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Pionk fulfills a family promise by finishing his university degree

"I made a promise to my mom when I signed my first pro contract that I'd finish my degree." -Pionk

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton /

Neal Pionk is a man of his word, no matter what the circumstances.

Picture this. It's the middle of the night at the 2018 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Denmark, where Pionk is playing for the United States.

He's sitting in a hotel hallway, typing away on his laptop instead of sleeping.

He had an assignment due back home at the University of Minnesota.

"I had to make sure I kept up with my deadlines, but I also never wanted to do homework on game days," Pionk said. "I happened to be sharing a room with Jordan Oesterle. I had to type a paper, but I felt like my laptop was making so much noise that I literally went and sat in the hallway at like midnight and typed the paper out. It didn't take too long and I wasn't up too late, but it was just kind of bizarre that I was at World Championships sitting in a hallway typing a paper before one of our games." 

Pionk and his American team went on to win the bronze medal at that tournament and - perhaps more importantly - his late-night commitment to his homework helped him stay on track to keep a promise to his mom, Karen.

"I made a promise to my mom when I signed my first pro contract that I'd finish my degree," Pionk said. "I remember sitting down at the dinner table, having that conversation with my mom and dad, deciding whether I should turn pro or not. And (not earning my degree) was obviously a con, in the con side. 

"Like, it's going to be hard to finish your degree if you leave school now and it's going to take a lot of time and not only that, but a lot of money. So, my mom made me promise before I put my name on the dotted line."

Now, six-and-a-half years after he started, Pionk has his Bachelor of Business Administration degree. His choice of degree is hardly a stretch, given the background his parents have.

"It just kind of came naturally to me, I guess. My mom has a marketing degree and my dad's involved in business as well. So, kind of been around that aspect my whole life and I think it was really fulfilling," said Pionk. "It's good to get yourself educated and I was proud to be able to get it done."

The challenge of scheduling schoolwork around his National Hockey League schedule was a challenge, but not one he wasn't ready for.

While Pionk was playing his two seasons at the University of Minnesota Duluth from 2015-2017, he had five classes per semester in addition to his NCAA hockey schedule. When he turned pro to start the 2017-18 campaign with the New York Rangers, he reduced his schedule to two classes, at most, per semester.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice - whose mother was a teacher, and his father an elementary school principal - said this accomplishment is just a glimpse into Pionk's personality.

"He's so committed to his practice habits, to his body, to being a real fit guy. That makes complete sense to me that he'd be able then to transfer that to 'get off the couch because you have to study for an hour and a half,'" Maurice said. "He does this as an investment in his future. You'll find Neal when he's done playing hockey, I'm sure, running business and being a leader in the community. That's all wired into his personality."

The news of Pionk's accomplishment spread quickly around the Jets dressing room. Paul Stastny, who attended the University of Denver from 2004-2006 and won an NCAA championship with the Pioneers in 2005, said it's something he'd like to do as well.

"I think it's smart. I've always told myself or told my family and my kids that I want to finish school eventually. So he's got a leg up on me," said Stastny. "Being able to educate yourself is always important as a person and keep growing as an individual. At the same time it gets your mind off something and you can focus on something else you love. I'm jealous and I congratulate him."

Of course, the 25-year-old Pionk's main focus is on playing hockey as long as he can. He said he'd like to work in hockey after his playing career is done, but having his degree in his back pocket is helpful if that opportunity doesn't come.

"I've heard these stories of guys, they retire and they want nothing to do with hockey ever again," Pionk said. "Like, what if that's me? What if I want to go do something in business or go do something marketing? Well, now I have a degree to fall back on."

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