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 Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs

Silent Domination - A Cj Stubbs Story

April 10, 2024 - SPHL (SPHL)
Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs News Release

The current iteration of the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs is led by a lethal combination that any successful team needs - a strong, intense head coach whose experience and knowledge allow him to manage games and recruit talent at a high level, and a group of core players who have bought into playing for that coach and have helped to develop a culture.

The team needed to build up that core from scratch. They eventually hired Dan Bremner in December 2017, a former captain for Peoria Rivermen, to lead the team as the franchise's second head coach. Bremner would soon bring on future captain Mac Jansen in 2018, alternate captain Josh Nenadal late in the 2018-19 season, and a big-bodied forward named CJ Stubbs in 2019. That trio has since combined for over 600 combined regular season games played with the franchise, the three longest-tenured Dawgs in the team's seven seasons.

Stubbs joined the Rail Yard Dawgs in 2019, coming off a hot senior year at Morrisville State College, where he tallied a team-high 15 goals in 25 games.

While Roanoke is a city with hockey history, hosting five former professional teams, the Dawgs didn't come onto the scene until late 2015, suiting up for their first game in the Star City on October 21, 2016, against the Knoxville Ice Bears.

"Obviously, there was hockey here before. I think once that left there was a desire for a team to return here in Roanoke," Stubbs said. "We've stuck with building something here since it came back."

Jansen, Stubbs, and other pieces like Nenadal, defenseman Matt O'Dea, and goaltender Austyn Roudebush were part of the group that slowly built the team up from 16 wins in the shortened 2019-20 season, to 23 wins in 2021-22. Stubbs, Jansen, O'Dea and a few other former Dawgs even won an FPHL title in the 2020-2021 season when Roanoke was kept out of competition due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"We kind of hit it off right away. We were on the same page with what we wanted to do with our careers and what goals we had set in our minds," Jansen said.

That 2021-2022 season ended with the franchise's first-ever appearance in the President's Cup Final, as the Dawgs scrapped their way past the top two seeds (Knoxville and Huntsville) to reach the championship series before falling in four games to Peoria.

"We were the eighth seed and battled all the way to the Final," Stubbs said. "Then losing in the Final like that, a heartbreaker in OT here at the Berglund Center... it definitely left a sour taste in our mouths."

CJ Stubbs, Josh Nenadal, and Mac Jansen (pictured L-R) have all played major roles in developing the foundation of Roanoke's team success. (Photo Credit: Ryan Hunt)

Heading into last season, Stubbs got to team up with two big-time linemates - ex-college teammate and now the Dawgs assistant coach, Nick DeVito, and sharpshooting centerman Nick Ford. Up to this point, Stubbs had slid into more of a 'pass-first' role, operating as the talisman and creator for that trio. He finished the regular season with 10 goals and 37 assists for a 47-point total in just 48 games played. That was good enough for the third-highest points output on the team, and ranked among the top 20 in the SPHL. It also featured a franchise record point streak by Stubbs, as he got onto the score sheet in 18 consecutive games at one point in the year.

"I had two heavy big guys on my line, and it definitely made my life a lot easier," DeVito chuckled. "All I had to do was get open and they were able to find me. For me, it was a very easy line to play with... I just had to be that additional piece."

Stubbs was a major core piece in Roanoke's quest to turn its tough defeat in the Final the year prior into another deep run in which Roanoke could take care of its unfinished business. The team reeled off 32 wins in the regular season, placing them as the fourth seed heading into the playoffs - both of which broke franchise records at the time.

"In 2023, we had that goal set in mind and were ready to do anything it took to get back there (to the Final)," Stubbs said. "The unfinished business model was a real thing for us."

In the first round, Stubbs tallied one goal and one assist game to help propel Roanoke to a 4-2 victory in Evansville in Game One, a series that ended in a two-game sweep by the Dawgs. The defending President's Cup Champions and 2022-2023 regular season champions, Peoria, stood in Roanoke's path next. It was DeVito's turn next to take over, scoring five goals in that series with a few of the plays set up by his linemates - Stubbs and Ford. The Dawgs eventually prevailed, reaching the Final for the second consecutive year against the Birmingham Bulls.

After splitting the first two games in Birmingham, the Dawgs returned home to continue the best-of-five series. Stubbs assisted on two goals in the first period of Game Three then scored one of his own in the second, as the Dawgs went on to prevail for a 5-4 overtime victory over the Bulls.

"When it comes down the stretch, when we get into the last quarter of the season, he's always asking for more," Bremner said. "He always wants to be out there for the big moments."

The Rail Yard Dawgs claimed a hefty piece of hardware the next day, the franchise's first President's Cup.

"Creating that bond from Morrisville with DeVito and (Chris) Vella, the guys that were in Columbus, our long playoff runs in Roanoke... it went such a long way in creating that chemistry," said Stubbs in his locker room cleanout interview last May. "It was a big factor in how we got it done."

Jansen agreed with his longtime teammate and friend on how much the continuity in the team made a difference.

"When we came here all those years ago, we were on the same page," Jansen explained. "We wanted to do something special with a city and a team that we love."

CJ Stubbs lifts the President's Cup after Roanoke clinched the SPHL title in Game Four of the 2023 Final. Stubbs, Nick Ford, and Nick DeVito combined for 11 goals, 16 assists, and a plus-16 rating in just nine postseason games. (Photo Credit: Keith Lucas)

Stubbs hasn't just added bling to his finger in the Star City. Ahead of this season, he was awarded a new patch on his sweater, an 'A' on his chest to recognize him as an alternate captain. It was a move that solidified something that a lot of guys around the room and a lot of fans of the Dawgs already knew - Stubbs was an important leader of this team.

"CJ has always been that constant force for the Dawgs in his time here," said Roanoke media manager/broadcaster Mitch Stewart. "He creates for the players around him, he can put the puck in the net, but his defensive skills are what truly go under the radar. He's one of the best two-way forwards in this league, and he's gained a lot of respect both here and around the league by playing a 200-foot game so consistently."

After playing 126 games over three seasons with the Dawgs up to that point, 37 goals, and 87 assists, Stubbs was officially added to the captains' club alongside of Jansen, Nenadal, and O'Dea. It was more of a formality for a player like Stubbs, who had always been a team-first player.

"[The captains] have been bought in for a number of years now and continue to show the new guys that come in the way we try to do things," Bremner said.

CJ Stubbs has a big smile on his face as Roanoke celebrates a late third period goal that sealed a victory over Pensacola back in November 2023. (Photo Credit: Paula Greenway)

This season, the team has had to change up the forward line out of necessity. With DeVito on the coaching staff and Nick Ford taking an opportunity in Europe in early January, the Dawgs needed someone to step up and help in the scoring department. A long-time playmaker, it was time for Stubbs to bear a bit more of the goalscoring weight for the team.

"In the past on his lines, he's had shooters with him," DeVito said. "Now that we needed that type of look on the power play from him, he's really come into his own and just started producing on an even higher level."

With a greater focus on shooting the puck, Stubbs has seen a leap in his scoring from last season, up from 10 goals to a team-leading 20 goals this season. Stubbs now ranks tied with former Dawg Jeff Jones for second all-time on the franchise's career rankings at 57 goals, only trailing Jansen.

"Dan's tried to drill into me in the past and now 'be a shooter, be a shooter when you have an opportunity to shoot the puck,' and I took that in stride and simplified my game this year," Stubbs said.

The simplified game has carried him through another incredibly productive season. In his third straight year above the 40-point mark (he led the team with 46 points this season), the consistent production and quiet demeanor of Stubbs perfectly orchestrate his leadership philosophy: set a good example.

"I think Stubbs is a more reserved guy in that locker room, but I think he leads with his performance out there night in and night out," Bremner said. "[He's] steady and always going, always wanting more. You look down the bench and he wants to be the guy on the ice. The other players see that and take notice."

The composure of CJ Stubbs has been a calming presence and welcome piece to maintaining team chemistry since his arrival in Roanoke back in 2019. (Photo Credit: Paula Greenway)

In his fourth season with the Dawgs, Stubbs has developed a strong reputation of being a 'closer' in the league, a player that opponents don't like seeing on the ice across from them in the late stages.

"I truly believe that's something you're more born with than you can develop, and he was born with that clutch gene," Jansen said. "There's not a lot of guys that can do that in those situations. A lot of people fold under pressure, he's a player that excels under pressure. Thank goodness he's on our side."

Always cool under pressure, the stoic forward has five game-winning goals, tied for fourth in the SPHL. He's had two game-winning goals in overtime this season, plus an incredible assist to set up an Alex DiCarlo game-winning tally late in the season against Quad City.

"When you give a player like Stubbs time and space, it's really not beneficial for the opponent," DeVito said. "He does a fantastic job when he has the puck on his stick. If nobody's able to press him on the ice, especially in regular season OT with three players, he's going to score."

The production by Stubbs has been a constant for Roanoke ever since his arrival in 2019, as his 170 points over 187 regular season games easily indicate. But it's his cool, calming presence on and off the ice that enables the six-foot-three forward to make an even larger impact on his team.

"He's not going to yell and scream or any of that, and he's not going to get in guys' faces," DeVito said.

Even if he's not the most constant voice speaking up in the locker room, when Stubbs decides that he should add his input on the situation, the respect he's earned amongst his teammates immediately commands the attention of those within earshot.

"He's a man of very few words," Jansen said. "He's not a guy who will be speaking up all the time, so when he speaks up, it's something serious and it's something that needs to be said."

He might be a bit more on the quiet side, but with another SPHL season coming to a close, CJ Stubbs has proven that he's more than capable of letting his game do the talking - and his game speaks volumes.

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