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Prep Watch: On a Mission

Chicago Mission defenseman Robbie Russo leads the team in blueline scoring with 17 points.

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Chicago Mission defenseman Robbie Russo leads the team in blueline scoring with 17 points.

Chicago Mission defenseman Robbie Russo is doing a lot more traveling this season and that’s just fine with him.

With the West Coast expansion of the Midwest Elite League, the 15-year-old’s Mission squad finds itself out of its Michigan-Ohio-Illinois comfort zone and throwing down in new frontiers.

“I thought that was a good thing,” Russo said of the expansion. “You don’t just play in Detroit all the time, you get to play Los Angeles more than once a year; St. Louis more than once a year.”

With new opponents come new challenges as well and Russo, a do-it-all defenseman, is more than happy to see what players such as Shane McColgan of the L.A. Jr. Kings or, closer to home, Rocco Grimaldi of Detroit Little Caesar’s have in store for him.

“Every team has a top line,” Russo noted. “I want to be out there when those guys are out there.”

And Mission coach Pete Rutili has no problem sending his team’s youngest player on the ice when the stakes are high.

“He’s got a game similar to Nicklas Lidstrom,” Rutili offered. “What makes him special is he’s so skilled with the puck. He has poise beyond his years and anticipation beyond his years.”

Much like the Detroit Red Wings star, Russo has a veritable arsenal of different skills that allow him to play a complete game on the ice. He leads the Mission’s defense corps in scoring with 17 points through 39 games.

“He quarterbacks the power play, kills penalties; he plays in all situations,” Rutili added. “He’s an excellent passer, he can lead a rush and he’s very mature for his age.”

And one thing that comes with maturity is the acknowledgement that a player can always get better, which is why Russo knows he is far from a finished product just yet. The young blueliner lists his point shot and foot speed as two areas he would like to improve. Consistency at the coaching level from Rutili has already helped him grow.

“I’ve had the same coach for three years,” Russo noted, “and he’s helped me make that quick first pass.”

If all goes according to plan, Russo will eventually take that quick first pass to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind.

While Russo was impressed with the campus, it was the coaching staff that really sealed the deal for him and led to his verbal commitment.

“Jeff Jackson had a presence that I was really impressed with,” Russo said.

But before the Chicago son hits the CCHA, he’ll make a detour to Ann Arbor, Mich., and suit up for the U.S. National Team Development Program. The vaunted program has churned out a lot of high-end talent in the past decade, including young defenseman such as Erik Johnson, Ryan Suter and Jack Johnson. Again, it was Russo’s studiousness that led him to commit to the team. On a visit to Ann Arbor, Russo saw the team give everything in practice after a tough weekend of games.

“That just sealed the deal,” Russo said. “The fact that it was a Monday and they were going so hard, I thought that was awesome.”

And not coincidentally, while Russo’s coach thinks the youngster plays similar to Lidstrom, the stalwart Red Wings defenseman is also a hero to Russo.

“I think every defenseman should model their game after Lidstrom,” he said. “He makes everything look so easy.”

Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every Thursday, only on thehockeynews.com.

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