Drew O'Connor dreamed about playing Division-I men's hockey in college. But as he finished his senior season at Delbarton High School, there weren't a lot of opportunities.
Part of the problem was O'Connor's size. Standing at "probably 5-9," many of the top-tier college programs overlooked the Chatham, New Jersey native. But O'Connor did realize his dream after being accepted by the prestigious Ivy League school Dartmouth.
"There was a certain point at the end of high school that it didn't seem like (playing Division-I) would be available," he admitted via conference call on Friday afternoon. "I was able to get that opportunity, and Dartmouth was a great place for me to go. They helped me a lot developing. I was very fortunate to be able to go to Dartmouth and play at a high level."
And Dartmouth was fortunate, too. Because what was once a weakness (size) became a strength when a late growth spurt brought O'Connor, who signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh that begins in the 2020-21 season, to 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds.
"I was pretty small a little while ago. I did grow pretty late," O'Connor said. "Growing into my body a little bit has been helpful for me. Trying to adapt to my game now as a bigger guy has been a bit part of everything."
O'Connor, 21, didn't just grow into his height, he also grew into his game. He ranked fifth in the NCAA with 21 goals in 31 games during the 2019-20 campaign while being named Ivy-League Player of the Year and All-Ivy League First Team.
It was O'Connor's rare blend of talents that caught the eye of Penguins director of player development Scott Young.
"When you have that size and you can skate that well and the numbers he's put up over the past years really jumps out at you," Young said. "You add that goal-scoring ability to his heavy shot and his size and it's a very attractive package for a hockey player."
Young was instrumental in signing O'Connor.
"(Young) came out to Dartmouth a few times," said O'Connor, who has 38 goals in 65-career collegiate games. "He was great in explaining everything to me about the Penguins and helping me understand more about the Penguins organization.
"Scott was great about telling me how I would be able to fit in. Being able to fill any role that's asked of me. The important thing is to keep developing over the next few years and keep improving to be able to fill whatever roll is asked of me."
And when it came to a selling point, Young pointed to the many college players on the Penguins roster that have had success over the years - players like Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Conor Sheary, Zach Aston-Reese and more.
"A big part of joining the Penguins was the history of college free agents and college players in general, and the success they've had with those players and how they develop them," O'Connor said. "That was a main selling point for me."