Game 1 of the Clark Cup Final did not go as planned for the Chicago Steel. The United States Hockey League’s (USHL) best team for the past two seasons faced adversity for the first time during the playoffs. After sweeping a pair of best-of-three series versus the Dubuque Fighting Saints and Muskegon Lumberjacks, they dropped the opening game of the best-of-five series to the Fargo Force on home ice. To make matters worse, their 3-0 loss marked the first time they had been shut out since April 6, 2018!
It took all of one minute for the Steel to score in Game 2 as Adam Fantilli got things rolling and changed the course of the series. Chicago evened the series with a 4-1 win and then dominated back-to-back games in Fargo to win their second USHL title in franchise history. They also became the first team to win the Anderson Cup (regular-season title) and the Clark Cup in the same season since the 2012-13 Fighting Saints.
The championship was the cherry on top of a crazy 14-month period for Steel forward Sean Farrell, who wasn’t even supposed to play in Chicago this season.
The Whirlwind Begins
The USHL canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 season on March 18, 2020, just six days after postponing games. While the entire world was locked down for a pandemic that we still haven’t fully recovered from, hockey seemed rather insignificant. This was a tough pill to swallow for the Steel as they had a 41-7-1-0 record when the season was scrapped. They were eventually awarded the Anderson Cup for leading the league with 83 points. It was their first regular-season title in their 20-year franchise history as they set team records for wins and points.
Farrell finished the season with a team-high 41 assists and 56 points in his 44 games. On Oct. 7, he got the moment all young hockey players dream of by hearing his name called during the NHL Entry Draft. The Montreal Canadiens used the final pick of the fourth round (124th overall) to select the young winger.
He thought his USHL career was over as he was committed to playing at Harvard University in the fall. However, the Ivy League canceled all of its winter sports, including hockey, and he was back with Chicago looking to pick up where he left off.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Farrell told me after the Steel’s Game 2 in the Clark Cup Finals. “Coming into the year, I thought I’d be playing at Harvard. Having the draft as well is definitely a different type of year, with having the draft all online. The beginning of the year was a whirlwind for me, but I was really happy I could come back to Chicago for another year.
“Being here every day is great with the coaching staff and all the players that we have. Especially after last year when the season got cut short. That group of guys, we were really motivated to win a championship, so it’s good to be able to carry that on into this year.”
A Season to Remember
Once Farrell knew where he’d be playing in 2020-21, he got to work with his Steel teammates.
“We focus on the process every day of trying to get better,” he said, “That has definitely helped the guys this year. We just come to the rink every day and try to improve. I think that’s what makes all of us, as individuals, so great.”
Farrell and the Steel dominated their 54-game regular-season schedule. After losing on opening night, Chicago won nine out of their next 10 games and never looked back. They finished the season with a 38-11-3-2 record and won their second straight Anderson Cup. The top four point-scorers in the USHL all wore Steel sweaters.
Heading into the final weekend of the season, Farrell had 94 points on the season. He racked seven assists in the final two games against the Lumberjacks to finish the season with 29 goals and 101 points. He became just the second player in USHL history to score 100 points in a season. Only Kevin Roy of the Lincoln Stars had more points when he scored 104 during the 2011-12 season.
“Sean has consistently played at an extremely high level all season long, and it was great to see him get rewarded and reach 101 points in this shortened season,” Steel head coach Brock Sheahan said.
Farrell’s production didn’t fall off during the postseason. He had two goals and 10 points in his eight games as the Steel went 7-1 in their playoff march to a championship.
The Work Continues
Farrell knows it will take a lot to get to the NHL. At just 5-foot-8, his size will always be questioned as he makes his way through the ranks. Despite the lack of height, the skill is there. He has benefitted from playing with many talented prospects during his two seasons in Chicago, and he has made plays no matter who is on his line.
“I think my game has grown tremendously this year,” Farrell admitted. “I’ve become a lot more confident in myself and my offensive game. I’ve been making a lot of plays this year that I wouldn’t have necessarily made last year. That comes with time and by watching video with the coaches. Just watching all my shifts and going over what I could have done better has helped me a ton this year, especially a full year of development, instead of it getting cut short a bit. It was definitely awesome to be here.”
Farrell will finally head to Harvard in the fall, where he will get plenty of time to develop in an excellent hockey program. He will be joined by teammate Sam Coronato, who led the USHL with 48 goals this season. The duo will be fun to watch over the next couple of seasons as they both intriguing prospects.