By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- This year's SteelHounds team truly has a Youngstown connection.
Defenseman Paul Esdale, an Edmonton, Alberta, native, was the first player the minor league ice hockey team signed after Kevin Kaminski became coach last month.
Esdale's mother, Janice, grew up in Youngstown and is a graduate of Ursuline High School.
His maternal grandfather, Wesley Tochman, worked for Republic Steel on the site where the Chevrolet Centre now sits along Front Street.
His grandmother's name was Maltida and they lived on the West Side.
"But everyone called her Tillie," Esdale said.
Now, Esdale, a 27-year-old defenseman, returns to the Central Hockey League after a season in Scandinavia and Kaminski hopes he will be the sparkplug from the blue line for the SteelHounds offense in their second season.
Sometimes it truly is a small world.
"Paul adds a lot to our club as he is a proven scorer and leader," Kaminski said. "He had an unbelievable season his last go-round in the CHL [2004-05] and gained more valuable experience last season in Europe.
"He will step in and be a big presence for us making our depth much better," Kaminski said.
Out of the area
Esdale's parents met at Ohio University where his father, Peter, played ice hockey.
After graduation, Peter Esdale, a native of Edmonton, eventually settled in his Canadian hometown to coach for the University of Alberta.
"He coached hockey, soccer and tennis," the graduate of Brown University said, "but his main sport was hockey. That took him all over the place and brought him back to Edmonton.
Esdale, 5-feet-10 and 175 pounds, was born and in Edmonton, home of the National Hockey League's Oilers who won five Stanley Cups from 1984-90.
"I started skating when I was 2 years old, going to outdoor rinks," Esdale said. "My grandfather had a farm outside of Edmonton. When the ponds were frozen, we would shovel them off and play ice hockey. It was the real Canadian experience.
"We were there for awhile, then moved back to the U.S.," said Esdale who has two older sisters -- Julie in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Jenni in Calgary, Alberta.
"In Washington state, he coached a junior team, the Spokane Chiefs," Esdale said. "I've been lucky because we traveled a lot, and with hockey I've traveled just as much."
The Esdales also lived in Michigan before returning to Edmonton where he graduated from St. Francis Xavier High School. Esdale played two seasons of junior hockey in Alberta then received a scholarship offer from Brown. In 119 career collegiate games, he scored 25 goals with 42 assists.
In 2003, he graduated from the Ivy League school with a degree in economics but decided to give professional hockey a try.
"After our college season finished, I received a call to play in the American Hockey League while I was still in school," Esdale said. "I was away from Providence [R.I.] for about 10 days to play five games with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.
"That was a god opportunity to get a taste of pro hockey," Esdale said. "All through college I knew I wanted to play pro after college. It was in my blood, but I figured it was a good thing to get my education first."
In the fall of 2003, Esdale signed a two-way contract with the Lowell Lochmonsters of the American Hockey League and the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League.
"I played the whole year in Florida," Esdale said. "They could have called me up, but it just didn't happen. That's when I discovered that I like living down in Florida."
That season, he scored five goals with 11 assists in 63 games. Like the Central Hockey League, the ECHL is comparable to a Double A minor league baseball team.
In 2004, Esdale played 57 games for the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League, scoring 22 goals and 69 points. Most importantly, he finished plus 39 (best in the CHL) and was selected the league's defensive player of the year and was awarded first-team all-CHL.
Last fall, Esdale decided to playing in Europe, playing a combined 33 games for teams in Sweden and Denmark. He scored 11 goals and made 13 assists.
His season began in Sweden with 12 games with IK Nykopings, scoring six points.
"It wasn't working out well so my agent found me a [team] in Denmark," Esdale said. "It was a great experience -- I wouldn't trade it for anything."
He joined the Nordsjaelland Cobras in Denmark for the remainder of the season where he posted eight goals with 10 assists in 21 games and had a strong postseason scoring four goals with six assists in 13 games.
"The European style suited the type of player I am -- smaller, can skate well and handle the puck," he said. "I like to travel and one of my dreams was to play hockey in Europe."
Esdale said he was the only North American player on the Cobras but it wasn't a problem.
"In Sweden, Denmark and Finland, the second language is English," Esdale said.
"It was a different lifestyle, but it was a nice lifestyle. Everything was a lot more simple ... things like grocery stores -- they were a lot more like Mom and Pop stores.
"Here we have a million choices and we don't realize how lucky we are to have all these things. That's what opened my eyes and gave me perspective on how well we live."
His parents now live in Florida.
"That's where I spend my summers," Esdale said of the Sunshine State.
Esdale says he has vague memories of his family visiting Ohio when he was very young.
"So this is basically the first time I've been here," Esdale said.
Time to think
This summer, Esdale took his time deciding on his next move.
"I had some opportunities to go back to Europe, but the fit didn't seem right," Esdale said.
Then the SteelHounds called.
"I knew they had a good core group of guys with [Chris] Richards and [Jeff] Christian. I knew they were looking for an offensive defenseman and I knew I could come in here and be one of the leaders on defense."
Esdale credits SteelHounds defenseman Kelly Sickavish, who was his teammate in Wichita, for linking him to Youngstown.
Before Kaminski was hired, player-coach Christian made the initial call to Esdale. Kaminski closed the deal.
"When Jeff called, they didn't have a head coach and I was a little apprehensive," Esdale said. "It was a pretty easy decision when Kevin came along."
His parents reaction?
"My dad still has hockey in him so he knew what was going on the whole time," Esdale said. "My mom was happy but a little surprised. It's quite a ways from Florida. She's interested in how I like it here and all the details."
Esdale said he expects his parents to visit during November.
One concern Esdale had before coming here was travel.
"But when I got to think about it, I realized that it's nice to be away," the bachelor said. "I'm by myself -- I don't have a girlfriend or a wife so it's not like I'm leaving someone behind.
"It's nice to see new places. I've seen most of the CHL cities but there are a few new ones."
He agrees the roadtrips will be a change.
"When I was in Wichita, we pretty much just played on Friday and Saturday, then left [for home]," Esdale said.
"We didn't get out much. We'd only be away for weekends. It's a little different here."