Todd Graham gained the zone, joining his linemates on an odd-man rush. He had played in most of SUNY Buffalo State’s games this season, but a 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman in the Bengals’ system doesn’t get the chance to step up into the play all too often. So when captain Mike Zannella dropped the puck back to Graham trailing on his left wing, it couldn’t leave his stick fast enough. The Cortland goalie made the initial save, but Graham poked at his own rebound and the puck slid to the back of the net for his first collegiate goal.
“Not really how you imagine it,” Graham said with a smirk. “Complete garbage goal, but I’ll take it.”
Graham’s first goal as a Bengal in an 8-1 romp over SUNYAC rival Cortland State on Feb. 9 didn’t come as he’d imagined, but very little had up until this point throughout his prolonged path from Australia to Buffalo.
After years of travel, tryouts and fine tuning, the game of hockey has led the Australian-born Graham halfway across the world to Buffalo State, where he’s finishing up his freshman season, settled in as the future of the Bengals’ blueline - 10,000 miles away from where it all started.
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Graham and his parents moved to the United States when he was 10 months old to the hockey hotbed of Minnesota, where he lived for six years -- just long enough for him to get his first taste of the sport.
It wasn’t until he and his family moved back to Sydney, and eventually to Melbourne, of all places, that Graham’s hockey career took root.
Instead of opting for the more popular sports like rugby or Australian rules football (a mix of rugby, soccer, and other sports, according to Graham), he turned to local courts and roller rinks where he spent his weekends playing organized roller hockey.
He made state and national roller hockey teams along the way as the sport came to him with ease. But it took some time and a few failed attempts before Graham would step foot on ice for the first time since he lived in Minnesota.
Finally, after spending a few years on wheels, he eventually gave in to friends and coaches nagging him to try out for the Victoria state ice hockey team.
“I absolutely hated it at first. I couldn’t stop, wasn’t used to the speed,” Graham explained. “I had all the skills, I just couldn’t skate.
“It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I fell in love with it from there.”
At 15, Graham was asked to practice with a local semi-professional team called the Melbourne Ice of the Australian Ice Hockey League, where he refined his skating and immersed himself with nuances of the frozen game.
He met dozens of players who came through the Ice organization. Some came from Division I or major junior teams in North America, some from Europe. That’s when he came across Mike Mazzuca, a former forward with the London Knights and Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.
Mazzuca filled Graham’s head with the perks of North American hockey and put him in touch with a midget AAA team in Florida, the Florida Jr. Panthers. Today, Graham can be classified as a stay-at-home defenseman on the ice, but he’s done anything but stay at home since that day.
He moved to Florida and adjusted to the North American style of play for a season. From there, Graham went north to Burlington, Vt., where he played junior B for the then-Green Mountain Glades, then out west to Junior A in Los Angeles for the Valencia Flyers.
Along the way, Graham picked the brains of a number of coaches with plenty of NHL experience. That list included former Vancouver Canucks forward Bill Muckalt, who spent six seasons in the NHL with four different teams, and former 50-goal scorer and Buffalo Sabres’ third-round draft pick Ray Sheppard.
“For me, it was always just another stepping stone,” Graham said. “Being a big guy, coming from a roller background, I had a lot to work on.”
Graham’s goal all the while was to make it to Canada and play major-junior hockey, but at 19, he began considering the possibility of a college degree.
With that in mind, he returned to the East Coast to play for the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack, where he caught the eye of Nick Carriere, son of former Sabres defenseman Larry Carriere, and coach of the Buffalo State team.
“We knew we were going to be needing some defensemen, and Todd made it pretty easy for us to offer him a spot,” said Carriere, whose relationship with Jr. Wolfpack coach Chris Cerrella led him to Graham in the first place.
Graham joined an already diverse locker room and a growing program at Buff State. He noticed the success of the team from a year prior -- the Bengals’ trip to the SUNYAC finals last season was the furthest they have ever gone -- and was intrigued by Carriere’s coaching philosophy.
“Their [Carriere and Cerrella] coaching styles are exactly the same,” Graham said. “It doesn’t get much better than SUNYAC hockey. Plus, there were guys already in the locker room from all over the place. It made it easy. I fit perfectly.”
Graham brought yet another unique story to a Buffalo State team that already features players who hail from other unconventional hockey sources like Sweden, Nevada and Utah.
“You name it. We’ve got guys from all over the place,” Carriere said. “Todd’s is just kind of another interesting story to chalk up.”
As the 21-year-old puts the finishing touches on his freshman year, he and the Bengals are preparing to host Fredonia in a SUNYAC quarterfinal game Wednesday at the Buffalo State Ice Arena (7 p.m.). Graham, who has two points (1+1) and 10 PIM’s in 22 games this season, hopes he can be a big part of hockey's growth both at Buff State and back home.
In between seasons, Graham travels back to Melbourne to play for the Ice, who have won each of the last three AIHL championships and are helping to drive hockey’s popularity as the sport continues its emergence down under, according to Graham.
He’s also set to play on Australia’s national team in April for the IIHF Division II World Championship, which will take place in Zagreb, Croatia.
“Hockey is definitely on the rise,” Graham said, citing sold-out games in a brand new facility in Melbourne, called the Medibank Ice House. “It’s a big thing to come watch a hockey game in Melbourne.
“I never would have imagined it.”
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