By Natalie Mullins, Media Relations Intern


ROANOKE, VA. – Long after practice had officially concluded for the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, Brendan Pepe unleashes a good old-fashioned baseball swing on a puck that receives a chuckle out of the few teammates remaining on the ice with him.

“He’s the guy in the locker room [that will] razzle dazzle you and have a joke there,” said Johnny Macdonald, a Dawgs defensemen. “He’s like a big teddy bear – you can pick on him a little bit and pull a couple of pranks, and he has a good attitude about it and that’s what you need in a locker room.”

Pepe’s humorous personality doesn’t go unnoticed in the locker room or by the fan base. Although he’s beloved for his personality both on and off the ice, Pepe has also evolved into one of the top defensemen in the SPHL in his second season with the Dawgs, sitting at 39 points on the season. That’s good enough to rank second in points among all of the league’s defensemen. Pepe is now considered one of “the guys” – a key, core player responsible for holding the many moving parts of the team together.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Pepe has developed into one of the league’s top defensemen, leading all SPHL blue-liners in goals with 12, while also adding 27 assists and a plus-20 rating this season. (Photo Credit: Tim Lester Images)


Pepe joined the Dawgs’ training camp roster for October 2022, looking to move his career up a league from the FPHL’s Danbury Hat Tricks, who he joined after wrapping up his final college season the year before. At a time when Roanoke was stacked with good defensemen, Pepe slipped into the background from time to time, often playing the role of the sixth or seventh defenseman in the pecking order. 

“Last year was very stressful for me… I guess I never felt comfortable on the team,” Pepe said. “I always thought my job was in jeopardy, so I was stressed out all season, but I think that actually helped me in the long run.”

About halfway through the 2022-23 season, the six-foot-three blue-liner really started to make a name for himself in the Roanoke lineup.

“He [was] put in a position midway through last year to get more minutes, get more exposure, get some power play time, and he kind of ran with it,” said Dan Bremner, head coach for the Rail Yard Dawgs. “Towards the end of the year into playoffs, he was definitely one of our best defensemen contributing to our playoff run.”

During the final few weeks of the regular season and into the postseason, Pepe routinely found himself paired up with alternate captain Matt O’Dea, widely considered one of the top defensemen in the entire league for the past few seasons. Together, that duo became a formidable pairing along the blue line.

“You could see his game evolving down the stretch of the regular season in those high-pressure games leading in to the postseason,” said Roanoke media manager/broadcaster Mitch Stewart. “The chemistry between Brendan and Matty was a vital cog for that team. It felt like almost every forward line and defense pairing found their groove at some point, and those two really came through in some big moments for the Dawgs.”

Pepe paired up with fellow defenseman Matt O’Dea to form a lockdown duo during Roanoke’s run to a President’s Cup last season (Photo Credit: Keith Lucas)


After being placed on Roanoke’s protected list this summer following the Dawgs’ 2023 President’s Cup title, the 27-year-old trained throughout the summer in Long Island, New York to try and get as much ice time as possible and strengthen his game through practice with various NHL players.

Matt O’Dea argues it wasn’t necessarily Pepe’s summer training or overall improvement on the ice that has allowed him to excel this season, but simply his increased confidence.

“I think it’s just a confidence thing… he sees the ice a little bit better this year being a vet now,” O’Dea said.  “I think that he’s just grown a lot. He’s just playing really well.”

Returning as a veteran on a reigning championship team, Pepe has taken leadership roles on the team, but not in the traditional sense. He’s not wearing a letter on his sweater, but chooses to lead by example. By being one of the last players off the ice after practice each day or staying late to workout, his teammates typically end up joining him. One of which is Johnny Macdonald.

Macdonald and Pepe spent time together in Danbury late in the 2021-2022 season. Since then, they’ve bonded over their pregame talks perched at the highest spot in the arena, and relate to playing a similar style as offensive-minded defensemen who can still both utilize their size.

“On the ice, he’s definitely got an offensive mind. He’s very solid on the defensive side too,” Bremner said. “He’s a plus-20 (plus/minus rating) right now, which is well ahead of the majority of our team, which means he’s playing well on both sides of the puck.”

Not only can Pepe lock down the blue line, but he also can put the puck in the net. This is evident when you notice that his 12 goals scored this season lead all defensemen throughout the SPHL. One of his most notable was a shootout game-winning goal on December 16, 2023, against last year’s other President’s Cup finalist, the Birmingham Bulls. When the Dawgs desperately need a play in the clutch moments, they know that they can count on Pepe.

“Peps is our guy. We look up to him a lot to make the big plays and he does,” Macdonald said. “He leads all defensemen in goals for a reason in this league.”

Pepe’s style of play is clever, composed, and confident.  

“He’s got such great vision, and talent, and creativity,” Bremner said. “He’s just got to decide when it’s worth it to do that, and when it’s worth it just to kind of make a simpler play… but as long as he finds that line, he’s one of the best defensemen in the league as far as I’m concerned.”

In just one season, Pepe has grown his production from one goal to 12 goals. From eight assists last year to now 27 assists this year. In 48 games last year, he had an even plus/minus rating. Now? Pepe is tied for the team lead at a plus-20 rating.

“I’ve been really impressed with his ascension, but I’m not surprised,” Stewart said. “He’s really put the work in, and the amount of skill that he has at his size is a tough combination to stop. The league doesn’t hand out a ‘Most Improved Player’ award, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who has elevated his game the way that Pepe has. He’s gone from a really solid piece of the team last season to an absolute game-wrecker this year.”

That durability has helped many of his teammates trust him on the ice, and they know his composure and constant presence will get the Dawgs out of some tough situations. With one week remaining in the regular season, Pepe is the only player on the team to appear in all 54 games during this regular season, and one of only 13 players in the SPHL to still have a chance at an ‘iron-man’ season this year if he plays in Roanoke’s final two games.

“When things get hectic out there, he’s not going to lose his mind, like run around with a chicken with his head cut off,” O’Dea explained. “He’s going to stick to the system, so he’s really easy to play with.”

Pepe celebrates a goal with forward Brenden Stanko during Roanoke’s 5-4 overtime win over Knoxville on New Year’s Eve. (Photo Credit: Michele Hancock)


Pepe’s passion for the game and eagerness to interact with young fans go hand in hand with a future goal: coaching.

“One of my biggest passions is teaching the next generation to play,” Pepe said. “I’d love to coach and if not coach a team, coach individuals to try to get higher levels than I’ve ever gotten in my hockey career.”

From setting up key plays during a game to coordinating team bonding activities outside of the rink, Pepe is part of the glue that keeps the Dawgs intact. Macdonald said going over to Pepe’s place for dinner is a common occurrence. If the team is playing cards or games on their frequent long-haul bus trips, Pepe is seemingly always the one setting it up.

His diligence carries over to the fan base as well. Pepe is always willing to take the time to sign an autograph or take a photo with a young fan.

“I think he’s a pretty open book and I think everyone in this whole city pretty much sees it too, just how Brendan Pepe represents himself,” Macdonald said. “He’s a fan favorite; whenever you hear ‘Pepe’ mentioned, everyone is cheering his name.” 

The fan base’s adoration for the young defenseman is reciprocated.

“The fans here feel like a family,” Pepe said. “I’ve only been here for two years, but it feels like I’ve been here for my whole life basically.”

His fans have seen a different side of Pepe throughout this season in his willingness to drop the gloves when he needs to. It’s just another way that the Essex Fells, New Jersey native has found that he can make an effort to contribute and show his desire to his teammates – the desire that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.

“I usually don’t instigate fights. When I do, it’s typically to try to light a fire for my team. If I see things going in the wrong direction or if the team needs some energy, I’ll happen to fight. I’m not very good at fighting, so I’m pretty good at getting punched in the face,” Pepe chuckled. “It’s pretty much just to either defend somebody on our team or to light a spark.”

Another quality his teammates noted about his character is that he’s “unapologetically himself,” as O’Dea put it. And while Pepe has become more comfortable on and off of the ice in Roanoke, several of his defensemen partners also pointed out that he’s more likely to remember his mistakes than his game-winning plays. 

“You won’t catch him really bragging or anything like that, ever,” O’Dea said. “He’s got a lot of humility.”

Although he may not think of himself that way, Brendan Pepe is the glue of the team.

“If we need a guy to call on, Pepe is our guy, and he has been the guy all year,” said Macdonald.



Featured Image Credit: Weslie Rouse