By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The trip back home was long, but Thomas Rocco had a lot to celebrate with his dad and his older brother.
Rocco made a 22-hour drive back home to Midlothian, Va., from Aberdeen, S.D., after his Aberdeen Wings junior hockey team won the Robertson Cup as the playoff champions of the North American Hockey League. On the ride back, the trio stopped at St. Cloud State on a recruiting visit.
Rocco ended up committing to play for the Huskies in 2019-20 after the campus visit.
“It reminded me a lot of Aberdeen with a tight family feel and not too flashy and there’s a nice small community feel,” Rocco said of St. Cloud State.
The Wings wrapped up the Robertson Cup on May 15 at Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minn. Rocco sent out a tweet announcing his commitment to the Huskies on Saturday, June 1.
Add the recruiting trip to the junior hockey title and it made the long drive back a bit easier … not that the 19-year-old got behind the wheel.
“My dad and my brother came up for the national championship in Minnesota,” Rocco said. “We drove to Aberdeen from Minnesota and visited (St. Cloud State) on the way home.
“I didn’t drive at all. I fell asleep in the back (seat).”
Getting to SCSU
Rocco had planned on playing another season for Aberdeen, but the recruiting experience changed that. Aberdeen had the third-best point total in the NAHL (98, 47-10-2-1-2) during the regular season and Rocco had 13 goals, 29 assists and was a plus-30 in 56 regular season games for the Wings.
His plus-30 tied for the 13th-best plus/minus rating in the league. Players get a plus-1 for every even-strength goal and a minus-1 for every even-strength goal that they are on the ice for.
“He’s a very high energy player and possesses a lot of speed,” said Scott Langer, who recently completed his third season as Aberdeen head coach/general manager and has coached junior hockey since 1997. “He plays all 200 feet of the rink and is quite dynamic.
“He’s a player who, once he went through the feeling-out process of what junior hockey is about, consistently got better throughout the season. He’s a hard working kid and that showed in his practice habits. He was one of our most consistent players throughout the season.”
Rocco played wing all season and had a goal and eight assists and was a plus-7 (tied for fifth in the NAHL) in 12 playoff games.
“We led the league in penalty kill and he was one of our top penalty killers and saw time on one of our power-play units. There wasn’t much he didn’t do for us,” Langer said. “With the national tournament that Thomas had, that solidified the (college) deal.”
Rocco, who turns 20 in November, has another year of junior eligibility remaining. But after talking with St. Cloud State assistant coach Nick Oliver and the coaching staff from Providence, he decided to head to college this fall.
“I think I skate well and can make plays with my head up,” he said. “I like passing and I like getting assists. I think I’m more of a playmaker.
“I think I’m going to be around the 12th or 13th forward and I’ve got a chance at more playing time and I get a chance to improve (at SCSU). St. Cloud and Providence thought I was ready to come in after I get a little stronger. These schools changed my mind.”
Rocco and his family moved to Virginia before the 2016-17 season when he played for the P.A.L. Junior Islanders in the National Collegiate Development Conference in Hauppauge, N.Y. That was where a scout from Aberdeen saw him play and recruited him.
But Rocco spent most of his time growing up in Downingtown, Pa., which is about a 45-minute drive away from Philadelphia. He played for the Downingtown High School team and for the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers travel team.
“The farthest we traveled (in high school) was two hours and everyone else was within an hour and there were some good teams,” Rocco said.
In 2016-17, he played for the Richmond Generals in the United States Premier 3 Hockey League, a Tier III junior league and that was when his dad, an actuary, got a job in Viriginia and and eventually moved the family there.
Then after he made his commitment to Aberdeen, he moved to South Dakota and there was some cultural differences to go along with the upgrade in hockey.
“Everything is really flat out there and there’s not a lot going on, but it’s a really great community and it’s a tight community with a lot of fans and it was an unreal experience. I enjoyed every minute of it,” said Rocco, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds. “It was a little tougher (hockey), a lot faster and more physical.
“Once I got a couple games in, I got used to it and I started to play with more speed. I got used to the contact. It wasn’t an easy adjustment, but once I did adjust, I thought I handled it well.”
Rocco had a 3.7 grade-point average and a 1260 (out of 1600) on his SAT and enjoys math, science and business, but has not decided on a major.
Langer was hoping to have Rocco back for another season, but said that St. Cloud State’s style of play on the Olympic-sized ice sheet suits him.
“He can get around that sheet of ice very well,” Langer said. “He’s got a real funny personality when it comes out. He’s quiet and humble.
“He’s very happy in a team environment. It takes him a little while to get going to see his personality, but he’s a real funny kid. But he’s serious about his approach to the game.”
Rocco will be the third player from Aberdeen on next season’s roster. St. Cloud State will also have Aberdeen alums and forwards Will Hammer and Kevin Fitzgerald on the team.