Showing up the Doubters

By MARK VINSON Independent Record | Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2010 12:00 am

When it comes to hockey, Rudy Pino has heard the word “no” so often that one might logically assume it has morphed into part of his name.

“Every year, I’m told that I’m too small, I don’t come from an area where people respect the level of hockey I play,” said the 5-9, 20-year-old Helena Bighorns forward from Vancouver, Wash.

If Pino had listened to the naysayers, it’s likely he wouldn’t still be playing hockey. He certainly wouldn’t be the

No. 3 scorer in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, cranking out goals at a pace of better than one per game for a first-place team.

“Since I’ve been coaching in Helena, Rudy Pino’s the hardest working player I’ve coached,” veteran Bighorns head coach Scott Cunningham said. “All that hard work is going to pay off big for Rudy in the end.”

Pino and the first-place Bighorns will try to bounce back from a weekend that saw them suffer their third loss in eight games when they face the Butte Roughriders tonight at 7:35 p.m. in the Helena Ice Arena. The game is the first of a pair this week against the Riders, with a trip to Missoula on Friday sandwiched in between.

Helena (33-4, 66 points) holds a 12-point lead in the America West Division and could conceivably clinch the division title by week’s end.

Pino has been the model of consistency throughout the season, posting points in 34 of the team’s 37 games and multiple points 20 times.

“I set a goal that I wanted to have 100 points by the end of the season,” he said.

He’s not far off that pace, with 67 points (32 G, 35A) through 37 games, leading a team that has six players ranked among the NorPac’s top 25 scorers. He might increase those numbers this weekend, given that he’s posted 16 points in the five previous meetings with Butte this season.

“I take pride in pushing myself, not only against the other team, but against my teammates in pushing myself to excel,” he said.

Pino makes up for a lack of size with dazzling speed and lightning-quick release.

“Pino’s got the skill and the speed and the work ethic. The thing that separates Rudy from anybody else at this level is his drive,” Cunningham said

“He’s always trying to get better,” teammate Adam Johnson added.

Hockey has taken Pino from Vancouver, where he played for the now-defunct Fort Vancouver Pioneers at age 15 to far-flung ports such as Wasilla, Alaska, Springfield, Ill., and Frisco, Texas. He began this season with the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey League, but was dropped earlier and came back to Helena, where he helped the Bighorns win the 2008 Cascade Cup championship.

There were times this fall and winter when it appeared Pino might be destined for a team at a higher level, but it now appears he will finish his junior career with the Bighorns. This is his final season of junior hockey eligibility, but Pino has his sights set even higher.

“My goal is to play (NCAA) Division I hockey and earn a scholarship,” said Pino, adding his dream is to attend Boston College, where an undersized Nathan Gerbe led the Eagles to the 2008 NCAA title.

“I know he’s had coaches in the past who have told him ‘You won’t play Division I’ and he won’t accept that,” Cunningham said. “He keeps working hard and continues doing a lot of good things.”

The dream of playing hockey began more than 15 years ago, when the Pino family took their annual pilgrimage to Lake Tahoe, Calif.

“My family goes there every winter,” Pino recalled. “I saw the pond on the way up to the mountain. I stopped there and I was there the entire week skating on that pond.”

“When I got home, they opened up a rink right up the street from us and I was skating there ever since they opened the doors.”

Like Johnson, Pino’s first exposure to hockey came in roller hockey.

“There’s a mailbox in front of our house that looks like it’s been beat to hell,” he said with a laugh. “I would go out there and shoot about 100 pucks at that mailbox every day after school when I was little. I’d pick corners and try to dent it. I’d try to get as many dents on that thing as I could.

“Sometimes, I’d miss and it would go over the fence into the neighbors’ backyard and I’d have to take my skates off, go back there and knock on the door. I remember being out there for hours.”

Hockey is an all-consuming passion for Pino. He spends hours a day at the rink, skating, shooting and lifting weights.

Faith and family have helped Pino persevere under circumstances that might have made a weaker man quit. His father, Jim, played college football at the University of Southern California and spent time as a professional golfer before opening an insurance and investments business in the Portland, Ore., area. His mother, Eva, was a competitive swimmer who later beat colon cancer.

“My parents have pushed me to give everything that I have and to always compete,” he said.

His athletic role models include champion cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and NFL quarterback Kurt Warner.

“He got his opportunity and made the most of it,” Pino said of Warner.

Much the same can be said of Pino.

“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy taking what other people say and stuffing it in their own mouths,” he said. “But I get more satisfaction from looking in the mirror and knowing that I did it.”

NOTES: The Bighorns will make up last Saturday’s postponement at Missoula on Feb. 19. To accomodate that, the game against Butte, originally scheduled for Feb. 19, will be moved to earlier that week. … The Bighorns have acquired 18-year-old forward Tyler Miller from the Motor City Chiefs of the Central States Hockey League. Miller will likely make his Bighorns’ debut on Friday.

Mark Vinson: 447-4070 or mark.vinson@helenair.com