The air at Huntington Center had a much different feel than the last time Tomas Sholl set foot in Toledo’s home rink. It hasn’t been more than three months prior that the Steelheads fell by one goal with Sholl in net on November 3 in a heated game against the Walleye. It was tense; points were on the line. It was in the first month of the season, but the pressure was palpable.
This time, there was none of that.
“It was a lot more light-hearted,” said Sholl, who returned to Ohio for the second time this season. “For one thing, it was a no pressure situation. You’re out there to have fun. There are no points on the line, so as an individual playing perspective it was different. The crowd was having fun with it, but at the same time they wanted their two home Toledo teams to win.”
Every year, one player from each team makes the trip to the ECHL All-Star Classic, and in his second professional season, Tomas Sholl was given the honor to represent the Steelheads as one of 10 players suited up for the Western Conference and the lone goaltender to don the blue and white for the event. It’s an event that doesn’t favor the goaltender: 3-on-3 for seven-straight minutes, meant for high-scoring and odd-man rushes.
That fact was laid out pretty clearly from the outset, and both he and Worcester Railers goaltender Mitch Gillam planned accordingly.
“They were explaining the rules and they pretty much said straight up that this was an event to score goals. Me and the other goalie—Mitch Gillam—were like ‘Uh, great. What do we do here?’ My mentality was to try and make a couple big saves, get something that maybe the fans back home or my parents would be happy that they saw so that if I let in a bunch later it balances out.”
There were some mitigating factors leading up to the game that those on the outside may not have noticed. Sholl wasn’t dressed but was in Boise on that previous Saturday night to watch his side win in overtime over Allen. He left Boise at 4:00 a.m. MT the next morning to start a long day of travel, which ended at 7:00 p.m. ET at his hotel room in Toledo. Then, the following morning’s skate started at 7:45 a.m., which equates to 5:45 a.m. in Boise.
The purpose of the skate wasn’t to gear up for the game as much as a meeting with coaches and players, take pictures, and get acquainted with the facility both on and off the ice. Either way, it made for a long 36 hours leading up to the game on that Monday night.
“I was more tired from the travel than playing in the game,” he chuckled.
After a rest in the afternoon to catch up on some sleep, Sholl and Team West took to the ice for a two and one half hour event at Huntington Center.
Toledo is known for boasting an electric environment for Walleye games, and the inclusion of their home team provided that same atmosphere when it came to the All-Star Classic. Paired with playing alongside many in-division rival skaters, fans were relentless in their matchups against either of the two Walleye teams as part of the 3-on-3 tournament.
“They were giving it to the East and West teams a bit. They were booing when we scored. When we were announced, some of the in-division rivals were getting booed. It was kind of funny. It increased the stakes a little bit and made us want to try harder. They were having fun with it too; it was all in good humor.”
Each team played every other team in a round-robin followed by a few skills competitions and a semifinal game after being re-seeded from the round-robin results. That meant a minimum of four games and two of those three initial games against Toledo teams.
In those games, Sholl was a highlight reel. In an event geared toward scoring, the second-year pro only allowed two goals, halting 11 of 13 shots in 14 total minutes to help Team West take a 2-0 record into their meeting with Team East. As he played, the Steelheads watched from the bus coming from Utah to Boise, staff and players alike impressed with the effort and representation of the organization.
“I felt really good in the first couple, then throughout I slowed down a bit or maybe they picked it up.”
His final two games came against Team East, the eventual winners of the tournament. Team East posted seven goals in two games and eventually took down Team Fins. Overall, Sholl went 2-2-0 with 18 saves on 27 shots, conceding the fewest goals of the tournament.
Not bad for an event featuring high scoring and short rest.
Unintentionally, the All-Star Classic became an opportunity for Sholl to re-connect with his roots and play in front of a pseudo home crowd.
Sholl spent four years at Bowling Green State University from 2013 through 2017, which is about a 20-25 minute drive north on Interstate 75 from the city of just over 30,000 residents to the border city connecting Ohio to Michigan. It’s the closest program to Toledo, beating the University of Michigan by nearly one hour and 45 total miles, and only one of three NCAA Division I programs in Ohio, joining Ohio State University (2.6 hours) and Miami University (3.3 hours). A lot of alumni have made their home in Toledo, and that was clear throughout the night.
Sholl was one of two players from Bowling Green to play in the tournament. Dajon Mingo of the Jacksonville Icemen, who the Steelheads played already in November and December, suited up for Team East and played with Sholl for three seasons before starting his professional career in 2016 with Toledo. They met twice during the weekend on the ice, and Mingo bested Sholl for two goals (one in each game) on two shots for the take of the friendly rivalry.
“We were giving it to each other in the room a little bit. He got the better of me, so he won the chirping in the room. There’s no hard feelings at all. We were just happy we could share it with another person for a long time.”
That wasn’t the only Bowling Green connection at the tournament. Jimmy Spratt, a Bowling Green alum and former Steelheads goaltender in 2011-12, was in attendance. After his playing career, he became the Director of Hockey Operations at his alma mater, where he currently works. With the event only a short drive away, it gave Spratt a chance to see his former players and those two players to also catch up with a piece of their past.
“I left a ticket for Jimmy [at will call]. It was cool to see him, and we were able to catch up after the game.”
Remember the crowd? They also knew of the two alums playing in the game. As the teams skated off for one final salute to the crowd, chants of “Bowling Green” spilled out from the crowd as Sholl and Mingo left the ice for the final time.
“It was really cool.”
Sholl’s journey from juniors and college to ECHL All-Star hasn’t been conventional. After playing just 19 games in college, his professional journey took him to three different professional teams in one season before landing in Idaho via a trade with the Adirondack Thunder, a move that would re-chart his trajectory and make him an instant favorite with six shutouts in his first 18 games with the Steelheads, which is only second to Steve Silverthorn’s record of 10 career shutouts.
Outside of the rink, the journey is discussed, but Sholl doesn’t focus on how he got to this point but only how to keep improving and climb the ranks to achieve that dream of playing at the highest level possible. Even on his flight back to Boise the next morning starting at 3:00 a.m., it’s all about the next step and re-joining the team for a three-week road trip.
“My goal is to just play at as high of a level as I can. Throughout the journey, I think the one constant is that I’ve always believed in myself, even if maybe in some places I was a little overlooked or missed my opportunities when I got them. I always believed that I could perform at a higher level than what I was showing. That’s what I’ve always carried throughout my journey.
“There are times, mainly in the off-season, when I have time to reflect. It’s pretty cool what I’ve been able to do, but I try not to be satisfied with where I’ve been and just be focused on where I want to go.”