By: AARIF MOHIE EL-DEEN, Wolves Hockey Beat Reporter
During his four year tenure at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, West Bloomfield native Brandon Contratto excited fans, parents, and teammates alike every weekend when he hit the ice for the Wolves. His years here were highlighted by beautiful goals, fantastic setups, great leadership, and most importantly, a winning mentality.
Spending most of his time playing with current forwards Anthony Olson and John Vella, as well as former players Kyle Papke and Mike Macari, he accumulated 19 goals and 52 points, a career high, for the team last season during his tenure as an assistant captain.
In fact, during his time here, the 5’9, 175lb forward put up a total of 63 goals and 163 points in just 130 games. He ranked in the top 20 for point scorers in the ACHA Division 1 league during his senior year.
This year, Contratto has moved on to bigger and better things for his hockey career. The now former Wolves all-star, who participated in the United States Men’s National University team in 2011, has moved to the Czech Republic and is suiting up for HC Banik Karvina of the Czech 2 Liga.
Through his first 24 games with his new squad, Contratto ranks third on the team with seven goals and 19 points playing the right wing alongside the best players on the team, which includes fellow North American forward Garrett Nystedt.
His career has taken numerous twists and turns before ending up with HC Banik Karvina. He played High School hockey at Birmingham Brother Rice in Bloomfield Hills, where he was named first team all-state while donning the captains ‘C’ his senior year.
From there he moved on to play juniors in the NAHL (North American Hockey League) for the Southern Minnesota Express before winding up at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where he entertained us all with his on-ice play.
Prior to the new year, Contratto played his last game with HC Karvina. He was obtained by HC Frydek-Mistek and dressed for his new squad for the first time on January 9, 2013. It’s unknown how long his stint with the new club will last, but it’s the second time in eight months that he’s switched teams.
His time in Europe has been quite the ride, almost a dream for the young forward, and whatever level he plays at, he will always push to achieve as much as he can for the game he loves.
Question: How do you like playing in Europe for HC Banik Karvina?
Answer: Playing [for HC Banik Karvina] has been a career changing experience to say the least. I have had the opportunity to learn from players that have had experience at every level. Numerous players on the team have played at levels including the NHL, Czech Extraliga, Slovakian Extraliga, French Ligue Magnus, English Elite League, and the AHL. The fans in the Czech Republic love hockey as it is a part of their daily life and the fan base for games is huge. Hockey is pretty much the number one sport here and it makes for an enjoyable season.
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself leaving the States to pursue a hockey career overseas?
A: I had definitely considered playing in Europe. Being a smaller player, I had always been told to consider the European style of game as it fits me better with more systems, speed, and precision passing. Obviously it is every North American hockey players dream to stay and play in the NHL or AHL but going to Europe to play is a great experience and helps build a resume that can lead me back to the States.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between playing in Europe as compared to playing in the United States?
A: One of the biggest differences playing in Europe is the overall systems and style of play. In Europe, especially in the Czech Republic, the game is all about puck control and using your teammates to create time and space. In North America, in the last few seasons more rules have been put into place to restrict the amount of holding and interference around the ice. In the Czech it is common for coaches to work on setting picks (like in Basketball) even in practice, and penalty shots are awarded on a regular basis. Practices are slower but involve more precision.
At the beginning of the season, I began playing in the 1 Liga in the Czech where practices were all weaving and flow drills, and where passing was comparable to the ECHL back in North America. The overall game is simply faster and all about puck control. By far the biggest difference playing in the Czech Republic is the language barrier. There are not many people in the Czech that speak fluent English and obviously, you need to learn the language of whatever country you’re currently in. Czech is not an easy language to pick up. The coach doesn’t know English, but I can understand him when he’s explaining a drill. Other than that, all I can do is read their language to a certain extent.
Q: Would you say you’ve achieved success in the Czech Republic thus far this season?
A: I believe that I have achieved as much success as I have been allowed to in my time so far in the Czech Republic. I was second on my team in scoring a majority of the first half of the season, while also having a high plus/minus ratio and playing special teams. They are usually not accustomed to having foreign players in the country here so they try to not allow players like me succeed above and beyond the locals. This has been a problem for me thus far because the coaches began to limit my ice time so I don’t lead the team in points, which I was on pace for at the start of the year.
Q: Which line-mate(s) did you learn most from during your time as a Michigan-Dearborn Wolves forward?
A: Throughout my career at Michigan-Dearborn I was fortunate to play with numerous talented players that all brought something unique to the team. Some of my fondest memories are playing with Mike Macari and James Telfer. They are two of the most talented players to set foot in the program at UM-D and I was lucky enough to also play with both of them on Team USA with the National University Team in Erzurum, Turkey. There are also countless others that were a joy to play with.
Q: What are some of your fondest memories during your time with the Wolves?
A: One of the most vivid memories I have was during the beginning of my freshman season when we played Penn State University at the ACHA Showcase. They were one of the highest ranked teams for seasons and we were a team with many rookie players from various levels. With a shortened roster we were able to beat Penn State by a large margin and I was able to help the team in the victory by recording my first collegiate hat-trick. There were also great memories made during our morning practices and road trips with my teammates.
Q: The coaching staff here has nothing but great things to say about you, what did you like most about playing for Coach Bobby Clouston?
A: The coaching staff at UofM-Dearborn was great to me throughout my career, especially my last two seasons. Playing for Coach Clouston was a wonderful experience, as he offered me a great insight into the game and taught me the mental aspect to the game, in addition to the physical, on-ice portion. I’ve known him since my days playing high school hockey at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice where he helped coach the Team Michigan squad of the top high school players in the state. Chris Haltinner and Rich Gauthier were also amazing to me and I was able to form a personal relationship with them. In my first three seasons, Dave Debol, the former head coach at Michigan-Dearborn also taught me a lot, especially in the on-ice skills department. He was also the head coach of Team USA during my junior season. I continue to work in the off-season with Coach Debol improving my shooting and stickhandling skills. All the coaches that I have worked with at U of M Dearborn have influenced my game and I am still in contact with them.
Q: The Wolves this season are currently holding a winning record at 15-9, how proud are you of your former teammates, and how much have you been keeping up with their success this season?
A: I talk to the players on the team at least once a week, time permitting. Many players contact me trying to get more insight into what European hockey is like and I am always interested to hear how their games go. I also constantly check the ACHA website. Their success this season has been astounding and I am truly proud of each and every player. Beginning the season, many players thought that this might be a bit of a rebuilding year for the team with so many seniors leaving last season. Players are definitely buying into Coach Clouston’s system and working for the success of the team. The future of the program looks bright and hopefully more and more players will be attracted to the program.
Q: What’s the one thing you miss most about being a part of the Wolves hockey program?
A: The one thing I miss the most is the camaraderie among teammates and being able to hang out with all the guys every day at the rink. After being on the same team for four years you get accustomed to the environment and look forward to practice and being with your teammates every day. Due to the language barrier with some players on my team in the Czech, I cannot communicate and get to know all of my teammates. Wolves hockey became a part of life and I will always remember my time with the team.
Q: If you can offer any advice to the current Wolves roster now that you’ve moved on to bigger and better things, what would you say to them?
A: The most important piece of advice is to never give up on the goals you set for yourself. ACHA hockey is looked down upon by many people, when in reality the level of hockey is very good and continuing to become better each season. Do not just settle for the fact that you are playing what some simply call “club hockey.” Set clear goals for yourself that you can work towards and don’t stop until you reach those goals.