As a youngster growing up in Shelburne, Peter Lenes idolized University of Vermont hockey stars Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin and dreamed of playing for head coach Mike Gilligan and the Catamounts.
Lenes never played for Gilligan, who retired in 2003, but he scored 46 goals and 92 points in his four years at UVM.
Now, he’ll play for Gilligan; it’s just that it’s Bill Gilligan, Mike’s brother, who will be sending Lenes over the boards.
One year removed from his senior season at UVM and with a winter’s experience in the ECHL, Lenes will lace up his skates for the Graz 99ers in Graz, Austria, as he pursues another lifelong dream, to play in the National Hockey League.
Home for the summer, Lenes said his ECHL team, the Ontario (Calif.) Reign, retains his rights. Still, after a decent rookie season — 13 goals and 23 points in 58 games — Lenes decided to broaden his experience by playing in Europe.
“I feel I can benefit from both places. It’s a different experience and I feel I can come back,” he said. “They might have some higher-end players to play with and against, and if I can use that experience, it will be a good thing for me.”
Bill Gilligan is a respected coach in Europe who played for Brown University. He took over Graz last year and has since assumed command of Austria’s national program. The 99ers average 3,000 fans in Ausria’s second-largest city (290,000). The Gilligan connection is coincidental; a personal representative brokered Lenes’ deal.
Lenes talked to former UVM teammate Kenny MacAulay, who played part of last season for a Croatian team that competes in the Austrian league. “From what I’ve heard, (Austria) is a lot of skill with less hitting,” he said.
Lenes confirmed his German needs brushing up. “I’m trying to get Dad (Helmut) to teach me German. I took it for two years in school and I wasn’t too successful,” he said.
As for his first professional season, Lenes said, “It was definitely a learning experience overall.”
A longtime friend and college rival, former Providence College standout Jon Rheault, convinced Ontario coach Karl Taylor to give Lenes a shot despite his 5-foot-4, 158-pound size.
“Rheault and the coach have a pretty good relationship,” said Lenes. “It was pretty cool Jon did that.”
Given the opportunity, Lenes let his talent and fierce determination take over. He earned a mid-season ECHL all-star berth and won the puck relay in the skills competition.