Courtesy of John Sanful for IHWC.net
After the University of Massachusetts hockey season ended with a 2-1 triple overtime loss in the Hockey East championship game against Maine, Thomas Pock's amazing journey to the NHL began. The 23-year-old Austrian, one of the top defensemen in American college hockey, drew considerable attention from NHL teams. From the many offers on the table, Pock chose the one offered by the New York Rangers. In one whirlwind day, he drove off from his apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts to end up playing in front of 18,200 spectators at Madison Square Garden on March 23 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers were in the midst of a late-season, youth-focused rebuilding program, and Pock fit right into the mix. Despite being on the road for most of the afternoon, Pock did not show any sign of fatigue. Pock earned 14:25 of ice time and scored on a beautiful long-range wrist shot in the third period in a 5-2 loss to the Penguins. As Pittsburgh moved in front of the Rangers net, Pock poked the puck away to Jamie Lundmark and instinctively joined the rush. He accepted Lundmark's pass, letting go a clean wrist shot that found the back of the net.
"It's great scoring in my first professional game," Pock said after the game. "Before I drove down I was joking with my roommates that I would score today and they laughed at me. It actually happened and that was awesome."
A native of Klagenfurt, Pock became only the third Austrian ever to play in the NHL. Goaltender Reinhard Divis (St. Louis) and forward Christoph Brandner (Minnesota) are the others.
Four years ago, Pock joined the University of Massachusetts. In his first two seasons, the Minutemen won just 16 games in total. After taking over the team in Pock's freshman season, head coach Don "Toot" Cahoon helped mold the Minutemen into a serious contender in Hockey East play. And Cahoon made another important adjustment: he moved Pock from forward to defense.
Pock piled up individual accolades. In 130 contests, he scored 44 goals and 102 points. In his final two seasons after moving to defense, Pock was an offensive threat from the blueline, scoring 33 of his career goals. This season Pock was named a Hockey East First Team All-Star and became a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the USA's top collegiate player, while leading the Minutemen to their first-ever tournament finals appearance.
"My first two years at UMass were difficult, especially going home on March 1 every year, but Don Cahoon and the coaching staff did a great job in recruiting as well as teaching on and off the ice. We went to the semi-finals last year and lost in triple overtime in the Hockey East Finals this year, so I think the program is heading in the right direction, and I'm proud I was part of that success."
After a sparkling debut in New York, Pock earned a place in the lineup. Over the final six games of the season, he scored two goals and two assists. The Rangers have to be pleased with his poise.
"This has been awesome," Pock said. "Everyone in the whole organization has been nice. I'm really glad that I signed with the Rangers and that they gave me this chance. There are a bunch of great guys here from what I have seen, and I am happy to be a part of it."
But Pock is keeping things in perspective. Both on and off the ice, he's a cool customer always looking to enhance his game.
"I believe in myself, and so does my family, and I just want to keep getting better. I learned a lot in my four years at UMass. But there is a lot of room for me to improve."
With Team Austria getting ready for the 2004 IIHF World Championships, Pock will get another opportunity to represent his country and once again play for his father Herbert, the national team's head coach. He already had that pleasure at the 2003 tournament in Helsinki, Finland.
"I enjoyed that experience at the World Championships, as it was nice putting my national team sweater on and I was fortunate to have the opportunity," said Pock, who scored one goal in six games in Finland. "It was an honor to do my best with the other guys. To me, my dad has done a terrific job coaching the national team. And he's coached me for the last 22 years, really."
Now we'll see if Pock can help both Team Austria and the New York Rangers move up in the hockey world.