From Norwich to the Pros: two former teammates face off

Defenseman Cody Smith during his career at Norwich. Norwich athletics photos

Tyler Piacentini on the ice in 2017.

Not a lot comes close to the feeling of winning a collegiate national championship as an athlete, but if one thing beats that feeling, it’s winning a championship as a professional athlete.

As Cody Smith, ’17, puts it, “being able to say that I am a national champion is a feeling that not a lot can top.”

Tyler Piacentini, ’17, also falls under the category of collegiate national champions, as he won the national championship at Norwich in 2017, along with Smith.

The two former team captains may share the special bond of winning a national title as teammates, but just one year later, they faced off as rivals in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) championship game which took place Sunday, April 29.

The SPHL is a professional hockey league made up of ten teams and is based out of Huntsville, N. C.

Smith, a 24-year-old from Hudson, Mass, currently plays defense for the Peoria Rivermen which is based out of Peoria, Ill. Piacentini, a 25-year-old from Weymouth, Mass., plays for the Huntsville Havoc, based out of Huntsville, Ala. These two teams took each other on Sunday afternoon for the championship title.

“There was just something off about playing my best friend and former teammate in the championship game of our professional career,” Smith said. “It’s awesome that we got to win a national title together as Cadets though, and that will always be something we’ll share, no matter where our career takes us in the future.”

Peoria was favored to take the win, as they stood in first place at the end of the regular season, “but as every hockey player knows, that means nothing when it comes down the final few teams. Everyone wants it just as bad as the next guy.”

Piacentini, a forward for Huntsville, said, “We’ve had an unbelievable season so far as a group, and every time we play against [Peoria], it’s a hard-fought battle for sure.”

The two former cadets exchange phone calls and text messages almost daily, and “almost every conversation we have is pretty much about hockey and how bad [we] want to beat each other on the ice.”

Off the ice though, the two Massachusetts natives enjoy hanging out and doing other things than just hockey.

“In the summer, we hang out a lot. It’s hard not to crack a smile when we end up playing against each other because it’s just funny playing against one of your best friends, especially when we just won a national championship together just last year,” Piacentini said.

Before the playoffs started, Peoria held a winning record of 38 wins, 13 losses, and 5 ties as they came in first place for their league at the end of the regular season.

The two teams played a best of three games series to decide the championship with the President’s Cup as the hardware to prove it. Huntsville won the first game of the series and Peoria went on to win the second game, making the third game the deciding factor.

Peoria trailed for the majority of the deciding game and The Havoc made SPHL history by becoming the first fourth-seeded team to win the President’s Cup championship, beating the Rivermen 4-2.

“It was just a really cool experience playing in the final championship game for the cup, and I’m really happy for [Tyler],” Smith said. “He is one of the most hardworking athletes I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with and against. Huntsville deserved it, and we put up a solid fight.”

Piacentini, the former national champion as a Norwich Cadet, can now add onto his impressive resume another championship, this time as a professional athlete for the Huntsville Havoc.

“It was surreal winning it all with Norwich, especially as a senior, too. And then having the privilege to come and win a professional championship down south is just that much cooler.”

Smith and Piacentini exchanged a few words after the SPHL championship game. Smith said he “was pretty bummed about losing,” but then he remembered his best friend just won another championship, and he “couldn’t help but be so happy for Tyler.”

The two teams have a long history of close fought battles against each other. They are almost always in the top five teams in the SPHL standings every year.

Mike McShane, longtime Norwich men’s hockey head coach “enjoyed watching [Smith] and [Piacentini] play in the championship game.” Coach McShane coached both the former Cadets for their four years at Norwich.

“It was a privilege to coach both of those young men,” McShane says. “They are two very hardworking and talented athletes I’ve had the honor to coach. They both play with such heart and always have. They continue to make Norwich proud.”

Piacentini hopes to keep playing hockey as a professional and “doesn’t want to stop now. When you get paid to do the thing you’re so passionate about, never wish it away too soon.”

The Weymouth native has come a long way with his hockey career, with one obstacle that seems to stick out the most to everyone he crosses paths with, and that is his height.

The now two-time champion stands at only five feet, four inches tall in height. On skates, that makes him about a couple inches taller at most. Even on skates, Piacentini is still at a disadvantage by about a foot compared to many other players.

“I do get chirped a lot, but it’s all in good fun. I’ve been the shortest guy on the team my whole life, and I mean, it’s not too much of a problem for me. I can always make some pretty valid comebacks.”

Former teammate and current senior captain, Alec Brandrup, weighs in and adds that, “even though [Tyler] is a little on the shorter side for a professional hockey player, he can still play with the tallest guys in the league and give them a hard time while he’s at it, too. He’s just so fun to watch on the ice. He always give 110 percent.”

Piacentini doesn’t let his height get in the way of his success, as his career record clearly shows it.

As a forward, “being shorter than everyone is kind of an obstacle I have to face every day, even with my own teammates in practice. But, it’s been that way my whole life, so I’m just used to it.”

For his Peoria defenseman buddy Smith, who weighed in at 185 and stood 5-11 in height when he played for Norwich, he didn’t face this same problem.

“We always gave [Tyler] a hard time for being smaller, but it’s just what guys do. He’s an insanely talented athlete. He definitely proves it with his toughness as well.”

As the season comes to an end for both professional athletes, only one comes out out with yet another championship, but the two long-time friends won’t hold it against each other.

Speak Your Mind

*