Jon Pelle will never be the big man on campus. Not literally, anyway. Of course, the 5’8 freshman has known that for some time now, ever since he was left off his first peewee roster nearly a decade ago because he was too small in the eyes of would-be coaches.
But he played anyway, handling his rejection with the poise of one far older, skating with ‘B’ teams fortunate enough to take a chance on him, honing his skills, and learning that, sure enough, size isn’t everything.
“It’s been something that I’ve just gotten used to,” Pelle said. “I don’t think it’s something I let get to me. Obviously I’ve had to overcome a little adversity, maybe a little more than other guys, but I don’t look at it as a negative.”
Neither did the New York Apple Core of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, which recruited Pelle from Long Island’s Suffolk County Police Athletic League as a high school sophomore three years ago.
“I was even shorter then than I am now, if you can believe that,” Pelle said.
That wouldn’t dissuade Apple Core coach and general manager Henry Lazar—as it had several before him—from enlisting Pelle, though. His organization had, after all, already enjoyed its fair share of success with Cornell’s Ryan Vesce, the 5’8 future captain of the Big Red.
And not too surprisingly, Pelle drew almost immediate comparisons to his forbear.
As Vesce had been “Rocky” before him, Pelle was quickly dubbed “Little Rocky” and, in his first full season, scored 88 points on 32 goals and 56 assists in 80 games, good for third-best on the Apple Core despite his small stature.
“He’s got a lot of God-given talent—he’s sharp and smart,” Lazar said. “It’s pretty hard to teach somebody how to think. He anticipates. He learns from his mistakes.”
What few mistakes befell him as a rookie, Pelle corrected one year later. Though unable to spur his team to a successful defense of its EJHL title, the Harvard-bound senior notched 114 points on the strength of 56 goals and 58 assists—in just 69 games—tied for tops in the league. As has been the case throughout his freshman campaign with the Crimson, much, though not all, of that offensive production came within a hair’s breadth of the crease, where few little guys dare go.
Not Pelle, though.
“When you have heart and desire, those things don’t matter,” Lazar said. “You have guys who are 5’7 who play like they’re 6’2, and you’ve got guys who are 6’3 who play like they’re 5’7. All that matters is what’s inside.”
“It’s tougher for me to get to the front of the net or battle in the corner,” Pelle added. “But I try just as hard as I can and hopefully that works.”
Though it certainly has thus far—the West Islip, N.Y., native is Harvard’s second-leading scorer with 25 points—as a recruit, Pelle worried openly that he might need to defer his admission in order to add strength and speed, else he might struggle in the transition to the collegiate level.
But former Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni assured the then-uncommitted prospect that he would be more than ready to contribute impact right away. Pelle informed his other ECAC suitors, Cornell included, that he would be Cambridge-bound shortly thereafter.
But making the jump was, at least initially, a bit more difficult than Mazzoleni had suggested.
“At first it was a huge difference,” Pelle said. “I’d be going to the net, and I’d just get knocked over. I’d be like, ‘Holy shit. What’d I get myself into?’”
That late-summer anxiety was short-lived, though. Hitting the weight room in earnest with the upperclassmen and skating in captain’s practice prior to the season’s start, Pelle worked himself into the shape he’d need to crash the net as he had throughout his career with the Apple Core.
By the end of pre-season, captain Noah Welch couldn’t help but mention that Pelle and several other freshmen were skating and banging bodies as though they’d been there all along.
“When I’m going up against a bigger guy, I feel like I’m 6’2 out there,” Pelle said. “I don’t picture myself, or think about myself like, ‘Oh, this guy is 10 times as strong or as big as me.’ I’m just going to go in there and compete against him like we were the same size. It’s not even something that really crosses my mind when I’m out there.”
And as his first season draws to a close, Pelle’s size isn’t crossing his opponents’ minds any more either. Nimble, quick, and certainly strong enough, the freshman may not bulldoze his way to the cage, but he finds his way to rebounds nonetheless, much to the chagrin of the defensemen who never saw him breaking for the far post. In his first eight games alone, Pelle totaled eight points, highlighted by his two tallies—both second-chance power-play goals—against No. 1 BC in the Crimson’s 3-1 upset victory on Nov. 16.
“Pelle’s not the prototypical small guy,” linemate Charlie Johnson said. “I think he’s scored all his goals within five feet of the net. He gets there, gets the rebounds. He doesn’t play on the outside. He’s got a knack for finding the open spots and he slips by the ‘D’ without letting them lean on him, because if they did he might be in trouble.”
One would certainly think so. But, as coaches past and present agree, Pelle—blessed with superior hockey sense—is far too crafty to take such a licking. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
Even when opponents appeared to have him solved—Pelle was held to just two points in nine starts between Nov. 27 and Jan. 8—the rookie bounced back, rattling off 15 points in his 16 most recent appearances.
“I’ve probably had to rely on making the smart play every time because it’s hard for me to just physically beat a guy,” Pelle said. “So I’m going to have to use my head a little more to fake him out one way or the other and beat him with my mind rather than my body.”
Or, perhaps better still, with someone else’s body altogether. During his latest scoring flurry, Pelle has set up 12 of his teammates’ tallies, more than tripling his assist total in the process.
“He’s small, but it doesn’t seem to limit him too much,” assistant captain Tom Cavanagh said. “He makes the guys around him, I think, look a lot better because he does a lot of the little things really well.”
“I guess the cliché is, ‘He’s small but he plays big,’” Johnson added. “But that’s the way he is.”
And even if that’s not good enough to make him a big man on campus, he’s left no doubt as to his size one he steps onto the ice.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.