As J.C. Bele inked a contract to play with the Trenton Golden Hawks in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League, the recent Bethel Park graduate recalled those who were instrumental in his career.
His relatives launched his career. His coaches polished his skills.
His father laced up his first skates and put him on the ice at age 2.
Jeff Bele, a standout on the Black Hawks’ late 1970s teams, played defense against him so he could develop his offensive strategies. His grandmother, Grace Santelli, was his chauffeur, driving him to skating lessons.
“I loved my grandma and I wish I could see her one more time,” said the 18-year-old son of Jamie Bele. “I grew up watching the game with my dad. He was a good player. He taught me everything I know.”
Gary Klapkowski helped prepare him for the travel he will encounter at the next level.
After excelling in the SHAHA organization, Bele moved over to the Pittsburgh Predators, which were coached by Klapkowski and produced three additional OJH signees. As a 5-10, 150-pound forward with the Predators, he scored 21 goals and 27 assists for 48 points in 52 games.
While also honing his skills, Bethel Park head coach Jim McVay instilled discipline and molded him into a young man and responsible citizen.
Playing under McVay, Bele blossomed into one of the top centers in the PIHL. He registered 47 goals and added 47 assists for 94 points. The four-year starter led the Hawks to the PIHL Frozen Four, where they lost in overtime to North Allegheny.
“Playing under my coaches has helped get me to this point,” said Bele, who has been playing organized hockey for 11 years.
Bele acknowledged his play with the Predators captured the Golden Hawks’ eye.
So he continues to adhere to the training tactics he acquired from Klapkowski while preparing for Trenton’s training camp in August. Bele practices at the Spencer YMCA during the offseason.
In addition to those workouts, Bele said he runs on his own.
“I hit the hills and get on the ice. I don’t work with a trainer,” he said, “but everything I do I have learned training with Gary in the past.”
The dedication to do it every day and do it right Bele learned from McVay and his BP teammates.
“I loved playing for Bethel because I got to play with kids from my school every day and practice with them. It was such a great time,” he said. “Plus, Coach McVay was a very big guy on discipline and hard work. Those things got me to where I am now.”
They will also take him to the next level.
Bele is on the right path, McVay said.
“As each level you move up, the competition to beat one-on-one takes more effort, but J.C. is a very hard worker and he has a great attitude. He’ll have to improve his strength — get a little stronger and tougher — because he will be playing against 20-year-olds.
“J.C. has been a pleasure to coach,” McVay added. “No matter what is going on, he is always positive and he does whatever it takes. He’s a great kid and that probably means more than being a good hockey player.”
McVay said he was pleased Bele valued the work ethic instilled upon him at Bethel Park, as well as an appreciation for his sport. McVay requires the Black Hawks not only practice hard, but he demands they give back.
BP has long been involved in community service projects, particularly with special needs students.
“That’s a great compliment,” McVay said of Bele’s comments. “We try to have our players work hard and be disciplined. Through community service, they learn how lucky they are.”
Bele considers himself fortunate because he gets to play at least a few more seasons of hockey before weighing his career options. He hopes to parlay his opportunity with the Golden Hawks into a college scholarship.
“My goal is to make the team and develop my game enough to take the next step,” he said. “Since a young age, my plan has been to play in college. Around here, it’s hard to go straight to college and play. Now, though, I have a chance to do both. That’s a good dream to have.”
While Bele said every Western Pennsylvania kid would like to play at Penn State, and he’s an admitted Michigan State fan, a major Division I offer is “a flash” way back in his mind.
With the opportunity in front of him, however, he would not limit his options.
He believes playing for the Predators has prepared him well, but he will have to make adjustments.
“With the way the Predators are set up, it’s an easy transition,” he said, particularly regarding the travel, “but I’m going to have to pick up the pace. I bring a lot of speed to the table though and I think I’m smart on the ice.”
Bele is still undecided upon a career path, although he thinks it may “revolve” around education or law.
“That’s another major reason why I am taking a couple of years to play juniors,” he said. “I can figure out what I want to do. So when this opportunity came to me, I knew I had to take it because it gives me time.”
In time, Bele sees himself as a professional, but not necessarily in hockey.
“Truthfully, I never thought I’d be playing in the NHL. I always saw myself as a professional. Maybe a lawyer or a school teacher. But I want to play hockey as long as I can,” he said.
Bele, however, will take the concepts of hockey long into his life’s work. He said he has learned “so many” life lessons from playing the game.
“Perhaps the one that sticks out most is that no matter what the score, never quit,” he said. “That translates to the real world almost perfectly.”