Defense wins championships

Former Ferris hockey player shares great post-college career success

To change a position in any sport may take some time to get used to, but for Bulldog hockey alum Bob Nardella, changing his position may have been the best thing for his career.

Nardella, who was a part of the Ferris hockey team from 1988 to 1991, first came to Ferris with the hopes of being a part of the hockey team. As a walk-on forward, Nardella only skated 28 games and produced six goals and four assists for 10 points during the 1988-89 season. His playing time would increase year after year, with 38 games played in the 1989-90 season and 42 games played during his final season in 1990-91.

After his initial season, Nardella transitioned to a key player for the Bulldogs where he saw a great increase in point production, tallying 10 goals and 14 assists to more than double what he produced the year before. However, a rule violation by Nardella and other players would change his career forever.

“The reason it happened is because me and three other guys broke some team rules and Bob Mancini, who was the head coach, kicked us off the team and he told us we can go to the walk-on camp to try out again, so we did,” Nardella said. “Bob took three of us back under some stipulations of missing the first few games. Two or three freshman defensemen were academically ineligible, and we needed defensemen in a hurry. I told Bob Mancini that I would play defense in practice until we get it sorted out. After the second day of practice, he told me that he wanted to leave me at defense and if I agreed to those terms, me and my friends didn’t have to miss any games, so it was an easy decision. I would’ve had a much tougher time playing at a higher level after college if I didn’t become a defenseman.”

The decision to keep Nardella at defense ended up to be the right decision by Mancini, as Nardella finished his final season with a total of 12 goals and 28 assists, which equates to 40 points, more points than he had his first two seasons as a forward combined. Nardella carried on to play defense for the rest of his hockey career.

“He went back to defense and it was like he’s been playing that his whole life,” Ferris hockey head coach Bob Daniels said, who was the assistant coach when Nardella was at Ferris. “It was like it all clicked. He went from a slightly better than average forward to a top tier defenseman in college hockey.”

“I give Bob Mancini credit for that and I also give Bobby Nardella a lot of credit,” Daniels said. “There’s not many kids that have played their entire life and been successful as a forward and then the coach comes and says, ‘We need a defenseman and I think you’ll do well. Would you consider playing this for us?’ And he did, and that’s very selfless and I’ll never forget that and wow, it was like immediate, he was unbelievable there.”

With three “Bobs” in the Ferris hockey program at the time, the organization had to come up with different names to call them. Bob Daniels went by “Bobby D,” Bob Mancini was just “Bob” and Bob Nardella earned a nickname derived from his last name, Nardella said.

Nardella attracted little attention from National Hockey League teams, but did spark the interest of Italian Hockey League teams and qualified as a national member for those teams due to his grandfather’s Italian nationality. Over the next few years, Nardella would play for teams in Italy, Germany and the United States before coming back in 1997 to play for the Chicago Wolves in the International Hockey League (IHL).

Not only was the 1997-98 season exciting for Nardella to come home and play in his hometown, but it was also the beginning of great success he maintained throughout his career. With 13 goals and 35 assists, Nardella helped the Wolves win the Turner Cup, which is given to the IHL champion. Also in that year, Nardella earned the opportunity to play for Team Italy in the Olympic Games, held in Nagano, Japan. The defenseman played in four games and picked up two assists during his first Olympic appearance.

“It was phenomenal. You have to put your time in before you’re eligible to do that,” Nardella said. “When I became eligible, they thought I was good enough so they asked me to play. It’s something you’ll never forget”

The success continued for Nardella, being a part of another Turner Cup winning team in 2000, and a Calder Cup in 2002 during the Chicago Wolves inaugural season in the American Hockey League after the IHL folded in 2001.

“The success we had was pretty good,” Nardella said. “Win three championships in my hometown, be a core part of those teams for quite a number of years — not too many people are lucky enough to have that happen.”

As a player with the Wolves, Nardella is ranked on the team’s all-time regular-season list second for games with 476, fifth in assists at 239 and sixth in points with 298. He is also fourth in postseason points with 61, fourth in assists with 44 and seventh in goals with 17.

Nardella retired at the age of 38, but his playing career didn’t end there. He was invited to play in the 2006 Olympics to represent Italy in Turin, Italy, one last time. In his five games played for Team Italy, he tallied one assist, which finished his playing career.

Nardella took a step back from professional hockey to help coach his two sons when they were young and work on their hockey development. Nardella came back to the Chicago Wolves organization once his sons started to play at a higher level and is now the assistant coach.

His youngest son, Nicholas, has committed to Michigan Technological University, and when asked if he would come back to his old stomping grounds to see a Bulldogs versus Huskies matchup he said, “Whatever the schedule permits, I will absolutely.”