Both the Fargo Force and Green Bay Gamblers are seeking the USHL's ultimate prize of the Clark Cup this spring, but for two players on opposing sides of the ice, personal bragging rights are also on the line.
Green Bay forward Robert Francis and Fargo defenseman Brandon Carlson are southern California natives that have a little history together. They both are now after a USHL title, but once upon a time, they wore the same jersey and won a championship as teammates. Francis, 19, and Carlson, 17, weren't even teenagers yet when they won the California Peewee State Championship with the San Diego Jr. Gulls. It was their second year playing together after what was an interesting first season on the ice, which their former coach Mike Lazano fondly recalls.
"Our first year together, we got rocked pretty good early in the season, even once losing 20-0," said Lazano. "It was definitely a building year because many of those kids came from playing roller hockey to play ice hockey for the first time. But we kept those kids together and went all the way to win a state championship the second year."
One of those roller hockey players was a young Robert Francis who converted to ice hockey at the urging of Lazano after convincing Robert's father that he would be good enough. "I told his dad that Robert has all the tools – he just needs to learn how to ice skate."
So Francis took the ice for the first time at team tryouts, equipped with a pair of rented skates, and got his first taste of ice hockey. During a scrimmage that day, he got a rude welcome to the more physical sport when after receiving a pass, he was immediately checked by a player on the other team. That player was Steven Hoshaw, who played in the USHL this season for both the Lincoln Stars and Waterloo Black Hawks.
"Robert got run over so bad that I didn't think he was going to ever come back again," said Lazano. "But, he got up and I remember him saying, 'Wow that was cool'. I knew right then he was going to be a good player."
Another player on the ice that day who had vivid memories of that hit was Brandon Carlson because he was the player who delivered that pass to Francis. "It was the first time I had met Robert," said Carlson. "I gave him a buddy pass and he got rocked pretty hard."
Carlson was the youngest player in that group who was brought up to play at the peewee level because of his good skill and big size for his age. A little coaching from Lazano helped him to progress as a defenseman. "I remember teaching him how to hip-check and get the proper angles on forwards who were faster than him," said Lazano. "He got ran over at first, but he never quit trying. He is a hard worker and wasn't afraid to get in the middle of anything."
The coaching and continued development in the USHL has paid off for the defenseman as speedy forward Francis notes that it is not an easy task to beat his buddy. "Brandon does very well defensively. Every time I go against him, I have to try to think of different things to get around him. He is a younger player, but knows the game very well and is not afraid to throw his body around."
After a rocky first season in peewee's, Carlson and Francis enjoyed the results of hard work and sticking together when they captured the state title. It is a lasting memory for the both of them who even bumped into each other prior to the USHL Clark Cup Finals to reminisce for a few moments. One memento from that season includes a photo with a popular NHL player who spent that season in southern California with the Los Angeles Kings. "I still have pictures of that season, and one that is hanging up in my house is our team with Wayne Gretzky," said Francis.
While Carlson and Francis both have fond memories of those times as teammates, they are now looking to make new memories as opponents in the USHL. Their friendship and respect for each other as players remains strong, but they both realize what is at stake for their respective teams now.
"It is fun, but he is my buddy off the ice," said Carlson. "On the ice, it is all business and I think he feels the same way. It is a good experience for both of us and our teams."
They have already met as opponents a few times during the USHL regular season, but now the friends are playing for something more, which includes bragging rights when the players head back to southern California after the Clark Cup Finals. Following the series, they will soon see each other again on the ice as they continue to skate together at least once a week during offseason training sessions.
"Playing against Brandon is a cool experience, but you definitely don't want to be the loser out of this competition," said Francis. "Whoever wins this series is going to be the 'big man' with all the buddies back in California. It definitely gives you that little extra fire in the belly."
Although Lazano has since moved away from southern California, the former peewee coach still keeps in contact with the two USHL players by sending notes of encouragement and text messages.
"Both of them are great kids and the kind you want to coach and keep in touch with," said Lazano. "I couldn't have coached a couple of better kids and I wish them both the best of luck."