It’s a small farm town that lies East in the Canadian province of Alberta. There is a population of around 6,000 people, and the economy is defined by agriculture and oil reserves.
Within the confines of the town lies an arena that can hold up nearly one third of the population size. It’s a near 2,000 seat venue named R.J. Lalonde Arena. Welcome to Bonnyville, Alberta - The home of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s (AJHL) Bonnyville Pontiacs.
It’s also the former home of three current Arizona State Sun Devils in freshman forward PJ Marrocco, junior defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk, and junior forward Steen Pasichnuk.
“It’s hockey, that’s it. There’s 6,000 people there,” Brinson said of the small town. “There is farming and an oil field, so that pretty much explains it. But it’s good, that’s where I came from and I’ll always remember that. It always keeps me humble knowing where I came from.”
The Pasichnuk brothers were born and raised in the modest town. Marrocco is originally from a few hours down the road in Edmonton. He played for the Camrose Kodiaks of the AJHL before moving out to play for the Pontiacs, an experience he described as “awesome” and that taught him a lot of lessons. He later ended his junior career in the BCHL, but Bonnyville was where he was before.
“When I first got there, we drove in and I almost drove right past the town. It was that small,” Marrocco said. “I think just living out on the farm out there kind of just taught me to work hard. I’d start my day at the rink from about eight in the morning to one in the afternoon, and then I’d help my billets (Billets is a term for families that house junior hockey players) out down there with whatever they needed help with. It was an awesome experience. Definitely a learning lesson, and just being in that small town, it was a great vibe. They loved their hockey, and it was awesome to play there.”
Growing up in the area, Steen described hockey and the Pontiacs as “the talk of the town,” and it was a special opportunity to play for his hometown team.
Two of Steen’s favorite all-time Pontiacs went on to play in the NHL, in Justin Fontaine and Mark Letestu. Fontaine last played in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild in 2016, and he is still playing professionally in the KHL over in Russia. Letestu played for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.
Both NHL’ers played together from 2005-2006 in Bonnyville, while Steen and Brinson were still in their youth years.
“For my whole life, you always looked up to them (the Pontiacs) in everything,” Steen said. “When you got to talk to the players, it was like you were in heaven. I think one of the most special parts for me (playing for the Pontiacs) was giving back to the community that gave me so much growing up...Getting to talk to little kids like that and make their day and just giving back everything to the fans and to the community that they gave me growing up.”
Now a part of a different college community in Tempe, the Pasichnuk brothers, along with Marrocco, are making their own impact in a developing area for hockey.
Marrocco is separated from the brothers by two years. Brinson said he first met Marrocco when he came home from ASU during his sophomore year, and Marrocco got to know both Steen and Brinson two years prior to his own arrival in Tempe. Marrocco even met Brinson and Steen’s grandmother while he was in Bonnyville.
The Edmonton native was being recruited by ASU, and he had a couple questions for Brinson and Steen about the program and what was being established down in Arizona.
Come full circle, and all three players are now making an impact on a Sun Devil team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations.
At the beginning of January, all three players registered points on the same night that ASU swept Boston College at Gila River Arena. The night prior on Friday against BC, Marrocco was the beneficiary of a game-winning goal for the Devils.
Marrocco is a part of a burgeoning freshmen class, and the Pasichnuk’s are veteran presences for ASU. The trio of Pontiac alums are three of seven Alberta natives on the Sun Devil roster. Steen joked, saying “The coaches call ASU ‘Alberta State University.’”
Brinson took pride in his roots as well.
“We always make jokes. ASU is ASU/Canada West. We got a lot of Western Canadian guys, and we are always bickering with the Americans,” Brinson joked. “I love being from Canada. It’s awesome.”
The Western Canadian pipeline has surely hit the ice in Tempe, and the three guys who played in the small town of Bonnyville are now helping to lead the charge at one of the biggest universities in the United States.
“It’s like Canada of the west. Exact same, just no snow and no -4 degree weather,” said Marrocco with a smile. “It’s just awesome. All three of us love it here. We are kind of just cherishing every moment.”