By Jim den Hollander
In the late summer of 2013, a 16-year-old hopeful from Rochester, NY was looking to catch on with the Dells Ducks, a team coming off a solid sophomore season that didn’t end until overtime in the third and deciding game of the MNJHL Division Championship series.
With many returners the bar was set high for the team.
Chris Vella made the roster and waited patiently to get his shot and made the most of it when it finally happened.
Eight years later, Vella, who will turn 24 in November, turned in four amazing seasons with the Ducks under, forged a longstanding friendship with players and a coach he was so close to he considers them family now. He went from rookie sponge to rugged leader, serving two seasons as team Captain before moving on to four more seasons at Morris State University in New York.
A couple weeks ago he made his pro debut with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs of the SPHL. After his second game, this past weekend, Vella, one of the most popular Ducks players, took some time to respond to an emailed interview, looking back on his time in the Dells and beyond.
Vella’s responses are written in full below. Thanks for the memories Vella.
Saukhockey.info — Your career with the Ducks is inspirational and I use it as an example of a player that came in and showed patience and hard work could pay off at the junior level. You went from a healthy scratch in your first few months to a two-time captain and one of the team’s all time leaders on and off the stats sheet. Can you share some of your best memories of your four seasons with the Ducks?
Chris Vella — I absolutely loved playing for the Ducks, it was a family environment everyday and I have met some of my best friends that I still keep in touch with today. I have even been to two of my teammates weddings! Winning two championships with the ducks is something I will never forget and couldn’t have been possible without having a tight knit group.
SH — You joined a number of former Ducks teammates at Morrisville State College where you played four more seasons. What was the biggest difference between NCAA Division 3 and Tier 3 junior hockey? Was it made easier having friends in place when you arrived there?
CV — The biggest difference between Tier 3 junior hockey and NCAA D3 hockey is the physicality and speed of the game. Coach Bill Zaniboni did a great job preparing his players to make the jump to the next level and succeed wherever that may be, not only on the ice but off the ice as well. One thing Coach Bill said that stuck with me throughout my career was “take pride in everything you do”. That helped me on the ice and in the classroom. It definitely was much easier going into a program where I knew a handful of former teammates. A lot of players will move on to organizations not knowing a single person, and I think having that relationship right from day one helped me make a quick adjustment into college.
SH — What did you major in at Morrisville? Was it difficult after being out of school for a couple years to become a student athlete? What are some of your best memories from Morrisville? Did you fill the same role as both a penalty killing expert and offensive threat while in New York?
CV — I was an Exercise Science major at Morrisville. In my first semester I struggled after being out of school for a few years, I really had to relearn time management skills to balance school and hockey. One of my favorite memories at Morrisville was sweeping Fredonia the first weekend of my junior year. 2019-2020 was a better year for the program, unfortunately we just missed the playoffs, but we started to find success. I am looking forward to seeing that carry over in the program’s future. I did play a lot on the penalty kill for Morrisville, I didn’t produce a ton offensively, but my numbers did increase during my junior season and was excited to see success in my final year.
SH — It must have been a little disappointing at least wrapping up your college hockey career with small or no crowds and likely shortened seasons. Was it a stressful situation for you and your teammates or did you try to focus on studies to overcome it?
CV – Luckily, we were able to finish the 2019-2020 season with no cancellations or restrictions due to Covid. My senior season was cancelled 2 months into the school year, and it was a very difficult time for all the players as well as the coaching staff. We were only able to skate and use the gym in small groups, most classes were online, and it was very difficult for the team to get together socially.
SH — When did you start to think about taking a run at a pro career? What made you decide on Virginia? Did you approach them or did someone from there talk to you?
CV — After the season was cancelled, I really had no clue what I was going to do. I went home to Rochester for the second semester and finished classes online as well as complete a Physical Therapy internship. I spent a few months just focusing on school, hopped on the ice once a week, but it wasn’t until about January or February I had a conversation with Coach Bill that I wanted to continue my hockey career and play professionally. Coach Bill helped me a ton this past summer with getting me in contact with coaches as well as giving me advice on how to achieve my goal. I had two former teammates that played for the Rail Yard Dawgs, they said very good things about the organization and told me to reach out to the Head Coach.
SH — Did it feel any different (nerves-wise I mean) suiting up for your first pro game, opposed to your first college or junior game? What do you expect your role will be as a rookie with the Rail Yard Dawgs?
CV — I think I felt nervous for all my first games at every level I have played at, especially at the pro level. Not only was it my first pro game, but it was also my first hockey game in about a year and a half. The following week I was able to adapt to the pressure and tell myself not to be nervous and just to play hockey and I felt much better my second game. My role on the team here in Roanoke is very similar to the role I’ve played for past teams. I am a hardworking and simple player. I expect to hit, block shots, and play a ton of minutes on the penalty kill.
Vella is two games into the 56-game Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) season with the Rail Yard Dawgs. Anyone who has purchased the HockeyTV app to watch junior hockey also should have access to SPHL games this season.