Two things have united Noah Welch and Ryan Lannon throughout their lives – friendship and hockey.
They grew up together. They went to college together. And, they hope to play in the NHL together.
Welch and Lannon have essentially followed the same path for the past 15 years or so. Growing up in different Boston suburbs, the two played on the same youth hockey teams, against each other in high school and reunited for a successful four-year run at Harvard University. Now, the two defensemen face the daunting task of cracking an NHL lineup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“That would be a dream come true. I think all the kids, ever since you start playing street hockey when you’re 5, dream of playing in the NHL,” said Lannon, a Penguins eighth-round pick in 2002. “We were there together then and will be in training camp together, so every step along the way we’re getting closer and closer. If it happened, that’d be incredible.”
Welch, a Penguins second-round pick in 2001, agrees.
“That would be a dream come true right there. It’d be a great story,” he said. “My No. 1 goal is to make sure I am up (in Pittsburgh) at one point this year. I’d love it if I was beside Ryan.”
If they do make it to the NHL, could the two 2005 Harvard grads form the league’s smartest defensive pairing?
“No, not us two,” Lannon said with a laugh. “You should go find some other graduates who could help you out more. We were just happy to graduate.
“I don’t think so. He’s a smart kid, but I snuck in the backdoor at Harvard,” Welch quipped.
There is no joking around when it comes to the duo’s hockey talent.
Welch, at 6-4, 212 pounds, could make it to the NHL first. The American Hockey Coaches Association selected Welch, who served as Harvard’s captain last season, as a first-team All-American. Also, he was named to the All-New England Team and was named the region’s top defenseman by the New England Hockey Writers. He graduated as the Crimson’s all-time leader in penalties (131) and scored 23 goals and added 53 assists in 129 collegiate games.
“I am more of a two-way guy. Last year, I stayed home a little more and that was my best year at Harvard,” he said. “Entering the NHL, I am going to have to keep things simple. I have always done a pretty good job of finding guys’ sticks with the puck and I think that will help me.”
Lannon, at 6-2, 220 pounds, could be a huge surprise from the 2002 draft. A stay-at-home defenseman, his workmanlike approach didn’t draw many headlines. However, Lannon was named U.S. College Hockey Online’s “Unsung Hero” and earned Harvard’s Ralph “Cooney” Weiland Award for “devotion to the game, repeatedly evidenced by aggressive and spirited play and by the selfless contribution to the total team effort.” He tied for the team lead with a plus-25 rating. Lannon appeared in 136 of 138 games during his Harvard career and ranked in the top three on the team in plus/minus in each of his four seasons, finishing his collegiate career with a plus-66 rating.
“I am pretty much purely defensive. I like to play consistent, but keep the game real simple,” he said. “My focus is on the defensive end and making the quick first pass as an outlet and playing tough along the boards and in front of the net. I really love the physical style of play and don’t really do anything flashy. I just focus on keeping the puck out of the net.”
The two believe they’d make the perfect defensive pairing, although they were separated throughout their collegiate careers to create balance for the Crimson.
“I think we complement each other well because Noah is a little more offensive,” Lannon said. “He ran the power play for us the past two years and I was one of the guys on the penalty kill. So, we contrast each other a little in that aspect, but it works out well.”
“Both of us, we like to get a little down and dirty in the defensive zone. Ryan is a little more of a stay-at-home guy than I am, but he’s never really out of position. So, you know you always have an outlet when you play with a guy like that. He will dive around and will block shots with his face if he has to and that’s inspiring. I am really excited that we are part of the same organization.”
Now, the goal for both college roommates is to reach the NHL.
“Playing together at Harvard was like another chapter in the book that we’ve had for a while,” Welch said. “Getting to the NHL together would be the pinnacle of the friendship we’ve had on and off the ice.”
Their quest will begin Sept. 13 when the Penguins open training camp at Mellon Arena.
“I like to keep my options open. I’d be naïve to think the transition from college hockey to the NHL is going to be easy,” Lannon said. “I know some great players have paid their dues for a year or two in the (minor leagues), so that’s something I expect to be do.
“Obviously, you never know what can happen,” he continued. “There are so many things that you can’t control between injuries and players leaving and this and that, but I am going to focus on the things I can control – playing my game and coming to camp ready and in shape and see what happens from there.”
Regardless, Welch and Lannon will share the same experiences and emotions.
“It’s great. We’ve been playing hockey together since we were about 8. That fact that we both got into Harvard was a miracle and then getting drafted by the same team – it’s been quite an experience,” Lannon said. “Noah is one of my best friends and just to share this experience with him, whether we end up on the same team or not, it’s just amazing. It makes everything easier just to have him around cracking jokes and stuff.”
Said Welch: “It’s kind of weird. It’s kind of like too good of a story. It’s really nice; he is a great kid. It’s nice to have someone familiar to go through it all with.”
The organization’s push to acquire a bevy of veteran talent to complement its young core of talented players only enhances the excitement and anticipation for Welch and Lannon.
“I knew that Pittsburgh was picking up guys, but until I came out here, I didn’t realize how big of a deal it is,” Welch said. “The fans are really excited. It’s good to be part of something that’s growing.
“Pittsburgh has done great in the draft the past couple years – not just getting good hockey players, but good character guys and that’s the most important thing,” he continued. “The guys who I have met are all really good guys who have bright futures.”
Likewise, Lannon is thrilled to be part of the Penguins’ future.
“Just talking about that gives me the chills. When I was in the city (for rookie orientation), even the cab driver was talking about how excited he was for everything the team is doing,” he said. “The city itself seems real similar to what I am used to in Boston – a blue-collar city that just loves its sports.
“It’s a few miles away, but it reminds me of home.”