By Jason Pearson | AHL On The Beat Archive
Grand Rapids Griffins’ rookie defenseman Robbie Russo always seems to make productive use out of the opportunities presented to him. The 22-year-old Illinois-native has traveled the world playing hockey and is well on his way to realizing his National Hockey League aspirations, but accompanying him on his professional pathway have been some constructive learning experiences.
Growing up in Westmont, Illinois, a nearby southeast suburb of Chicago, Russo did not grow up in a hockey-infested family. Neither of his two sisters, Renee or Olivia, played, nor did his parents, Rob and Debra. But, after lacing up a pair of skates for the initial time at the age of three, Russo was on his first team within the next 24 months. Also playing street hockey with the neighbors and baseball as a youth, Russo’s rink life soon took off. After registering 30 points with the Chicago Mission Midget Major team in 2008-09, the offensive-minded blueliner next found himself living away from home and competing for his country.
At the age of 16, Russo moved north to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and while housed by a villa family, spent two seasons with the United States National Developmental Program.
“For an American born kid, I thought it’d be pretty cool to play for your country,” said Russo. “It was definitely sweet to play there and I got to play with a lot of great players. It’s great hockey, a great place to train and I think I grew a lot there.”
Russo helped the USA Under-17 team to a World Under-17 Hockey Challenge first-place finish in 2009-10 and the Under-18 team to a gold medal stand at the 2011 IIHF World Championships.
The hectic travel schedule allowed him the chance to showcase his talents internationally, which those back in the States were already aware of. The NHL’s New York Islanders made him their fourth choice in the 2011 Entry Draft, but Russo opted for college hockey and the University of Notre Dame instead.
“It was pretty special being drafted, but I decided to go to Notre Dame and that was a great experience for me,” Russo said. “I always wanted to go to college and that was kind of always the plan, there wasn’t much thought process going into the decision.”
Russo made a seamless transition on the ice, appearing in every game his first two seasons and aiding in the Fighting Irish’s 2012-13 CCHA Championship. His junior year, however, hit a roadblock as an eligibility issue cost him the second semester of the season.
“My junior year we had another good team, but I got suspended for the second half of the year,” Russo said. “I felt like I let everyone down and that kind of sucked.”
Still permitted to practice with the team, he made the most of his suspension and used the time effectively to sharpen his on-ice repertoire as well to improve personally and academically. His teammates took notice of the effort Russo was putting forth and upon his return, was named captain for his senior season in South Bend.
“I just tried to work hard and lead by example, that was probably the biggest thing,” Russo said. “I worked a lot with the strength coach, Tony Rolinski, and then on the ice with (volunteer assistant coach) Brock Sheahan. Those guys made me stronger, a better hockey player, but also a better person. Being with them every day I was able to see what it was like to work hard.”
All the while he was on campus, Russo was in frequent communication with the Islanders and attended the franchise’s developmental camps during the summers. However, after leaving Notre Dame with a sociology degree in hand, the Islanders did not move further with their drafted defenseman and Russo became a free agent in mid-August.
“The Detroit Red Wings just seemed like one of the better options,” Russo said of where he looked to next. “They are a great organization and have been for the last 30 years, one of the top ones. There were about eight other possibilities, but I think all along the Red Wings were number one. There wasn’t really much consideration.”
Assigned to Grand Rapids on Oct. 4, Russo’s professional career took some time to get properly rolling. In the Griffins’ opening 11 games, he tallied just a single point and did not play in four of the contests.
“The game is a lot faster, so I had to do everything a little bit quicker all the time,” he noted.
Then, on Nov. 18, which freakishly coincided with the start of the team’s franchise record 15-game winning streak, Russo exploded for three points, including his first professional goal. He tallied points in 11 of the next 15 games, although he won’t admit to doing anything drastically different in his game and instead defers to his teammates.
“I don’t know about that night but I think since then, everyone has been playing better and I’ve just been a part of that,” said Russo. “We have a lot of great players down here and I’m just feeding off of them.”
Among those terrific players, Russo is part of a three-player Griffins’ rookie class along with Tyler Bertuzzi and Zach Nastasiuk.
Additionally, Russo shares a unique bond with another first-year player in the AHL as Lake Erie rookie Michael Paliotta and Russo were roommates while playing for the U.S. National Development Program. The two keep in touch, but not too many notes or tips are being exchanged.
“I think we take more pride in trying to beat each other,” Russo said.
Looking back to how the season started both for him and for the team, Russo has taken it all in stride and is learning as he goes, similar to many rookies.
“When we started out pretty slow, we were losing some close games and you just see how competitive it really is and how close a lot of the teams are,” he noted. “You have to bring it every night.”
With all his experiences helping to shape him, the dream he’s held since being a young boy on the ice remains intact.
“My goal is to make it to the NHL and play for the Detroit Red Wings.”