In his final season at Notre Dame, center Mark Van Guilder never left South Bend. He made a promise to his folks that he would get his degree, and leaving to play professional hockey would have forced him to put that off. So he stayed put and complete his bachelor's degree in sociology.
"The season ended and I just kind of hung out and graduated," said Van Guilder, who had 13 goals and 17 assists in 40 games with the Fighting Irish in 2007-08. "There wasn't teams banging down my door, but at the same time I was pretty happy just enjoying the last semester of my college life and graduating. That was a big deal to my folks. I didn't want to have to finish it off in the summer or anything like that. I just wanted to get it done."
Van Guilder got it done and then immediately made an impact in the Milwaukee Admirals' training camp -- so much so that he started the 2008-09 campaign in the American Hockey League.
"That was pretty special, just because I had no idea I had any chance of making the team," he said. "It was a lot of fun. There's a lot of great guys on that team. The coach was awesome. It was a real good experience and it a good measuring stick to know what I need to do to get to the next level. There are some real good players there."
But things didn't go very smoothly, as Van Guilder was held without a point in his first five appearances. He was then reassigned to the Cincinnati Cyclones. He's since thrived at the Double-A level.
"It was disappointing, but I really don't think I played all that well," Van Guilder said of his short stint in the AHL. "I didn't think being sent down was the worst thing. I wasn't playing all that much. I can't really blame them for sending me down at all. I didn't do much too open any eyes. It wasn't all that devastating, but at the same time, that's where everyone in this league wants to be."
In 48 games with the defending Kelly Cup champions, the 25-year-old is tied for the team lead with 47 points (15 goals, 32 assists). His play has helped the Cyclones rise to the top of the North Division standings after a rough start to the season for both Van Guilder and the team.
"I guess I've just kind of figured out how to be good every night," Van Guilder said. "It's a little different in college, where you kind of a whole week to get jacked up and ready to play. Maybe the first 15-20 games, I was having trouble being my best every night. I kind of figured out, slowly but surely, how to do that and how to get into that mindset every night."
Van Guilder was so good in Milwaukee's camp, Cincinnati coach Chuck Weber didn't think he'd ever see the Roseville, Minn., native in the ECHL this season.
"He was a guy that I was a little shocked that he fell down to us at this level," Weber told NHL.com. "He got off to a great start out of training camp in Milwaukee and made the team out of camp. He stepped in and down here and made the adjustment to the pro game. I think he was a guy who needed a little time just to get his feet underneath him."
Like most college players, the biggest adjustment for Van Guilder was getting acclimated with the pro schedule. Three games in three days in the ECHL are commonplace -- a far cry from what Van Guilder was used to at Notre Dame.
"That's probably the main thing," Van Guilder said. "Hockey's hockey and it's a good league and there's good players. But just playing three nights in a row or playing four games a week ... that's a little bit different from college. That's been the biggest adjustment, but I'm pretty much used to it now. It's not really a problem anymore."
It sure doesn't seem like it, and one of the biggest reasons for that is the abundance of ice time Van Guilder has received. Injuries and callups have left the Cyclones tremendously shorthanded, as they were forced to play at Florida on Wednesday night with just 14 players. They lost, 5-0.
"He's thrived with it," Weber gushed. "I didn't know how he would handle it, being a rookie. But we're a pretty young team as is. He's been great."
But considering how well Van Guilder has played in Cincinnati, could he be the next player to leave the club? Is a return to Milwaukee in the cards before the season ends?
"I try not to even worry about that, to be honest with you," Van Guilder said. "It's not in my control. All I can really do is try to play well every night. It doesn't help to think about that. You've just go to try and focus on playing well."
If/when that day arrives, Weber knows he'll be losing one heck of a hockey player. More importantly, he'll be losing one heck of a person.
"Mark is probably one of the best character guys I've been fortunate enough to coach," Weber said. "He was a captain at Notre Dame. Even though he's only a rookie, he's taken on a pretty prominent role with us with the amount of minutes he plays. He's such a good kid. He does everything the right way.
"It's a lot about timing and everything else. At some point, I think he's going to get another look. He's too good of a player. Mark's got a bright future ahead of him."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.