Justin Pallos’ road to becoming a Union College hockey player started right in Schenectady.
The Dutchmen senior forward grew up in Rotterdam, and played his youth hockey for several years with the Schenectady Youth Hockey Association. Pallos’ parents, Kevin and Mary, would bring him to wherever the games and practices were.
Some of his youth games were played at Union’s Achilles (now Messa) Rink.
“I was 3 or 4 when I first started,” Pallos said Tuesday after practice at Messa, where the ECAC Hockey regular season-champion and eighth-ranked Dutchmen (26-9-4) were preparing for their NCAA hockey tournament East Region semifinal game. They face 11th-ranked Minnesota Duluth (22-10-6) on Friday at 3 p.m. at Webster Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.
“My dad was actually the director for the mites. I started playing what was called house hockey back then. I just worked my way up. There were some tough spots, but I enjoyed it.”
The 23-year-old Pallos soaked in his time with Schenectady Youth Hockey.
“I learn to skate at Center City [Rink] and Union,” Pallos said. “I remember the early 5 a.m.
mornings on Saturdays and Sundays. When you’re that young, you have to put in the time. Eventually, it pays off for you, if you work hard enough.”
Pallos didn’t mind the early wake-up calls back then.
“I think it would be a lot harder to do it now,” Pallos said. “I think, back then, I didn’t know any better. I think it was tougher on my parents.”
There is one memory of his youth hockey days that stands out for Pallos from a game at Union.
“I remember being in the penalty box,” Pallos said. “My mom has a picture of me. I can barely see over the boards. To be playing in college at the same rink. Not many people can do that, or say that they can do that.”
After playing through the mite level with Schenectady Youth Hockey, Pallos started playing for Capital, which is now the Albany Storm.
But when Pallos was 13, his father, who worked for General Electric, was transferred to Atlanta. A year later, another transfer landed the family in Glastonbury, Conn.
“It was a bit of a culture shock, moving to Atlanta,” Pallos said. “Our team there was actually full of transplants from the North.”
Pallos caught the attention of Union coach Nate Leaman while playing for the Boston Junior Bruins of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
“[I saw] a tenacious player that was really smart,” Leaman said.
“He has very good on-ice smarts. The thing that sold me was I was watching him in a tournament, and he was a 17 turning 18-year-old playing against a 20-year-old Canadian team, and he had a hat trick and his team won, 3-2. The Canadian team was just trying to run him.”
Pallos also looked at Princeton and Yale, but he knew where he wanted to go.
“Coach Leaman just made it hard to say no,” Pallos said. “I’ve always wanted to come back. I love this area. To be able to play hockey where you grew up is pretty special.”
Pallos has had a career year this season. After collecting just two goals and eight assists his first three years, Pallos has eight goals and six assists. Three of his goals have been game-winners, including the memorable one in overtime at Quinnipiac Feb. 5. After Andrew Buote forced a turnover in the Quinnipiac zone, Pallos got the puck and, for a second, thought about passing. Instead, he lifted a backhander over goalie Eric Hartzell to give the Dutchmen a 3-2 victory.
Pallos’ role, however, is to be a defensive forward. He has embraced the role. He has a plus/minus defensive rating of plus-16.
“It’s pretty exciting to lay a big hit and hear the crowd roar,” Pallos said. “My job’s not to score goals. It’s to get pucks deep, and create energy for the team. Guys like me and ‘Bootsie’ [Buote], we love to do that. It’s not about scoring for us.”
Pallos has played in 36 of Union’s 39 games. He hasn’t missed a game since Jan. 22 against Harvard.
“He’s gritty,” Leaman said. “When he plays like a bulldog, he makes a big difference in the game. He’s got a good skill level, he’s got a low center of gravity and he’s pretty quick. When he plays with his high level of tenacity, he makes a big impact on the game, both offensively and defensively.”
Pallos had visions of playing one day for Union when he was learning hockey with Schenectady Youth Hockey, and it happened. He is part of a regular-season champion, and now hopes to help the Dutchmen to an NCAA title.
“You dream of that,” Pallos said. “If you work hard enough, you hope it becomes reality. I consider myself pretty lucky.”