WATERLOO — The boys are back in town.
The ice is down at Young Arena and roughly 30-plus skaters have arrived as the Waterloo Black Hawks begin ramping up for the 2019-20 United States Hockey League season today.
Perhaps the most excited to get back on the ice is second-year forward Connor Caponi, who had a stellar rookie season cut short last January when he suffered a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum in a fight at Lincoln.
Caponi, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound Brookfield, Wis. native, said it was not his most shining moment.
“We were winning 8-0,” Caponi recalled. “Someone asked me to fight and I didn’t want to turn him down, and said let’s go. It was a tough way to end the year. It wasn’t very smart of me. It happened, and I got to be a little smarter.
“But it happens. It is hockey and you move on.”
In 42 games last year before the injury, Caponi, committed to play at Yale after this season, had nine goals and five assists while racking up 86 penalty minutes.
It was his grit and toughness that attracted him to Black Hawks’ associate head coach and director of scouting Shane Fukushima and then to head coach and general manager P.K. O’Handley.
“He has bounds of energy,” O’Handley said. “He plays the right way, plays hard. He is not a real big guy, but pound-for-pound he will let you know he is out there and he has got some offense to his game.
“You will see him on TV some day, I think.”
With that said, both Caponi and O’Handley say the forward learned a tough lesson on when to accept a challenge and certainly, both agree, up 8-0 was not a good time. At the same time, Caponi says he can’t change the way he plays the game.
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The son of a 30-year plus retired Marine and former Division III hockey player for Colby College, Chris Caponi, Connor says he gets his toughness from his dad.
“I’ve always been a tough guy,” Connor Caponi said. “It is part of my game. It is going to happen here and there and I’m sure a couple of times this season. Just got to be a lot smarter with it and pick my places.”
Caponi had to have surgery to repair the labrum and was cleared officially on Aug. 8. He and third-year forward Griffin Ness are expected to be two of the Black Hawks primary leaders.
“I started working out in July, and it (the shoulder) has been getting stronger,” Caponi said. “I’m back and will be ready to go for the preseason. I’m just real excited to get back out there.”
Caponi landed in Waterloo’s lap after not getting taken in the USHL Phase I draft three years ago. Fukushima liked the style of play Caponi displayed while playing for both the USNTDP 18U team as well as Culver Military Prep Academy and added him to the Black Hawks’ affiliate list.
Caponi then came to Waterloo’s preseason camp as a 16-year old, and further impressed the coaching staff and got his chance last season at the age of 18.
“I went into a meeting with coach and he said we really like your style of play and you will fit in well here,” Caponi said. “That is when I knew I had a shot to play in the USHL.
“Last season was great for me. I developed so much throughout the year and it was an awesome first year of junior hockey.”
Asked what version of Connor Caponi Waterloo fans will see this season, Caponi responded, “A real physical guy. I love body checking, finishing my checks and playing tough out there. I want to be seen as a guy always battling and giving 100 percent with the puck seeming to find the net every once and a while, too, just a hard worker.”
Waterloo opens exhibition play Friday at Omaha, and host Madison Sunday at 3 p.m. at Young Arena.