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The evolution of a modern-day power forward: A Mitchell Chaffee story By Ryan Ames

Photos by Collegian Photo Editor Caroline O'Connor, Katherine Mayo and Collegian Staff.

THE SCOREBOARD reads 2-1.

There’s nervous excitement throughout the Mullins Center faithful as the Massachusetts hockey team trails Vermont in Game 2 of the 2018 opening round playoff series.

It’s late in the second period and the Minutemen have possession in the UVM zone.

Jake Gaudet drives to the Catamount net with purpose but doesn’t get a shot off. The puck bounces around until it settles just past Gaudet’s outstretched stick. UVM forward Conor O’Neil sees this and takes a whack at the rubber disk, clearing it away from Gaudet, but ultimately forces it back down into a high-traffic area toward his own goaltender in Stefanos Lekkas.

Just off the right post, Mitchell Chaffee is keeping a watchful eye. When he sees Gaudet try to regain control of the puck after his ambitious attempt at a stuff-in fails, he untangles sticks with Catamount forward Travis Blanleil and swings behind the apron of the cage.

Almost as if a magnetic bond is pulling him in, Chaffee arrives at the loose puck just after O’Neil’s inadvertent shot on goal is trickling around the left post.

Now, Chaffee goes to work.

Guarding the left post just outside the crease, UVM defenseman Corey Moriarty tries to deter Chaffee with a healthy whack to the hands — he might as well have been holding a pool noodle, because Chaffee carries on seemingly unfazed.

Brushing off the slash, Chaffee corrals the puck a couple feet away from the end boards, shifts all his weight to his left foot and takes two and a half crossovers to lose Moriarty.

With his entire frame now faced up ice, completely toward the UMass defensive zone, it appears Chaffee is about to dish the puck off to Jake McLaughlin, who is unguarded in the high slot.

But instead, all in one motion, Chaffee slingshots a back-foot, no-look wrister in Lekkas’ direction, just before Moriarty catches up in coverage. And like many occasions beforehand in the 2017-18 season, the puck finds its way into the back of the net.

Gaudet and Oliver Chau simultaneously raise their hands excitedly after seeing their line mate score and the crowd erupts with joyful screams.

Chaffee celebrates by raising his right leg, combining that with a double fist-pump.

The scoreboard now reads 2-2.

ROCKFORD, MICHIGAN IS HOME to a little over 6,000 people. Located in Kent County, Rockford sits on the western side of the state, not too far away from Lake Michigan.

Rockford is separated by Rogue River, a 48-mile stream of water that nearly vertically divides the town in half. Originally named Rouge River, it was changed to Rogue in the 1900s by a Wisconsin mapmaker that mistook the proper spelling.

Mitchell Chaffee calls Rockford home.

Born on Jan. 26, 1998, Chaffee is the youngest of the three siblings. When he was growing up, Chaffee went to his brother Jake’s hockey games. As most younger siblings do, Chaffee looked up to his older brother and wanted to be just like him.

“At the age of like five, I’m like ‘I wanna do this, I wanna play’ and stuff like that,” Chaffee said.

Once Chaffee got a taste of hockey, he never looked back.

As most hockey fans in Michigan are, Chaffee grew up a Red Wings fan. His favorite player: Pavel Datsyuk.

“[Datsyuk]’s just incredible, just everything that he can do with [the puck] and just his vision was just crazy to see.”

Chaffee also enjoyed going to Grand Rapids — just a hop, skip and a jump south-bound from Rockford — to watch the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Griffins, play. He said watching current NHL players like Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader hone their craft in the minors was quite a unique experience.

“At the age of like five, I’m like ‘I wanna do this, I wanna play’ and stuff like that” - Mitchell Chaffee

As far as college team loyalties, Chaffee didn’t have one in particular, partially because Jake and his father Dave attended Ferris State while his sister Jenna and mother Kathy went to Michigan State. “Being from Michigan you kind of always watch [hockey],” he said.

On the ice, Chaffee’s game really started to pick up when he was 15. As a member of the U18 Michigan Nationals team, Chaffee scored 41 points and potted 25 goals in 55 games.

A year later, Chaffee moved to Detroit to live with his grandparents so he could play for one of the top select hockey programs in the country: HoneyBaked Hockey Club.

HoneyBaked boasts multiple alumni who are regulars in today’s NHL, including Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler and one of Chaffee’s boyhood idols in Abdelkader.

On the U16 team, Chaffee continued where he left off a year prior notching 28 points in 26 games. He even enjoyed a cup of coffee with the U18 team and scored a goal.

Little did Chaffee know that it was during this time when college coaches began to take note of his game, and unlike the origins of the name of the river that flows through his hometown, Chaffee’s hockey skills were not easily mistaken.

IN 2014-15, current Minutemen coaches Jared DeMichiel and Ben Barr held coaching posts at St. Lawrence and Western Michigan, respectively. DeMichiel was an assistant on Greg Carvel’s Skating Saints staff while Barr was an associate head coach for the Broncos.

It was then, when Chaffee was producing for HoneyBaked, that his game piqued the interest of both DeMichiel and Barr.

“That was probably the first time we saw him when he was playing back in Detroit,” DeMichiel said. “[I] really liked his size and strength on the puck but also liked his ability to make plays. He played with some super high-end guys at that HoneyBaked team.”

Chaffee then took this newfound interest from Division I college hockey coaches to the junior ranks the next season, where he played for the Bloomington Thunder — now dubbed the Central Illinois Flying Aces — in the United States Hockey League.

Playing against stiffer competition, Chaffee wasn’t producing as much as he had been the past two seasons. His first year with the Thunder he scored only 13 points in 54 games.

Despite what the stat lines suggested, Chaffee’s game was not faltering. He was learning how to play a faster paced game and more specifically, how to use his meaty frame to his advantage.

His second season with the Thunder, he seemed to figure out how to throw his weight around effectively and it got to a point where he was striking fear into his own teammates.

“I think it was in training camp, I was actually kind of intimidated by him, just because he was such a strong kid and worked really hard,” Thunder teammate Ben Mirageas, who now plays at Providence, said. “We went into the corner one time and he kind of put me on my butt.”

“He’s kind of [like] a bowling ball out there.”

After 35 games with the Thunder that year, Chaffee was traded to the Fargo Force.

He slotted just one goal and five points in 14 games for the Force in the regular season but it was during the playoffs when his game really took off.

"He's kind of [like] a bowling ball out there" - Ben Mirageas

“We kind of had a short playoff stint that year but he was our best player in that series,” Force general manager and head coach Cary Eades said. “I remember a couple of plays in the playoffs that he scored big goals for us. They were kind of eye-openers.”

Chaffee’s brief stop with the Force proved to be a critical move for his development because the skills he obtained there, he carried over throughout his career.

“He worked hard at improving his conditioning and his skating and he learned how to be more of a power forward,” Eades said.

IN THE SUMMER OF 2016, before his second stint with the Thunder and before the trade to the Force, Chaffee committed to UMass.

Originally, Chaffee was eyeing Western Michigan. Closer to Rockford and with Barr overseeing the influx of recruits, he nearly became a Bronco.

“I don’t know, just something didn’t seem right there and I was thinking about going there but I wasn’t sure,” said Chaffee. “After Barr transferred here he told me I had to come out here and at least meet the coaching staff and check out the campus and just see if I liked it. So I took a visit out here and I loved the coaching staff, which was one of the top things on my list for college.”

When DeMichiel and Barr joined forces in the Pioneer Valley, they swiftly identified Chaffee as a top priority and “zeroed in on him,” as DeMichiel put it.

In hockey, a power forward is essentially a player than can run you over in the defensive zone and then snipe a shot through the opposing goalie all in the same shift. Think of Milan Lucic of the Edmonton Oilers or Boston Bruins legend Cam Neely; big guys that could light the lamp as well.

At the time, the idea was Chaffee — who now sports the nickname ‘Meat’ — would fill that power forward role for the Minutemen, with more emphasis on the word power and less on forward.

But then, Chaffee began scoring for UMass.

And he didn’t stop.

On a team with high profile players like Cale Makar, Mario Ferraro and even John Leonard, Chaffee had perhaps the most impressive season finishing with 13 goals and 24 points. His 13 goals tied Leonard for the team lead and he emerged as a legitimate power forward for the Minutemen.

His performance caught the eye of the Pittsburgh Penguins who invited him out for its Prospect Developmental Camp this past summer.

“[He’s] basically the definition of a power forward,” Gaudet said. “He could score and he was good in the heavy areas of the game and he works really hard around the net to earn rebound chances and he scores on a lot of those.”

“I don’t think there’s a better power forward in our league,” added Carvel. “I’d be afraid if I was on the ice on the other team. I’d want to know where he is at all times.”

Both Eades and DeMichiel admitted that they saw glimpses of his offensive potential, but he had to improve his feet, specifically, his foot speed, for his offensive game to flourish. Once he addressed that issue, it was just up to Chaffee to trust in his own abilities.

“I knew that I could [score] and playing U16 I knew I could too,” said Chaffee. “A lot of it has to do with being in the right spots and having the right line mates too. We really bonded well and I just found myself simplifying my game more which made everything easier.”

"I don't think there's a better power forward in our league" - Greg Carvel

Chaffee models his game after Mark Scheifele, a prime example of a power forward in today’s game who’s a center for the Winnipeg Jets.

Part of a power forward’s role is to create energy in the offensive zone, whether it’s with a big hit or by simply protecting the puck. As a freshman, Chaffee exemplified the latter as a staple of his game.

“We track something here at UMass called heavy shifts and that’s how often you possess the puck in the offensive zone,” DeMichiel said. “He’s one of the guys on our team that has like the most heavy shifts, game in and game out. More or less, when you’re possessing that puck down low, it’s giving your team energy and sucking energy out of the opponent. That’s what helps us maybe when we need a heavy shift, [Chaffee] is always there.”

“He’s probably a very frustrating player to play against because you can’t get [the puck] away from him,” Eades added.

It’s this ability that allows Carvel the option to utilize Chaffee in virtually any situation because he can scrounge pucks up, and then maintain them.

That and his God-given talent to shoot the puck also make him a weapon, particularly on the Minutemen man-advantage. Last year, he tallied three goals on UMass’ top power play unit.

“I would say definitely a heavy shot,” Mirageas said of the strengths of his game. “He really knows how to shoot the puck.”

EXPECTATIONS AND EXTRA ATTENTION from the opposition are going to follow Chaffee into his sophomore year because of the precedent he set for himself as a freshman.

And he knows that.

“I’m not gonna put a whole lot of pressure on myself,” Chaffee said. “I know what I have to do and what parts of my game I’m gonna have to do to be successful, so I just got to go out there and as long as I’m doing that everything should fall into place.”

All of the skills that have been molded from his youth days to now: physicality, puck-protection and shooting ability were on full display in Chaffee’s last goal of the year against the Catamounts. He executed in every single facet and it payed off with a game-tying goal.

Gaudet described a typical Mitchell Chaffee marker and it mirrored the one he netted in the playoffs.

“There’s a ton of goals where it’s, I’m the net-front guy and I get to watch Chaffee kinda beat a guy in the corner and then step out and take a shot and it’ll find its way through traffic and go in,” Gaudet said. “That’s always a huge relief if you’re the net-front guy and see the guy in the corner, your line mate, do a lot of the work and get rewarded.”

Chaffee scored a similar-looking goal in practice this preseason when he skated out from the far corner and rifled a shot past Matt Murray’s glove hand.

Held out of the Minutemen’s exhibition against the Royal Military College of Canada on Oct. 6 after taking a puck to the ear during practice beforehand, Chaffee is still waiting to suit up.

But once he does, don’t be surprised if he turns a seemingly broken play in the corner into a goal for UMass.

History would suggest it’s probable.

Ryan Ames can be reached at rames@umass.edu and on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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