Stefan Kulhanek Commits to University of New England
Worcester Railers Junior Hockey Club All Star goaltender Stefan Kulhanek is moving on to college hockey. The University of New England is the next destination for the native of Austria. The Nor’easters are an NCAA Division 3 program competing in the Commonwealth Coast Conference.
UNE had a 21-7-1 season, a year that saw the Nor’Easters advance to the NCAA Division 3 Frozen Four.
The three-year Railer and his father visited with UNE Head Coach Kevin Swallow shortly after the conclusion of the 2022-2023 postseason.
“As soon as we got there coach Swallow gave us a tour around campus, and we had a really good conversation,” Kulhanek said. “All of a sudden, I was committed. Waking up that day I did not know this would happen, but I was really relieved and a lot of weight dropped off of my shoulders.”
UNE first appeared on Kulhanek’s radar during his time at North Yarmouth Academy in Maine for prep school and again during his final year of juniors. Late Railers General Manager Mike Addesa arranged his first visit earlier this season.
“I went to their home opener and it was electric,” he said. “The rink was beautiful and the crowd was wild. And it’s on a beautiful campus in Maine right on the ocean, which was just what I wanted.”
Kulhanek is quick to show appreciation for the Railers coaching staff, namely head coach Sean Bertoni and Addesa.
“Coach Bertoni and I had a lot of conversations about where I should go to college and what would be the best for me. He would always tell me, ‘go where you are going to be happy,’” the goalie said. “One of my first questions to coach Bertoni was ‘What would Coach A (Addesa) think?’ Coach Bertoni told me ‘he would want you to be happy no matter what college you choose.’ He would be a guy who would push me to the maximum and I still carry some wise words with me that he would say.”
“UNE is getting a great goalie and young man,” said Bertoni. “His greatest asset for the goaltending position is his mental approach. He is never rattled and has great confidence and a perfect personality for the position.”
In his third year with the Railers, Bertoni named Kulhanek a team captain, applauding his maturity and seriousness in adapting to the role. Fellow captain Anthony Marchant recalls finding out.
“Coach Bertoni sat me and Chuck (Charlie Addesa) down and told us that he was going to make Stef a captain,” said Marchant. “We couldn’t have been happier to lead with him. A lot of guys look up to him obviously for being a great goalie, but his leadership is second to none.”
Year three also featured the veteran goaltender making Eastern Hockey League history. On Feb. 23, 2023, Kulhanek notched career win number 53, which granted him sole possession of first place for most wins by a goaltender in EHL history. He finished the season with 58 career wins.
“It was more in the back of my mind,” Kulhanek says when asked how often he thought of the record throughout the season. “I was just playing game after game. It was a team win and a team effort.”
“It was a huge goal for the team once we found out Stef was coming back,” said Charlie Addesa. “He never really brought it up until the day before. He was always so humble, just wanting the team to win before he got the record.”
“There’s no place I would rather do it,” Kulhanek says. “I have loved this team since I joined. They have helped me throughout all these years.”
“Stef played three years with the Worcester Railers and could have gone to another league, but understood the resources, coaching and the culture we built in Worcester and chose to continue his development with us,” Bertoni said.
Before he was etching his name into EHL history, Kulhanek was a young boy in Austria watching his father play men’s league. From there, he started his career as a skater, but when his team didn’t have a goalie for practice, everything changed.
“We didn’t have a goalie, so I strapped the pads on and I felt like I was in the NHL,” he says with a smile. “My dad actually came late to practice, and was asking where I was. Everyone just pointed to the net. Since then, I never took them off.”
After spending time in the Czech Republic, he embarked to America at the age of 16 to play prep hockey at North Yarmouth Academy.
“I got used to things pretty quick, like doing my own laundry and cooking,” Kulhanek said. “Hockey-wise, everything was faster and the rink was smaller. I remember the first few practices, people would shoot pucks at me from the side and they would go in. I’d be like ‘what the hell?’
Kulhanek excelled in his second year at the prep level, boasting a .925 save percentage in 21 games. It was then Bertoni recruited him. Although Kulhanek had plans to play in Canada, Bertoni never stopped reaching out. With Covid-19 limiting play in Canada, Worcester became the destination.
He began in the EHL Premier, but quickly ascended to the EHL, where he was runner-up for rookie of the year. Kulhanek’s stock continued to rise in his second year with the Railers, where he appeared in the EHL All Star College series. In year three, he competed in the event for a second time, shutting out both Nazareth College and SUNY Brockport during his time between the pipes.
He is the only goaltender in the event’s history to not allow a goal.
“The first year, I was a little bit more shaky,” he recalls. “I wasn’t as confident, and had to get used to the tempo. But year two, I went there with a clear mind and knew what I could do.”
Reflecting on his time with the Railers, he recognizes his growth as a goaltender, but even more as a person.
“Being selected as one of the captains in my last year was an honor. I became more mature and had to be a role model for my team on and off the ice,” Kulhanek said.
His teammates appreciate the great goaltending he provided throughout his time with the Railers, but they cherish their bond with Kulhanek above all.
“My whole junior career, I’ve grown up with Stef,” says Marchant. “He’s a character off the ice and a great friend. It’s going to be tough not being able to share the ice and locker room with him anymore.”
Addesa shares the sentiment. “Our relationship will last a long time. He’s someone I consider a brother. The fact that he’s one of the best goalies is just a plus because of how great of a person he is.”
“I am going to miss him greatly,” Bertoni said. “I’ll never forget him playing cards with my daughters. But this is a reason why we coach, seeing a young man like this achieve his goal.”
Throughout his journey, family has been closest to Kulhanek’s heart.
“I left home when I was 12 years old to pursue my dreams of playing college hockey in the United States,” he said. “My family is the reason why I can live my dream.”
Kulhanek is eager to start preparing for the college game, already looking at games from this season to find areas to improve. He intends to study business at UNE.
“I can’t believe I am saying this right now but I can’t wait to get back to school and just live the college life I always dreamed about. I’m excited and ready for this new chapter in my life.”