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After A Year on Ice, Pionk Back at College

by Matt Calamia @MattCalamia /

After a season that saw Neal Pionk make his NHL debut and earn a bronze medal with Team USA at the World Championships in Denmark, a little time away to decompress would be expected.

And while the blueliner was able to escape following the conclusion of the tournament in May, he's back to work, but not at the rink. Instead, he's continuing online classes as he works towards his degree in marketing at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"I took a couple classes during the year and kind of got the cobwebs out there," Pionk told after coaching at Junior Rangers Youth Hockey Camp. "I took two classes already this summer and I'm in the process of taking two more. It's been a bit of a grind."

At one point, Pionk was juggling three classes at the same time, but that's now down to two, with another ending soon and the final one wrapping up in mid-August.

"Business communications has been one of my favorites because I got an A in it," Pionk joked. "The other one that's been interesting is American Indians in Sports. I recently read about [former NHLer] Jordin Tootoo and learned about his whole story and history. That was cool to learn about him and other athletes."

Balancing hockey and school is nothing new for Pionk, who had completed two years at the school before signing with the Rangers in 2017, and was even taking courses during this past season.

"It's a pretty hectic schedule," admitted Pionk, who at one point had a group project presented to a professor through video chat. "You come to practice in the morning and you're home by 1. You're pretty tired, but at the same time, you've got to keep chipping away at your degree."

Pionk comes from a marketing background, as his mother, Karen, has a degree and has worked in the field. But while he certainly has an interest in the career, he has his sights set on a different goal: coaching.

"It's kind of a Plan C," Pionk admitted of the marketing route. "I hope to coach college hockey after playing, and you need a degree to do so. That's my main goal with it and marketing is definitely a backup plan."

Education has always been important to Pionk. He understands he still has plenty of hockey left to play, but with the uncertainty of any career in professional sports, he also understands the importance of having an ace up his sleeve in the event he's no longer able to play.

"[Education is] important for me because hockey for me can end tomorrow," he said. "If I don't have anything to fall back on, then what am I supposed to do? I won't be able to rely on playing hockey for my entire life. I think my degree sets me up for the future."

Pionk expects to take two classes each in the fall and spring semesters, followed by four next summer. He then hopes to do the same two-class-in-two-semesters path again the following year, with the goal of graduating in the spring of 2020.

Pionk isn't the first to earn his degree while playing professionally, but he also knows not everyone does that. In fact, that's something that drives him.

"I think it's a mindset for me," he said of his workload. "A lot of people said that when you leave after two years you'll never get your degree. It's one of those things where I'm saying no, I'm going to. There it is."

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