golf and plays collegiately at Pepperdine.

“I just loved hockey to death,” Russell said. “I wanted to succeed and try to play in college.”

That goal should become a reality next fall as Russell, playing this season for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL), has signed a National Letter of Intent with Miami University, located in Oxford, Ohio. There he will join another longtime friend, Ben Lown (Newport Coast), who is a forward for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers.

The 6-foot-1, 176-pound Russell started out as a defenseman and stayed one through a youth hockey career with the Jr. Ice Dogs, the Anaheim Wildcats, the Los Angeles Jr. Kings and the Anaheim Jr. Ducks.

He said former Wildcats coach Konstantin Lodnia (also the owner of KHS Ice Arena in Anaheim) had the biggest impact on his growth as a player in California, where he played through Bantam AAA.

Russell then played one year of Midget with the Arizona Bobcats and another with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies in the Detroit area.

“I wanted to expand my hockey world, so to speak,” he said.

Expand it he did, and he kept expanding it in junior, playing last season with the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the North American Hockey League. He had 20 points in 55 combined regular- and post-season games and was a plus player.

Russell, a 1998 birth year who appeared on the NHL Central Scouting “Players to Watch” list last month, joined the Gamblers full-time this season (he made a two-game cameo for Green Bay during the ’14-15 season) and has provided solid play for one of the USHL’s top teams.

“Physically he does very well, but gaining puck confidence is the part that’s still developing,” Gamblers coach-GM Pat Mikesch said. “His strength is in 5 on 5. He’s not a power-play guy yet, but we will use him on the penalty kill.

“He’s an elite skater. He’s learning his position and defends the position well.”

Russell wants to continue developing a versatile game, and said he’s in a great place to do that.

“I love to jump into the rush, but I really love playing defense and getting the puck up to our forwards,” he said. “The Gamblers are very good about keeping us on a college work schedule. Every day we’re in the gym before practice, and not every junior team prepares their players that way.”

Russell is equally excited about his next step, which will see him donning a RedHawks jersey in the highly competitive NCHC, a league that annually sends 4-6 teams to the 16-team NCAA tournament and had two Frozen Four teams this past April, including national champion North Dakota.

“I went on a couple of other visits, but once my dad (Jeff) and I saw Miami, we just knew it was the school,” he said. “The tradition, the academics, the setting. We liked everything about it.”

That is how his teammates in Green Bay feel about Russell, Mikesch said.

“He’s a phenomenal kid, fun to be around,” said Mikesch. “A lot of his teammates like to hang out with him at his billet’s house. He’s laid back off the ice.”

But Russell is very focused on it. Look no further to where it’s taken him for evidence of that.

Photo/Hickling Images

— Chris Bayee