Amid the 3,000-plus cowbell-wielding Alaska Aces fans sat a row of people quietly rooting for the Idaho Steelheads in section 210 of Sullivan Arena on Thursday.
Well, one Steelhead in particular: William Rapuzzi.
Several members of Rapuzzi's family attended Game 1 of the ECHL Western Conference semifinals to watch the Anchorage man skate in his hometown.
Rapuzzi, 24, who skated for Dimond his freshman and sophomore years, recorded a team-leading six shots on goal -- including four prime scoring chances -- for Idaho, which earned a 1-0 overtime victory despite being outshot by the Aces 47-27.
Playing at the Sullivan isn't new for Rapuzzi -- he's made trips to Alaska not only with Idaho but during his four years at Colorado College. He just always skates for the squad getting booed by the crowd.
"I've never played here for the home team," Rapuzzi said.
Still, playing in Anchorage is special, he said.
"It's exciting to come back," Rapuzzi said. "It definitely gives you a little more energy."
Rapuzzi has had a stellar inaugural pro hockey season. His 16-42--58 totals in the regular season led Idaho even though he missed five weeks with a knee injury. He skated a regular shift all season and played on special teams.
And, oh yeah, he was voted ECHL Rookie of the Year.
"He's deserving of all the accolades he's getting," Steelheads coach Brad Ralph said.
Rapuzzi credited a veteran Idaho team with helping him transition from college hockey to the pros.
"When you surround yourself with older guys, you can learn a lot," he said.
Ralph said Rapuzzi has been reliable throughout his entire rookie campaign, and is a speedy offensive threat. "He has explosive speed," the coach said.
Often called upon in high-pressure situations, Rapuzzi participated in 10 regular-season shootouts, scoring seven times, two of which were game-winners.
Much of Rapuzzi's success stems from his conditioning, Ralph said.
"He takes extremely good care of his body," he said.
Rapuzzi wasn't called up to Idaho's AHL affiliate in Texas, but that's not because he can't skate at the next level, said Ralph, who is certain the Texas club is keeping an eye on Rapuzzi.
"I know he would have got called up if he didn't get injured," Ralph said. "He'll get his opportunity and run with it."
Reach Mike Nesper at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By MIKE NESPER