It's No Hockey Hotbed, But O'Fallon, Mo., Produced 2 River Hawks
By Chaz Scoggins
LOWELL -- No, UMass Lowell freshmen hockey players Ryan McGrath and Greg Amlong are not Siamese twins. It just seems that way because they've been virtually inseparable for more than 15 years now.
And if they were Siamese twins, McGrath and Amlong would be the most mismatched twins since Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. McGrath, a forward, stands a mere 5-7 and weighs 160 pounds, while Amlong, a defenseman, checks in at 6-2, 200.
McGrath and Amlong live five minutes apart in O'Fallon, Mo., a city of about 80,000 located 30 miles west of St. Louis. They've been friends since they were four years old. They came up together through amateur hockey circles in the St. Louis area, attended the same high school, then played two years of junior hockey together for Cedar Rapids in the U.S. Hockey League, helping the Roughriders win the Anderson Cup awarded to the league's regular-season champs in 2010-11.
And here they are, together still, two kids from the same town in Missouri playing Division I hockey for the nationally-ranked River Hawks in Hockey East, and what are the odds of that? It would be hard enough to find two players from the same junior team or prep school on the roster of any Division I team, much less two from the same hometown in a part of the country not renowned for developing hockey players.
"O'Fallon high school hockey isn't the best hockey," Amlong concedes. "But the Triple-A and juniors around town are sprouting up and getting better. St. Louis hockey is on the rise, getting bigger and bigger every year."
One might be tempted to think McGrath and Amlong have packaged themselves wherever they've played, kind of like what pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale did with the Los Angeles Dodgers a half-century ago. It's both of us or neither of us. But that's not the case at all.
If you're not inclined to believe in coincidences, McGrath and Amlong might force you to reconsider your position. And UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin says it is just a coincidence that the two Show-Me Staters wound up in Lowell together.
Fact is, they haven't always been together.
"We split a little in high school," McGrath says, noting they played for different amateur teams. "(Greg) played for St. Louis Triple-A, and I played for the Junior B Blues. Then we ended up in the USHL on the Cedar Rapids Roughriders together, which was pretty wild."
Soccer in his genes
Amlong had to make a decision midway through high school whether to keep playing soccer or focus solely on hockey. His dad, Gary, had played professional soccer from 1981-83 for the Kansas City Comets of the Major Indoor Soccer League, scoring nine goals and 15 assists in 68 matches.
"Greg's dad was a very good soccer player, and he coached him a little bit and asked me if I wanted to come out for the team," McGrath remembers. "I came out and kicked the ball around a little bit, but I wasn't very good. It was just something to do with my best friend."
Amlong says his father, who envisioned his son playing college soccer instead of hockey, was "upset for about a week" when Greg told him he was giving up the sport after his sophomore year at Fort Zumwalt West High School.
"There was always that thought in my dad's mind," about playing soccer in college, he says, "but I made my decision and I'm completely happy with it. Now he's very happy, too, that I chose hockey."
The Roughriders drafted Greg after high school, and it seemed then Amlong and McGrath might go their separate ways. But the junior team sent McGrath an invitation to try out with the team a few weeks later. They drove up to Iowa together, and both made the club.
"It wasn't by design. It just happened like that," Amlong says.
Hey, if their motto was truly "all for one and one for all," McGrath and Amlong probably would have insisted on playing for the rival Sioux City Musketeers.
McGrath netted 18 goals and 42 points in 58 games that first winter, and Amlong was rock solid on defense as the Roughriders finished in first place.
Injuries limited McGrath to 39 games last season, although he still managed to ring up 17 goals and 36 points. Amlong blossomed offensively, tallying nine goals and 25 points, including three power-play goals and two shorthanded goals.
The River Hawks came after McGrath first, beating out several other Division I schools for the feisty forward's services.
"(UML assistant) coach (Jason) Lammers came out to Cedar Rapids a couple of weeks before my (official) visit and offered me right there," McGrath says. "Playing in Hockey East is what I really wanted to do. It's the most competitive college hockey league in the country.
"Then I had my visit after I committed."
Amlong made his official visit to UMass Lowell the same weekend as McGrath.
"Obviously the school, the coaching staff, and the players were unbelievable when I came here on my visit," Amlong says. "But knowing one of my best friends was going to go to school here with me made the choice easy."
McGrath has played all five games for the River Hawks, netting his first collegiate goal, garnering an assist, and exciting fans with his hustle and knack for forcing opponents into taking penalties. Amlong has played in two games and already picked up his first collegiate point.
So have no misconceptions about Ryan McGrath and Greg Amlong being Siamese Twins. Yes, they reside in the same UML dormitory.
But they're living in separate rooms with different roommates.