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College hockey gave Lightning players big stage prior to NHL

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

Matt Gilroy, Adam Hall and Ryan Shannon each marveled at the idea of reliving their college hockey days.

Although those days themselves are far behind them, each will still have the opportunity to do just that this spring as the Tampa Bay Lightning and the St. Pete Times Forum host the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four.

“It’s definitely the highlight of your college hockey career,” Hall said. “I have a lot of fond memories that from time to time are pretty cool to look back on.”

For two days at the start of April, approximately 100 of the country’s most talented college hockey players will look to leave the Times Forum with some memories of their own, as four of the nation’s top collegiate teams will descend on the Bay Area to skate on the same ice surface as many of today’s NHL superstars.

While the setting makes the games compelling, the athletes themselves who are fortunate enough to participate in the tournament can only hope their futures will also be marked by the same success as their predecessors who have already graduated from the college game to the ranks of North America’s top tier.

Besides Gilroy, Hall and Shannon, the Lightning have an additional six players, including Teddy Purcell, Brett Clark, Martin St. Louis, Dwayne Roloson, Dominic Moore and Ryan Malone, who each played at a United States college or university prior to making the leap to the NHL.

“I think other than the great relationships you form and the memories you take away from it, the college game is the stage in your life when you really learn how to play hockey,” Shannon said. “More than anything, it really prepares you for the high intensity of the pro game and you get a great education at the same time.”

Arguably just short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, winning the NCAA championship trophy in men’s hockey is every college player’s number-one fantasy.

It’s the only sport where pipe dreams have an appropriate setting and scoring the game-winning goal late in the third period, or even better, in overtime, has been played out in the world of make-believe since the game’s very first shift.

For some players, including Gilroy, dreams do indeed come true on some of the biggest stages.

At the 2009 Frozen Four, Gilroy watched as his Boston University teammate Colin Wilson, who would go on to be selected in the first round, seventh overall, by the Nashville Predators in that summer’s draft, sent the Terriers into the championship game following a dramatic come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Vermont Catamounts in the national semifinal.

Just two nights later, Gilroy would again witness another dream-like moment.

With the Terriers and Miami University of Ohio all knotted up at three in overtime of the NCAA championship game, Gilroy’s teammate, Colby Cohen, delivered the game-deciding goal with just over eight minutes to play in the extra session to give his club its first NCAA championship since 1995.

Adding to the victory was the fact that Gilroy got to share the moment with his younger brother, Kevin, who was also a member of the team.

“It was the best experience so far of my hockey career,” the elder Gilroy said. “To be able to share it with my brother was cool too, and to think that in four years of college, you might get only one crack at it, we wanted to make the most of it. It was truly a dream come true.”

While many of the college athletes will be making their very first trip to the Times Forum come April, the average spectator doesn’t have to look far to see that in many cases, the journey to Tampa Bay in all likelihood will not be the last.

As of opening day, approximately 80 former Division I college players were featured on an NHL roster.  Some of those players have already visited the arena in downtown Tampa as a Bolts opponent, while others are scheduled to do the same throughout the course of the remainder of the season.

Regardless, whether it’s just one day or merely one of many, the experience itself is sure to be as cool as the very surface on which it will take place.

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