AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” boomed over the Icebox speakers as fans crowded the 3500-seat arena, clapping along to the Lincoln Stars introductions. Lasers and spot lights danced across the blacked-out arena while the 20-foot star that rests over the Stars’ home goal began to drop.
Standing underneath that star, simply waiting for his cue, was rookie goaltender Cameron Whitehead.
It was a lot to take in. To this point he’d never really played in front of fans before.
“STARTING IN GOAL … FROM ORLEANS, ONTARIO … CAMERON WHITEHEAD!”
There it was, his cue. He skated to center ice as cameras flashed and his picture appeared on the jumbotron.
Whitehead’s success in net has played a significant part in helping get the Stars to where they are today.
More than halfway through the current season, Lincoln holds the fourth-best record in the USHL and the third-best in the league’s Western Conference with a record of 25-16-3. This would be good enough to land Lincoln a place in the postseason, making it two in a row for Lincoln. Another playoff appearance would mark the first time the team has had the chance to compete for a Clark Cup in back-to-back seasons since making the postseason in three consecutive years from 2011-13.
After starting the year as the third goaltender on the Lincoln Stars’ roster, Whitehead wasn’t sure if he’d even have the chance to do this. Just a few months ago, he and his mom made the 19-hour drive from Ottawa just for a shot at making the team.
He didn’t have a college commitment. He didn’t really understand anything about that. He certainly wasn’t thinking about the NHL.
Tonight, he made his debut in the top junior hockey league in the country. That was all that mattered.
Since that point in October of 2021, Whitehead has amassed 33 wins in a Lincoln uniform, most out of any goaltender in the United States Hockey League (USHL) during that span. His breakout season in 2021-22 earned him a scholarship to Northeastern and the chance to hear the Las Vegas Golden Knights call his name during the 2022 NHL Draft.
A third-place conference finish for Whitehead and the Stars would give them home-ice advantage through the first round of the playoffs if the season were to end today. With the highest home point-percentage in the league this season at 0.800 (15-3-2), this would have Lincoln primed to make that deep postseason run the team craves.
Yet, the team isn’t satisfied with a third-place finish. It’s that hunger that head coach Rocky Russo believes defines the team and its success this season.
“[They’re] eager,” Russo said. “Eager to learn. Eager to compete. Eager to represent that Star in the best way they can…They’re not a team that wants to sit back and not a team that ever gets complacent. They constantly want to improve and that’s a quality that generally leads to success within the organization.”
After failing to make the playoffs for three straight seasons and spending the majority of the 2010s hovering around 0.500, Lincoln decided to hit the reset button prior to last season.
In June of 2021, Alberto Fernandez bought the Stars from Ryan Schiff, who had owned the team since 2013. Just over a month later, the team announced the hire of Russo and general manager Nick Fabrizio. The two replaced Chris Michael, who walked away from the team to pursue other opportunities after serving as both the team’s head coach and general manager for just one season.
It didn’t take long for the change to bear fruit. In the Stars’ first year under new leadership, the team posted a 35-20-7 record to finish third in the conference and earn a spot in the playoffs. After they took the first of a three-game home playoff series played in Lincoln, the Stars dropped two straight against the Waterloo Blackhawks to close out the season.
Yet, the season seemed to breathe new life into the team and the fanbase. This season, Lincoln entered with a chip on its shoulder and a determined mindset.
“I think last year we kind of created a culture in our locker room and our whole organization,” Whitehead said. “I think everyone kind of has that winning mentality. Everyone’s putting extra work in. You know we have guys who stay on the ice for two plus hours after practice to work on skills.”
It’s that extra work that has set the Stars apart this season.
According to Russo, the core values that the coaching staff has instilled during their short tenure show up in the work ethic and discipline the players demonstrate on a day-to-day basis.
“In my opinion, your culture either matters enough that you fight for it every day or it’s not a priority,” Russo said. “That culture comes alive in the locker room because the guys demand that it does.”
The Stars’ coach credits the team with maintaining a solid structure and preparedness during the week, leading to their success come game time. Accountability, discipline and attention to detail have become aspects that Lincoln thrives on.
Yet, most of all, the word that comes up when looking at this team is resilience.
“Resiliency takes a lot of different forms,” Stars’ broadcaster Joel Norman states. “This team does a good job if they give up a goal. You don’t see them mope around or get down too much. They’re getting out there and getting after it on the next shift, the next night. Whatever it takes. I think they’re always eager for that next opportunity and making that next opportunity themselves.”
Norman has seen the team face its share of hurdles in his first season with the Stars, noting that “every game in the last month-and-a-half has felt like a one-goal game.” In reality, he’s not far off. During the month of February alone, eight out of the Stars’ 10 games have been decided by one goal.
Yet, the team prides itself on staying level-headed and relying on the team when facing an uphill battle.
“We might be down in some games but, you know, we always trust in our game and in ourselves,” Stars’ captain Mason Marcellus said. “I trust every guy in that locker room and our coaching staff to kind of tell us what’s going right, what’s going wrong and I think it’s been huge for us.”
Marcellus, who is committed to play college hockey at Quinnipiac University next year, credits this trust and accountability as being a driving force for the team this season. The team doesn’t get personal with each other. Instead, Marcellus notes they are comfortable having difficult conversations and letting their teammates know when they need to work on part of their game or give a better effort, recognizing that this criticism comes from a place of love.
The closeness of this team may be a result of the nature of junior hockey as well.
The USHL is the top junior hockey league sanctioned by USA Hockey. Heaps of players, all between the ages of 16 and 21, come from across North America and overseas for a chance to play at the highest level of amateur hockey. They stay with host families during the season, hundreds of miles away from their friends and families. As a result, Stars players have to rely heavily on their teammates and coaches during their time in Lincoln.
For many, including Marcellus, that means that the team becomes like a second family and the town like a second home.
“I’m going to be able to tell everyone I know that I played for the Lincoln Stars, my kids when I have them and everything,” Marcellus said. “It’s gonna stick with me forever.”
For these players, being a Star goes beyond their time in Lincoln. It’s more than just putting on a jersey and taking the ice. For many, it becomes a piece of who they are.