The number on his jersey was different, but a familiar defenseman was at the point Sunday at Young Arena for the first time in a season-and-a-half.
Just five minutes into his first game back in front of Waterloo fans, the puck came to Ethan Spaxman after a faceoff win. He stepped toward the dot in the left circle, drawing the attention of the Des Moines Buccaneers’ defense as everyone prepared for the imposing six-foot-four-inch 20-year-old to fire a big shot. Instead, Spaxman slid the puck along the ice, across the top of the crease toward new teammate Ethan Johnson, who redirected the pass inside the post and across the goal line to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead.
It was a play during the 4-2 Waterloo win which illustrates just how quickly chemistry can form on the ice.
“It’s hockey, the relationships come easy,” Spaxman noted during his weekend return. “You step in the locker room and everyone treats you like family. It’s a brotherhood everywhere you go.”
Since playing for the Black Hawks in 2014/15, Spaxman had skated at Merrimack College. During 48 appearances for the Warriors, he recorded three goals and five assists. Spaxman returned to a Waterloo club simultaneously familiar and different.
“Nick [Swaney] is the only guy that I had actually played with. I knew Bailey Conger from Bloomington,” Spaxman said, adding, “Things are still the same; the coaching staff is still the same, so it’s nice to be back and know what they are looking for already.”
After being acquired in a trade from the Bloomington Thunder in November of 2014, Spaxman made 43 appearances for the Hawks. He arrived in the midst of a long losing streak, but also was part of Waterloo’s nearly-realized bid to rally into the playoffs from a deep hole that spring. Spaxman’s 16 points for the Hawks (two goals, 14 assists) included a six-game streak December of 2014.
Playing in all three of Waterloo’s weekend contests after a month-long layoff, the Brantford, Ontario, native was reminded of the stylistic differences between the USHL and the NCAA.
“It’s a lot more run-and-gun in the USHL…It’s a transition game, and I think college hockey is going to that, so it’s good that players are already getting that out of this league.”
Spaxman says that off the ice, the atmosphere is also different in the USHL.
“The road trips are pretty long,” he chuckled. “It’s a little bit different in college, especially in Hockey East because you’re traveling an hour to games, but it’s a lot of fun [here] being on the road with the guys. You spend so much time together, especially with a tight group; it’s just a lot of fun in the USHL. For me, I’m not worried about school right now, so I’m just getting back to the basics and having fun playing again.”
The Hawks hope that Spaxman’s fun will continue past the regular season finale on April 8th. With Waterloo currently tied for third in the USHL Western Conference, the veteran – now returned to familiar surroundings – seeks his first appearance in the Clark Cup playoffs and a strong finish to his junior hockey career.