But it’s the road that Atkinson has taken to reach the level of success he has that makes it that much more special. Despite standing 5-foot-7 and weighing 173 lbs. and being told he would never be able to play hockey again, he has continued to exceed expectations.
“I just want to prove everyone wrong, that a smaller guy like me can play in the game,” Atkinson said. “That’s always been in the back of my head – all the doubters – I’m just trying to prove them wrong. So far, so good, but I’ve got a long way to go.”
So far, so good is right. As a sophomore in 2009-10, Atkinson finished the season at Boston College with 30 goals and 23 assists for 53 points, 30 penalty minutes and was +26 in 42 games. He led the nation in goals, including two in a 5-0 win over Wisconsin in the national championship game, played in front of over 37,000 fans at Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
“To score as many goals as I did, I didn’t expect that,” Atkinson said. “But playing with guys like Brian Gibbons and Joey Whitney makes that possible.”
He didn’t even know that he led the nation in goals until the final horn sounded.
“I didn’t really know until we beat Wisconsin in the finals and my linemates came up to me in the locker room and told me (that I led the nation in goals),” Atkinson said. “That was definitely a pretty exciting moment.”
Not a bad way to end a memorable season that included a game at Fenway Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and site of the NHL’s 2010 Winter Classic.
“That Fenway game was something that you’re going to bring to your grave,” Atkinson said. “We obviously didn’t win that game (lost 3-2 to Boston University), but I got a goal in that game so I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.
“But just the whole scenery, it was just the way that Fenway put it together. It was just perfect. The snow was coming down just enough to make the game feel like you’re a little kid again.”
Even before the memorable season started, Atkinson sensed his second collegiate year would be better than his first.
“I knew what to expect,” he said, “so I trained that much harder on the off-season. I shot a couple more pucks; I built up a lot of strength, got a little bit bigger. I was just comfortable out there with the puck. I wasn’t hesitating.”
Building strength is what Atkinson continues to do in hopes of mimicking the talents of other players who have gone through BC and made it to the NHL, despite a smaller frame.
“You look at guys like Marty St. Louis (Tampa Bay) and Brian Gionta (Montreal), who actually went to BC, and they’re no bigger than me,” Atkinson said. “You just try to replicate your game with theirs. That’s what I’ve been doing.
“I’ve been looking at some videos of Gionta back at BC and just trying to see what he can do. It’s hard to fulfill the same footsteps he did, but I’m trying and I’m pushing every day.”
He pushes every day in hopes that he can one day make it to the NHL. Atkinson also hopes the rule changes implemented prior to the 2005-06 season, which opened the game up, will help him reach that goal.
“It gives the smaller guys an opportunity to play in the NHL,” Atkinson said, “but you’ve still got to work hard to get there. It’s not just going to be a cake walk. It definitely benefits us (smaller players), gives us a chance, but like I said, you’ve still got to work hard.”
Just as it has been all of his life, it has been nothing but hard work for Atkinson. During his freshman year in high school, he broke his tibia and fibula, which required surgery. He was told by doctors that he would never be able to play hockey again.
“I didn’t cry when I broke it, but I broke down in tears when (the doctor) told me I wasn’t going to fulfill my dreams.” Atkinson said.
Once again, though, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. After rehabbing twice a day with a little extra time on occasion, Atkinson returned to play by the end of his freshman season, which allowed him to continue to pursue his dream.
“I pushed that much harder to make it to the next level,” Atkinson said. “I was fortunate enough to catch some of the BC coaching staff’s eyes and I committed there.
“And I caught a couple of the Columbus guys’ eyes.”
Atkinson was the Blue Jackets’ eighth pick, 157th overall, in the 2008 Entry Draft after his senior season at Avon (Conn.) Old Farms High School. He began his collegiate career in the fall at Boston College. During his freshman season, he recorded seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points and 28 penalty minutes in 36 games.
“I think the thing that’s so intriguing for us is that he had seven goals as a freshman, which is pretty good because he played in almost a limited role in special teams and power play,” Blue Jackets Development Coach Tyler Wright said. “He didn’t really get much of a chance.”
“I wasn’t really getting the ice time, but that doesn’t really matter, you still got to bear down on the chances you get,” Atkinson said. “Freshmen year is definitely an adjustment period for everyone no matter where you play. You’re not the head honcho anymore. You got to look up to the seniors and just try to get some advice from them.”
Obviously the advice paid off and after a very successful sophomore season, Atkinson has raised the bar even higher for his junior campaign.
“I’m going to go back to BC and try to win another national championship with the boys and try to be the leading goal scorer again,” Atkinson said. “One of my main goals this year is I ‘m shooting for the Hobey Baker Award (given annually to the top player in the NCAA). Hopefully I have another big year.”
Wright hopes that holds true and that he can round out his game and expand his role in the process.
“You’ve got to continually push them in an area where, you know, ‘I’m going to really work on my defensive things, maybe I get into some penalty killing role.’ Really honing in on all aspects of your whole game,” Wright said. “He’s going to be heavily counted on to lead that team back. They are defending NCAA national champions and he was a main reason for it and he has to come back with the same attitude that he has to drive and drive that team going forward.”
Which will someday hopefully lead to guiding the Blue Jackets to a championship.