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Old Rivals Turned Teammates with IceHogs

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T.J. Brennan, Joseph Cramarossa and Garrett Mitchell spent many seasons in the American Hockey League’s Atlantic Division grinding it out against one another in Lehigh Valley (Brennan), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Cramarossa) and Hershey (Mitchell). Together, the trio has combined for 1,432 AHL games, 251 goals, 427 assists and 678 points across their careers, but in 2019-20 they have found themselves as teammates with the Rockford IceHogs in the Central Division.

Cramarossa joined the IceHogs on Nov. 20 as a part of a trade between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins. Since his IceHogs debut on Nov. 23, the Markham, Ont., native has appeared in 42 games, scoring five goals, tossing in seven assists and logging 110 penalty minutes.

Mitchell was added to the club on Feb. 6 when he signed a professional tryout agreement. The Regina, Sask., native has played 15 games with the Hogs, scoring four goals and notching two assists. On Mar. 20, Mitchell was inked to a standard player contract with Rockford. Previously, he played 400 games with the Hershey Bears, serving as team captain for three seasons.

Finally, Brennan returned to the IceHogs at the trade deadline on Feb. 26 when he was dealt from Philadelphia to Chicago. Before his acquisition, Brennan had spent four seasons on the blue line for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. During the 2014-15 season, the Moorestown, N.J., native played in 54 games for the IceHogs and collected 36 points (9g, 27a). Since his return to the Hogs this season, Brennan has played in six games, notching three assists.

Each of these men has been a leader for his respective teams. All three have worn a letter during their professional career to represent their character and leadership qualities on and off the ice. After three seasons as the captain in Hershey, Mitchell was awarded an “A” on Feb. 22 after making his IceHogs debut on Feb. 7.

“I’ve come in my career and just gone about things that way – not expecting to come in and be given anything,” Mitchell said. “I’d rather earn it so when that happened for me, it was a huge honor.”

The three reminisced on their time as rivals in the Atlantic Division and remember playing against each other many times.

“Last season, I remember [Brennan] caught me pretty good with a blindside hit that we’re gonna have to chat about, but that was probably the hardest I’ve been hit in a while,” Cramarossa joked.

“Joe’s an energy guy and he brings the energy every night,” Mitchell said about Cramarossa. “I remember him from when he first came into [the league with] Norfolk; he was a fun guy to play against to try to get under his skin a little bit.”

“Just as I expected, they’re good guys, good in the room and they want to win,” Brennan said about his new teammates, Mitchell and Cramarossa. “It’s easy to see where their heart is, so those are guys who I would pick first for my team.”

Mitchell recalled the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, when he and Brennan faced off a total of 24 times.

“I think for me it was just more watching T.J., whether it was scoring in the last couple seconds of the game or going shortside,” Mitchell said with a smile. “I remember him going shortside a bunch one season. Those are fun because we can laugh about it now.”

Brennan did some reflecting himself and realized how much he appreciates his two new teammates.

“It’s really nice to play on Mitchy and Crammer’s team for a change,” Brennan said. “Those are the guys that are usually crushing me against the boards and doing a good job stopping whatever team I’m on from scoring, so it’s nice to have those guys on the same team, and to be wearing the same sweater for once.”

For Brennan and Cramarossa, swapping sweaters is something they’ve done a couple of times before coming to Rockford. Mitchell, however, spent parts of nine seasons with the same team in Hershey. In his first few days with Rockford, Mitchell spoke with IceHogs captain, Tyler Sikura, about his place within the organization.

“Obviously, I’ve been a leader at this level for a few years, but I wanted to come in and talk to Ty about it early when I first got here,” Mitchell said. “I said, ‘Ty, this is your guys’ team and you know I want to do everything I can do to help.”

Brennan, too, had thoughts on what it’s like to join a new team as a veteran player. With a team-leading 679 AHL games under his belt, he is the most experienced player on the roster.

“I think when you come to a new team, you want to have respect for what’s going on,” Brennan said. “That’s the relationship I create with the team and obviously everyone individually, and that takes time.”

This season, the Hogs squad is composed of 15 players who are under 24 years old. Brennan, Cramarossa and Mitchell understand that their role is two-fold: to assist in the development of the team’s youth while helping the club win games.

“For guys that are in and out of the lineup… it’s a process that happens to everyone and you just gotta keep working and stick with it until you get your opportunities,” Cramarossa said.

“Obviously I’ve played for a few years now and there’s a lot that I can do to help guys off the ice as well as on the ice,” Mitchell said. “My biggest thing throughout my career has always been to lead by example and things will kinda sort themselves out.”

The trio’s experience is an invaluable commodity on this Rockford team, and Brennan, Cramarossa and Mitchell are grateful to be on the same bench instead of opponents.