WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Cole Bardreau is having a better summer this year than last.
That's not surprising, considering one year ago he was recovering from a broken neck he sustained from an illegal check playing for Cornell against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
This summer the forward is touring NHL development camps. Bardreau participated in Detroit Red Wings prospect camp early in July and spent time at Boston Bruins development camp.
Summer camps like those are important to a player who was passed over in the NHL Draft a few times and will be a free agent when his college career is complete.
"I've been joking around with some of the guys," Bardreau said. "You think you're prepared and then you come in here and you're huffing and puffing. So I think it just shows you that you have to get to that next level. Especially going to two camps for two weeks, I think that helps you get in shape and be just that much more ready when it comes to season time. So a lot of people have slower starts, it takes them a few games to get going, and that's kind of tough for college guys when you don't play so many games. So I think that it kind of helps you be in shape right away and ready to go."
Even a life-threatening injury couldn't derail Bardreau's goal of making his living playing hockey, and now he's getting a tiny taste of that life before heading back to school.
"There's always been hockey my whole life," he said. "Obviously school's really important to me too. That's why I went to Cornell, because I know it doesn't go on forever. Hockey's always been my No. 1 thing since I've been a little kid. … Every injury I've had it's just kind of counting down the seconds until I can get back on the ice and start rehabbing."
Bardreau fractured his C-7 vertebrae in the front and back of his neck in January 2013. One more fracture and he could've been paralyzed. After surgery he was in a neck brace for three months and didn't start skating again until last July.
Despite the time away from hockey, and two knee injuries during the 2013-14 season, Bardreau was able to put up career highs in goals (seven), assists (nine) and points (16) in 26 games.
"Even when I was laying in the hospital bed with collar on, I was just like, 'When can I get back? I want to get back.' And to be honest it didn't really take me that much time at all," he said. "Probably right when I left the doctor's office and he told me that I was at no greater risk than anyone else, that kind of just flipped the switch for me and I was like, 'All right, I'm ready to go.' I've kind of never been a hesitant player. I think I've always just been an energy guy that keeps going."
Fortunately for Bardreau, who turns 21 on July 22, his injuries haven't discouraged him from using his strength and throwing his weight around. He's caught the attention of scouts with his relentless hitting and enthusiasm. There might even be some more offense to be had from him.
The 5-foot-10, 194-pound senior probably will be asked to contribute more.
"My confidence has grown every year, and having the confidence just to try that extra move when it's not going to hurt my team," he said. "So hopefully I can keep scoring and chip in a little more."
If a broken neck didn't stop Bardreau from pursuing his dream, going undrafted isn't going to derail his career either. He said he's not sure why he never was drafted -- he's the only member of the United States gold-medal team from the 2013 World Junior Championship to not be drafted -- and uses the snub as motivation.
Being a free agent has its perks, among them getting to pick the best organization. The Bruins gained interest in Bardreau while watching 2011 fourth-round draft pick Brian Ferlin play for Cornell. Bardreau's character and work ethic fit what any team, including the Bruins, would want to add to its organization.
"If you talk to people you realize how dedicated he is physically to get back to the shape that he is in now," Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney said. "He's part of a very good program. Mike [Schafer, Cornell coach] does a tremendous job, and most of the players understand the game, especially defensively, very well when they play at Cornell. He'll probably have a bigger role offensively there this year."
With NHL teams emphasizing their farm systems more in the salary-cap era, college free agents have increased in popularity. Bardreau figures to be a focal point for scouts during the season and should have several suitors when his season ends.
However, he doesn't plan on worrying too much about his individual accolades.
"I think that right now my full attention is just on winning a national championship, doing whatever I can to help our team be successful," he said. "And then at the end of the year obviously hopefully my contributions to the team will draw some attention and I can sign a contract."