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Color of Hockey: Saganiuk making impression with U.S. Under-17 team

Forward gets support from grandfather, retired NHL forward who taught him to play

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles USA Hockey National Development Team Program forward Colby Saganiuk and his grandfather, retired NHL player Rocky Saganiuk.

Colby Saganiuk's grandfather said he would do anything to support the first-year forward on the USA Hockey National Team Development Program's Under-17 team.

Except one thing.

"When Colby was first chosen by (coach John) Wroblewski, we had our meeting and I told 'Wrobo,' 'Listen, I'm really proud that my grandchild is here with you guys, but, the Canadian that I am, when Team Canada plays against Team USA, it's going to hard for me to wear a Team USA hat,'" said Rocky Saganiuk, a retired NHL forward who was born and raised in Myrnam, Alberta, population 339. "I'll be cheering for Canada in my heart."

Colby, who has dual U.S.-Canada citizenship, laughed when recalling his grandfather's vow. "I think when it comes to a time and it's USA, he'll rep it," he said.

Photo courtesy: Rocky Saganiuk

 

Sure enough, when the USNTDP Under-17 team met for training camp in August, Rocky announced that he had a change of heart -- and hats.

"I stood up in front of all the parents there and said, 'Listen, when it comes to Team USA playing Team Canada, I'll be wearing a Team USA hat,'" he said. "They won me over because of what they do for the development of the player, not just as a hockey player but as a total package of a good young citizen."

Colby (5-foot-8, 154 pounds) is a swift-skating 16-year-old who made the NTDP team from the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Under-16 team, where he scored 72 points (19 goals, 53 assists) in 71 games.

"He's an elite skater, one of the best skaters out there. His hand-eye coordination and his stick skills are elite as well," Penguins Elite Under-16 Coach Brian Mueller said. "He plays what we call a heavy game, so he doesn't shy away from contact. He's probably the most physical kid I've ever coached."

Photo courtesy: Rena Laverty/USA Hockey

 

Rod Braceful, the NTDP's assistant director of player personnel, said Colby leads by example, letting his play do the talking.

"The kid wants to be the best out there every time he laces them up, which is great," Braceful said. "And he does it in a positive way. He does it by outworking everyone, not being a showboat or showing someone up, but by going about things the right way."

Colby's performance on the Penguins Elite made him a sought-after player. In addition to the NTDP, he was chosen by Erie of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round (No. 37) of the 2019 OHL Priority Selection draft. Several NCAA Division I schools were also courting him, and he recently committed to Penn State for the 2021-22 season.

"Their coaching staff, their facility is unreal, they play in the Big Ten," he said. "They kind of follow the same system as the national team here -- practice, lift -- so I think I'll adapt pretty well."

Photo credit: Pittsburgh Penguins Elite program

 

In the meantime, Colby is learning on and off the ice about what it takes to work his way toward becoming a professional with the NTDP. He said the process is a grind every day, and that's a good thing.

"You embrace it, it's fun," he said. "Practice is tough, it's competitive and always high-paced. We're always competing against each other, which is making us better. And [we spend] a lot of time in the gym, whether its lifting weights or focusing on mobility stuff."

He also gets a heavy dose of hockey when he returns to the billet house in Plymouth, Michigan, he shares with fellow NTDP forwards Jack Hughes and Ryan St. Louis.

One of the billet parents is Ryan's dad, Martin St. Louis, the Hockey Hall of Fame right wing who had 1,033 points (391 goals, 642 assists) in 1,134 NHL games for the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers.

"It's really good having him here," Colby said. "If we have any questions, he's always there. We're always there watching, talking hockey. He even has, like, a little coaching voice -- the inner coach in him -- he's always showing us stuff to try out, it's great. I've been blessed for the opportunities."

Photo courtesy: Rocky Saganiuk

 

Colby is used to receiving advice from pros. His grandad played right wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins and had 122 points (57 goals, 65 assists) in 259 NHL games. He was selected by the Maple Leafs in the second round (No. 29) of the 1977 NHL Draft.

Rocky, 62, has been a constant in Colby's life. He and his wife, Bonnie, helped their daughter, Candace, raise him. It was Rocky who put Colby in his first pair of skates when he was 2½ years old in a 10-by-20 backyard rink built by Rocky's dad in Edmonton.

"Colby took to it like a duck to water and never looked back from there," Rocky said.

Rocky coached Colby until he was 11 and the family lived in Illinois. They relocated to Pittsburgh nearly three years ago after Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse offered Rocky a job as the Under-8 and Learn to Play director at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the team's practice facility.

"My grandad, he's probably the biggest one that influenced me, showing me how to skate and everything to help me to where I am to today," Colby said. "My mom; she's my mom but also my best friend as well. She's been with me along the way, been on all the hockey trips; the time she's taken off work or missed stuff for me, she's always been there for me. And that's a huge factor."

Photo courtesy: Rocky Saganiuk

 

Colby and Rocky aren't sure what's next after Colby's time with the NTDP. The commitment to Penn State is verbal and Erie, the OHL team Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid played for, would still be an option.

"In a year and a half's time, he'll make up his mind up on which way to go," Rocky said. "Is it Erie to the OHL or is to Penn State to college or is it overseas to Europe? I don't know. But it's his life, and I'm just here for the ride. And it's a great ride."

Main photo courtesy: Rena Laverty/USA Hockey

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