Since his earliest days on skates at the age of 5, Plymouth resident Timo Pelto has displayed a knack for hockey. A scoring star through the mite, peewee, bantam and high school levels, Pelto took on his biggest challenge last winter when he left the Orono High School team mid-season to join the St. Croix Valley Magicians, a Junior A team playing in the United States Premier Hockey League. At the time he was only 16–and Minnesota's youngest Junior A player–joining a team and league dominated by 19-and 20-year olds.
Timo, who turned 17 in March, began playing in the Wayzata mites program at age 5, after becoming interested in the sport by watching Minnesota Wild games on TV. His ability to skate, stickhandle and score goals became evident early on. “I realized I should get serious about it,” says Timo, who liked the sport well enough to begin playing year-round at the bantam level.
Timo says he has always loved the speed of the game, “the atmosphere of playing in front of everybody, and the adrenaline rush when you score.” Fast forward to high school where he played two years on the Orono High School varsity team and was the leading goal scorer. Then he made the decision to switch at mid-season to the junior team.
Timo's father, Corby Pelto, says while his son missed playing with some of his buddies on the high school team, joining the junior team last winter was a logical progression. “Timo knew the Magicians' coach [Jake Hindermann] really well from working at a goalie school in the summer, and the [junior] team was getting ready for the playoffs,” says Corby. “He was looking at the next step, where his future lies. It was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.”
Initially, Timo had to adjust to the league's higher skill level, the size and relative maturity of the players, and their more “serious” approach. Rather than playing for the glory of a high school team, “These guys are playing to make something of their lives,” he says. “They have a really different perspective.”
Timo found the Junior A level of play intimidating, saying “When I went in for my first practice, I could barely keep up. I was completely rattled by the speed and how hard the shots were. It was a totally different zone from what I was used to.” Timo says it took him about a week of practices before he started feeling as though he could fit in.
Over the years, hockey players at every level have also gotten taller and heavier. “It's a lot rougher at the Junior A level,” Timo says. “It seems like the guys are all six-three and 200 pounds, and they're throwing bodies everywhere. You really have to look out for yourself.”
At 5’11” and 185, Timo Pelto is smaller than the average player, but his size difference is not as much of a drawback as it might be in some other sports. “When you're stocky like me, it can be easier to win some of the battles along the boards,” he says. “No one expects a guy like me to outmuscle them along the boards, so when I do, they can get pretty rattled.”
After Timo weathered the early adjustment period, a turning point came in his fifth game with his new team. First, he picked up a rebound off the opposing goalie's pads and put it in the net. On his next shift, he grabbed the puck in a corner, skated toward the net and shot it past the goalie. For the first time, he went back to the bench thinking, “I can score in this league.”
Both goals were what Timo considers “hustle goals,” rather than “pretty” goals resulting from dazzling technique. He knows he will have to keep hustling to keep progressing in his career. Timo says he has learned a lot from his coach and also former NHL players Mark Parrish and Matt Cook–who coached him in high school–about scoring goals on close-in, tight-angle shots. They've also helped his confidence, telling him he should have the opportunity to play Division I college hockey if he keeps working.
The coach with the Magicians, Jake Hindermann, says Timo “has a bright future. He's got all the things you look for, as far as 'coachability.' He's a hard worker, he's dynamic with the puck, has the scoring touch, and knows how to find time and space after he passes the puck.”
There has been an ongoing debate about high school kids who focus on one sport year-round, rather than playing multiple sports. Such single-minded dedication can lead to burnout. So, Timo takes a few weeks off at the conclusion of each winter season to focus more on school work and his part-time job at Lafayette Country Club. But, as he looks ahead to young adulthood, Timo Pelto plans to make hockey his future.