Gallagher column: East Rowan has a signee … for ice hockey?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 26, 2012

GRANITE QUARRY — They say the best stories come out of the barber shop and down in Granite Quarry, Todd Eller had a doozy last week while cutting the hair of recent East Rowan graduate Gage VandeZande.
Eller had seen a recent signing story in the Salisbury Post about a Carson kid getting a bowling scholarship. He knew he could top it with VandeZande, so he made a call.
“He might be the first East Rowan kid to get a ice hockey scholarship,” Eller said.
That would probably be a safe bet.
We usually get the heads-up on signing stories from the coach, and considering East doesn’t have a ice hockey team, Eller took it upon himself to get the word out.
VandeZande is headed for Lebanon Valley College, a four-year school near Hershey, Pa., for the next four years to play hockey.
“I’m a sports agent,” Eller laughingly told one of his customers.
VandeZande laughed right along with Eller. But there was a time when he wasn’t laughing at all.

VandeZande was in the seventh grade. His parents, David and Susan, informed him they were relocating from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (a 45-minute drive from Madison) to some place called Rowan County in North Carolina because of Susan’s job.
“I didn’t want to move,” he said.
There was a reason. VandeZande had become a hockey junkie, playing on the frozen lakes of Wisconsin since he was three.
“Nobody in my family had played,” he said. “My parents just pushed me out there. I had a lot of friends who played and it was fun hanging out.”
As a center, he had become a scoring machine. He thought, even at an early age, he had a future in this sport.
In North Carolina, he knew the days of playing on frozen lakes were over.
“Hundreds would play on it,” VandeZande remembered of the lake games. “Different age groups. We wouldn’t even play on the rinks.”
His mother scouted for schools in this area that had hockey programs. Good luck on that one.
But VandeZande found a team in Winston-Salem. His first year, he scored 70 goals. His eighth-grade year, 50 more.
“The level of difficulty is little different,” he said. “It’s a lot more competitive up north.”

Winston-Salem won a couple of state titles when Mike Mura of Greensboro, who had a travel team, asked him to join. They crossed the states and twice, made trips to Canada. This past season, he scored 30 goals.
VandeZande kept busy during the offseason playing for East’s soccer team. When hockey began, he was making a two-hour round-trip drive to Greensboro to practice three times a week, and many nights, wouldn’t get home until midnight. But it was worth it. His dedication led to an offer from Lebanon Valley where he will either play center or right wing.
“A lot of times, people don’t believe me,” the 6-foot-1, 170-pound VandeZande smiled when asked of the reaction from local sports fans about playing his sport. “I’ve got people like Todd asking me questions all day long. He asks about fights.”

Again, VandeZande smiles.
“Hockey’s considered more of a fighting sport,” he shrugged.
Most fights begin with someone going hard for the puck. Shoving and flailing arms are the result.
“There was a kid who actually took his stick and hit me in the head,” VandeZande said. “We started going at it.”
His father was quick to point out VandeZande once led his team in scoring, assists and penalty minutes.
Old-time hockey, I guess.
“It has always been a dream,” VandeZande said of playing in college. “A lot of younger kids want to go to the NHL and go big-time. I just want to go to college and make a name for myself.”
Since Wisconsin doesn’t have an NHL team, his favorite player has always Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings.
Can he see himself one day playing in the bigs?
“I hope I do,” VandeZande said.
The NHL is a long way from Eller’s barber shop in Granite Quarry. But VandeZande has adapted to the south. He drives a pickup truck and in the back, he proudly displayed his stick.
Then he held up his skates — with a price tag of $700.
Seven hundred bucks for skates?
Todd Eller will tell you that’s a lot of haircuts.

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or