Four of the Penguins’ seven defensemen (along with forward Joe Vitale
) are American-born players. All of them opted to stay in the States and play college hockey, and they all credit it with helping them make it in the National Hockey League.
To be fair, many teenagers decide to forego their eligibility to play major juniors, and that’s what works for them. But Pittsburgh's university alumni believe that more and more young men are choosing to take the same route that they did, and it’s resulting in an elevated profile for college hockey and growth of the sport throughout the country – and more players in the pros.
“That’s something you take pride in,” Ben Lovejoy
said, who spent a year at Boston College before playing the next three at Dartmouth. “We talk about the college rivalries amongst the players here in the locker room. You didn’t see that a long time ago. Right now, you can be an incredibly successful NHL player having gone the college route and growing up playing hockey in the U.S. There was a time you couldn’t do that.”
In addition, head coach Dan Bylsma (Bowling Green) and assistants Tony Granato (Wisconsin) and Todd Reirden (Bowling Green) all played four years at their respective universities – and couldn’t say enough about choosing the college route.
“I’m a big believer in the college hockey experience,” Bylsma said. “You see so many players today who go get an education and play college hockey and use that as a springboard to play professional hockey and play in the NHL. It happens over and over again with some really talented players.”
Added Granato, “It’s a tremendous way for drafted players and undrafted players to go develop and give yourself the best chance to be prepared and to have an opportunity to play professional hockey.”
Defenseman Brooks Orpik
was born in San Francisco, California, and lived there until his family moved to Buffalo, N.Y. when he was seven years old.
He went to prep school in Massachusetts and decided to stay in that area for college despite being drafted by the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, committing to Boston College – a small school that’s a hockey powerhouse.
“Probably three of the most fun years of my life,” Orpik laughed.
“Obviously the hockey program, that’s what they’re known for. But I think the biggest thing is you learn to manage your time in those three years. You probably don’t realize while you’re there, but you mature a lot as a person and try to develop good habits.”
For Minnesota boys Paul Martin
and Matt Niskanen
, going to college was just the next logical step growing up in a hockey hotbed like they did.
Even after being selected by the Devils in the second round (62nd overall) of the 2000 NHL Draft out of high school, Martin didn’t think about his future in that league. He was more focused on his immediate one.
“The education aspect with my parents was big, I grew up watching the Gophers and I liked my family and friends being at home,” he said. “I enjoyed being in Minnesota, playing hockey there and going to school there. At that time, I never really even thought about playing in the pros. It was more just the process of it. You just go with what’s next. When I was able to make it, I was fortunate and it worked out.”
Niskanen agreed, opting to spend two years with Minnesota-Duluth before turning professional.
“I had always wanted to play college hockey and I had always wanted to go that route,” he said. “Plus my family is big on at least pursuing an education while you’re playing hockey, so that was another factor.
“More or less it’s just what Minnesota kids do. We go to college.”
But for forward Chris Kunitz
, playing major juniors would have been the traditional step for him – except there was a lack of interest in the Regina, Saskatchewan native after a pair of Junior A seasons. So he decided to go with his other option.
“I wasn’t highly scouted in that sense,” he said. “I had an older brother who went to college down in the States to play soccer, so I had the idea that I wanted to go get an education and play. You didn’t know what level you’d make it to after, so that was kind of the main reason in choosing the NCAAs.”
It worked out perfectly for the undrafted winger, who had a hugely successful four-year career at Ferris State University, signed as a free agent with Anaheim after his senior season and is now an integral part of this Pittsburgh squad.
“It was a great step for me. I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said. “But also my friends in my adult life are all the guys from college that we still keep in touch with. I was fortunate enough to meet my wife in college and get an education and graduate with a marketing degree. Everything on top of that was a bonus.
"I had the time of my life. It definitely makes you grow up, but also in a secure environment where you have your coaches looking out for you. You might feel like an adult, but you’re not quite there yet. So it was a great choice for me.”