From The Statesman
By Alex Streinger
If devastating injuries, long hiatuses and uninterested teams could not stop Devin Pepe, then nothing will.
As the Stony Brook club hockey team attempts to capture its first-ever American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) national title, its team captain will be integral to achieving the feat. However, Pepe’s story in hockey long precedes his Stony Brook days, going all the way back to his infancy in Essex Falls, N.J.
Growing up in a big family, Pepe was the youngest of six children. He was destined to play hockey, as the sport ran through his family’s blood.
“A lot of my older brothers were hockey players,” Pepe said in an interview with The Statesman. “I grew up in their footsteps, following their lead. That drove me to play hockey.”
Pepe started young. He first skated on ice when he was three years old. After going to skating and hockey clinics for a couple of years, he finally joined a team at the age of seven, where he fell in love with the sport.
“I honestly wasn’t a big fan of hockey when I first started playing,” Pepe said. “I remember just doing ‘Mommy and Me’ clinics and I would just be crying the whole time. At a young age, it’s just a lot of clinics and skating. But when you get to seven, you get involved with a team. It just becomes your life.”
Other than hockey, Pepe played baseball and lacrosse while growing up. He quickly came to realize that hockey was a better fit for him.
“I wasn’t much of a runner, so I retired from [lacrosse] early on,” Pepe said. “For baseball, I was playing up until eighth grade … but when tryouts came around, I decided to focus on hockey instead.”
Pepe played hockey year-round. He played at Montclair Kimberley Academy, a private school in Essex County, N.J. Outside of school, he was also playing for a club hockey team called the Montclair Blues.
Though Montclair Kimberley was a small school with only 110 people in his graduating class, Pepe had a fulfilling experience. However, his priorities at the time were with hockey and not with higher education.
“The high school was super focused on academics,” Pepe said. “When it was time for college, I think I was the only one in my grade not going right away.”
Pepe was a star for all four years of high school. During those years, his team made the final round of the county championship every season and won it twice. Pepe finished his high school career with 75 goals and 106 assists in 77 games played.
“It was a lot of fun; it was some of the best experiences I’ve had in hockey,” Pepe said. “It was also a special experience, as when I was coming in as a freshman, my brother was a junior, so we got to play two years together.”
Pepe’s path to Stony Brook was unique. After graduating from high school in 2016, he focused on hockey instead of college. Pepe first played for a local travel team — the New Jersey Hitmen — before beginning his journey as a junior hockey player.
“When I was a senior, my brother was already into playing juniors,” Pepe said. “It wasn’t a foreign idea to my parents. They were open to it and expecting it in a sense.”
Pepe’s junior hockey career began in 2017 with the Connecticut Junior Rangers. However, Pepe met an immediate conflict when the Junior Rangers started looking to trade him. In response, he traveled down to Texas to join the Amarillo Bulls of the North American Hockey League. This marked Pepe’s biggest change in his hockey expedition.
“I’m in Connecticut one day, and the next I’m in a plane by myself landing in Amarillo,” Pepe said. “In Amarillo, it would be cold from the Rockies in the morning, but then 70 degrees in the middle of the day, so it was a cool experience.”
Pepe’s move to Amarillo exposed him to a completely different living environment.
“I get dropped off to live with a family and when I get there, the front door is unlocked and no one is there,” Pepe said. “There is just a pit bull dog there. I walk into the house, see an empty bedroom and start unpacking.”
Despite the culture shock that Pepe experienced down south, the hockey atmosphere in Texas was one that Pepe lived for.
“You go and play hockey in these smaller towns — which feels like the middle of nowhere — and you turn into a local celebrity,” Pepe said. “People recognize you when you’re wearing your gear around town.”
Six weeks into playing for the Amarillo Bulls, Pepe suffered an injury. He was released from the team and returned home to play with the PAL (Pride in Athletics for Life) Junior Islanders.
After one season with the Junior Islanders, Pepe joined the New Hampshire Avalanche of the Eastern Hockey League in 2018. There, he found the most success in his junior hockey career, posting 14 goals and 27 assists in 40 games in the 2018-19 season.
After his breakout with the New Hampshire Avalanche, Pepe enrolled at Stony Brook University in the fall of 2019 and joined the club hockey team. His decision was heavily family-oriented, as the opportunity to reunite with his older brother, Brendan, presented itself. At the time, the older Pepe was in his third year with Stony Brook and had established himself as a star player.
“It was a bit of a journey, but I’m happy it led me here,” Pepe said. “[Brendan] was pretty much the main component in the decision. We have a very special relationship. After being through that journey of bouncing around between teams, having a comfortable footing played a big role.”
Pepe does not stand with much company when it comes to taking a three-year gap between high school and college.
“As far as Stony Brook, it’s really common for the guys on our team to take at least a year off,” Pepe said. “I wouldn’t say everyone takes a full three years off and comes in as a 21-year-old freshman.”
Pepe was immediately integrated into the team during his freshman year. He tallied five goals and three assists in 27 games as a role player during the 2019-20 season campaign.
“I was on the third line killing some penalties,” Pepe said. “It was a good experience. I didn’t have the best statistical year, but I felt like I was contributing in other ways.”
Stony Brook ranked seventh in the nation that season and earned a bid to the ACHA tournament. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic struck just before the team began its run, and the tournament was canceled.
“It was tough to swallow,” Pepe said. “I feel for the seniors, especially those who had their hockey career come to an end without even knowing.”
The lockdown made Pepe’s development as a hockey player more difficult. He was unable to practice regularly during the quarantine period, forcing him into the longest hockey hiatus of his career.
“It was the first time I’d gone more than two weeks without playing hockey since I was five years old,” Pepe said.
Pepe took the time away from the ice to physically prepare for whenever he would return to playing hockey. Given the opportunity by the shutdown, Pepe decided to undergo surgery on his shoulder to clean things up for his inevitable return to the ice. However, the return was not quick, as the entire 2020-21 ACHA season was scrapped due to the pandemic.
However, the day eventually came where Pepe could suit up with the Seawolves once more. After a year and a half absence, the Stony Brook club hockey returned for the 2021-22 season. Pepe was healthy and posted five points through the first four games. His older brother was also voted the team captain by his teammates.
Unfortunately, Pepe ran into another roadblock during the fourth game of the season. He tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his knee to prematurely end his season. Nine days after the injury, Pepe underwent surgery and was given a nine-to-11-month return estimation.
“I took a hit that I’ve taken hundreds or thousands of times in my life, but this time my leg got caught in the ice and my knee caved in,” Pepe said. “Initially I remembered thinking to myself I’ve never felt that before.”
This injury not only affected Pepe athletically, but it also impacted his daily routine. He was unable to do simple things, such as sit at a desk in a classroom.
“My teachers worked with me and cared; I had to go to class and just stand there,” Pepe said.
With his brother graduating after the season and a nine-to-11-month recovery looming, Pepe had doubts about whether he even wanted to come back.
“When it first happened, I didn’t know if I wanted to get back and play again,” Pepe said. “Now I feel like I have more of a drive.”
Two days after his surgery, he began physical therapy. He returned to skating in July 2022, over nine months since he last skated. Once team practices resumed in August, Pepe participated in no-contact drills. It was not until the week before this season began that Pepe returned to full-contact practice.
“When I first started skating, it was just some basic stuff,” Pepe said. “I took it super easy and didn’t push myself. It was more of a gradual return. When I got to the end of September, I started doing full-contact because we were only a week away from games. I figured it was time.”
Though he may have overcome the physical aspect of the injury, he still has mental work to do.
“I still get nervous before the games,” Pepe said. “I didn’t want to come back too soon. Even up until the day of our first game, a part of me was like ‘Maybe I should take another week.’ I’ve worked so hard to get back, I didn’t want to come back too early.”
Pepe changed his jersey number to 22 this offseason, which is actually a family tradition in his family. It started with his oldest brother wearing the number, leading to the younger brothers copying him. The Pepe boys always played on different teams, so they all were able to wear the same jersey number. Even Pepe’s cousins got in on the tradition of wearing the number 22.
Pepe even has a tattoo of the jersey number with the words “family first” right next to it.
“It just became a family tradition at that point,” Pepe said. “It was cool just knowing that my brothers and the rest of my family were wearing that number, too. It’s just been a part of our lives.”
Following in his brother Brendan’s footsteps, Pepe was voted team captain by his teammates before the start of the season. Head coach Chris Garofalo said that he is more than qualified to wear the “C” on his jersey.
“He represents the epitome of what you want from an effort perspective and just understanding the game,” Garofalo said in an interview with The Statesman. “The guys relate to him really well. They look up to him.”
For Pepe, it is an honor to have been elected team captain. However, that has not changed his view of leadership.
“I’m definitely proud,” Pepe said. “We have a good group and a lot of older guys too, so it’s not just me leading the charge in the sense of being captain. I try to live by the motto that ‘The letter on your jersey doesn’t define the leader you are.’”
Pepe has gotten off to a strong start this season, tallying two goals and five assists through the first seven games. In a year that could potentially be his first full season in a Seawolves jersey, Pepe has specific goals.
“Obviously you want to win games and win the championship,” Pepe said. “I think the most important thing for me this year is bringing the team together.”
Currently 24, Pepe is in his junior year. According to ACHA rules, he has two more remaining years of eligibility after this season. He majors in business with a focus area in finance and intends to get his master’s degree from Stony Brook. The program would allow Pepe to play out his remaining eligibility through the 2024-25 season.
Regarding his future, Pepe thinks he can still play after graduation.
“I still feel like I have more in the tank to give to the game of hockey,” Pepe said. “Just to have those experiences would be awesome.”
Through a revolving door of teams, a global pandemic and a season-ending injury, Pepe has continued to give his all to the game of hockey. After pushing through several conflicts to get to where he is today, the next obstacle on his list is bringing a national title home to Stony Brook.
(Originally published at https://www.sbstatesman.com/2022/10/23/devin-pepe-still-going-strong-after-long-streak-of-bad-luck/)