College Hockey Players Often Arrive on Campus After Years on the Road
Kenny Johnson swings his legs over the boards and drives his skates into the surface of Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena, beginning his college hockey career in earnest.
About three minutes into the team’s fourth game of the season, this is the first taste of in-game action for Johnson, who most recently played for the British Columbia Hockey League’s Victoria Grizzlies. His debut is the culmination of a three-year international odyssey that, at points, seemed like it might not reach its destination.
There’s no time to soak in the moment now, though. Penn State is already trailing Alaska-Fairbanks by a goal, and the blue-and-gold-clad Nanooks are readying another rush up the ice.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Johnson’s frame is the biggest of the 12 men on the ice, and he puts it to good use. After clearing an initial Alaska-Fairbanks attack, Johnson slams the Nanooks’ Colton Leiter in the boards as he tries to carry the puck into the Penn State zone, rattling the glass and drawing a roar from the home crowd.
Johnson glides back to the bench about a minute later, his inaugural shift in a Nittany Lion sweater complete and his bruising impact felt. The speed of the college game makes for the most challenging adjustment, he says later. But during his first taste of action, Johnson manages to keep up.
The ice is just one place where Johnson must make the transition to Happy Valley. He’s 21 years old but a first-time college student, three years older than the average Penn State freshman – and that’s not unusual in the world of college hockey.
Nearly three-fourths of freshmen on men’s college hockey rosters were born in 1999 or earlier, according to a review of the 60 NCAA Division I hockey programs. Put another way, only 34 out of 472 freshmen are 18 years old or younger. Most of the others delayed college while trying to prove themselves in junior hockey leagues across North America that force players out after their age-20 seasons.
It’s a stark contrast to college football, which now routinely brings players to campuses before they can go to their senior prom. In the last recruiting cycle, the football teams at the seven schools which play Big Ten hockey combined to bring in 63 early enrollees, players who finished high school a semester early to get a jump on their college careers.
Meanwhile, at American International College, in Springfield, Massachusetts, a nine-man freshman class for hockey includes just one player who can’t legally purchase an adult beverage. Likewise, the Alaska-Fairbanks team against which Johnson debuted includes a 23-year-old, a pair of 22-year-olds, and five 21-year-olds in a first-year class of nine players.
There’s an academic and social adjustment being made by players like Johnson all across the United States.
These players spent a good chunk of their most formative years living with host families — called billets — in middle-sized towns, sometimes in front of small crowds, playing junior hockey as they chased Division I roster spots.
Now they are facing the challenge of re-integrating themselves back into school. “You live such a weird life,” Johnson said. “So you try to make it as normal as possible.”
It’s before 9 a.m. on a late November Thursday, and most Penn State students are still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes as Johnson munches on a croissant and a yogurt parfait inside a nearly empty dining hall before his first class.
Seated around the table are Connor MacEachern and Mason Snell, two others from Penn State hockey’s freshman class. MacEachern, a small-but-physical forward, is 20, while Snell, a puck-moving defenseman, is 19.
They wear oversized, puffy coats covered with Penn State branding, with hats concealing some early-morning bed head.
All of them sport mustaches — or, at least, have portions of one as part of a team-wide effort to raise funds for men’s health. They spend a portion of their meal discussing a tournament style poll Penn State hockey’s Instagram account has commissioned to see which player’s ‘stache is superior.
The oldest among them, Johnson, has a patchy effort that is the only one with a chance thanks to a favorable matchup, they conclude, before heading off to class.
Trudging toward a pocket of campus frequented mostly by athletes, Johnson and his teammates begin their day inside a Penn State Athletics bubble.
His brother, Jack, plays with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Pro hockey is in his blood.
A team meeting room doubles as a lecture hall for a biobehavioral health class exclusively for student-athletes. Today, a guest speaker is present to discuss career-building. From the onset, he earns a few grumbles from the class by demanding they turn off their cell phones.
Nevertheless, most seem determined to find a way to distract themselves, until about halfway through, when the man finally piques their interest with a question.
“Who thinks they’re going to the pros?”
A few hands shoot up, entering the trap set by a lecturer just looking to make an example of them. Johnson’s hands stay put.
It’s not that Johnson lacks confidence in his game, he later explains. His brother, Jack, plays with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Pro hockey is in his blood.
But Johnson has too much time and too much effort invested toward earning a place at Penn State. He isn’t about to risk wasting it by taking a single-minded outlook on his future.
“I value school pretty high,” he says. “[In] my family, everyone got diplomas and went to good schools. So my goal was to work toward college and get experience and get a degree. Showing up, I was excited for the first day of class, actually. I think a lot of players playing [junior hockey] are more excited than you think to be at school.”
After high school, Johnson — an Ann Arbor, Michigan, native — went to Canada to play in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, a major producer of college hockey talent.
He had already verbally committed to play at the University of Michigan and expected to join the Wolverines after a season with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees.
Following a head coaching change at Michigan, Johnson’s one year of junior hockey became two, and two years became three. This isn’t entirely unusual, but it became clear that Johnson didn’t gel with Michigan’s new coaching staff, so he decided to look elsewhere.
His final season of eligibility in the BCHL winding down, Johnson was traded from Penticton to the Victoria Grizzlies, where he’d get one last chance to showcase his skills for college coaches. Once so certain of his future, Johnson didn’t know if he would even play college hockey.
Before the Grizzlies began a playoff series, Johnson received a phone call letting him know Penn State’s coaching staff would be watching him.
Playing for his future in the game, Johnson scored four points in four Victoria victories, and Penn State called to offer him a roster spot for the 2019-20 season.
"I think a lot of players playing [junior hockey] are more excited than you think to be at school.” Kenny Johnson
“That was the most stressful,” Johnson says, “but one of the biggest things I’ve done in my life.”
Seated at the end of a long cafeteria-style table inside Penn State’s bustling HUB-Robeson Center, the student union, Johnson’s words aren’t laced with anger or bitterness about his extended stay in western Canada.
Whether he’s in class or spending a night out, he receives constant reminders of the value those three years he spent living with a different family, over 1,700 miles from home, where he learned to take care of himself in an unfamiliar place.
“I think it was the best thing I could have done.”
The steady churn of the Zamboni cleaning the ice fills an otherwise empty arena in downtown Youngstown, Ohio, as players between the ages of 16 and 20 begin to trickle in for practice.
Inside the Covelli Centre, home of the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms, the chatter of the day is focused on unique, all-black jerseys that are to be worn in an upcoming game against Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
This rink, and 15 others like it across America, are where the next generation of college hockey players are groomed.
Players in different stages of their academic careers line the Phantoms’ roster. Some are still in high school, attending local schools or taking classes online while also balancing their hockey obligations. Others have graduated, their efforts focused only on the next step.
“If you can come to the USHL and have success or come here and be a key piece of any team, you’re going to have, not an easy transition, but an easier transition into college hockey,” Youngstown coach Brad Patterson says. “I think this league prepares you for the next level, which, in most cases is college, better than anywhere in the world.”
A team centered on toughness in a league predicated on speed and skill, Youngstown plays a 62-game schedule, lasting from late September through early April.
The easternmost team in a league with organizations in states as far west as North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, Youngstown travels by bus to its road games. But the players don’t seem to mind their often-lengthy escapades on what they call “the fun bus.”
“I think this league prepares you for the next level...better than anywhere in the world.” Youngstown coach Brad Patterson
If the fun bus happens to break down and force the Phantoms to spend nine hours and eat all three meals at a middle-America Cracker Barrel as they did last season, well, that’s just part of the charm.
“I always want to be around the boys,” says Ben Schoen, a 17-year-old Phantoms player. “It’s fun, but the travel stuff is a little tough for sure.”
Trevor Kuntar is Youngstown’s team leader in points and goals, and he’s bound for Harvard next year to play for the Crimson. He’ll be 19 when he arrives.
He left his Williamsville, New York, home when he was 16, and he’s in his third year with the Phantoms. A high school graduate, he’s taking online classes in calculus and English as he preps for Harvard’s academic rigors.
Aiden Gallacher, who is bound for Michigan State next year for his age-20 season, lapsed his studies for a year after graduating from high school, but he took an online composition class in the fall semester and is now enrolled in two more courses “to get the brain going a little bit.”
“This year, I wanted to get back in school,” Gallacher said. “Just so going into college, it’s not like I’m hitting a wall. ‘Oh, look, I’ve got to study now.’ I just wanted to slowly ease back into it.”
Teams like the Johnstown Tomahawks of the North American Hockey League — which produces the second-largest total of college hockey players behind the USHL — encourage players who have graduated from high school to take college classes or find part-time work to limit their time away from formal academics.
“The first year, I didn’t take any classes. I was like holy moly, I’m getting dumb,” said Spencer DenBeste, who played for six junior teams in three seasons before landing in Johnstown, in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Now DenBeste, taking a full complement of four online courses in the spring, feels prepared for his arrival at Lake Superior State University, in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, in the fall, when he’ll be 21.
“It develops you as a person, too,” he said. “I’ve learned so many things while playing juniors, like you need to be able to communicate.”
“You meet so many people, too,” added DenBeste’s teammate, Christian Gorscak, who is committed to play at Niagara University, near Niagara Falls, New York. “This is my third year now, and I see me myself coming back every summer when I’m gone, just seeing the people you lived with and the people you made friends with.”
"I really think that they turn those experiences into a benefit for when they come back to school." Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky
Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky leans back in his office chair, his right leg crossed over his left.
He’s fresh off the practice ice, and now he’s delivering an anecdote from his time at Princeton, where he’d coached for seven seasons before leaving to pioneer the Nittany Lions’ program.
The Princeton academic brass was concerned about one of Gadowsky’s older freshman recruits. He’d had too much time away from the books, they contended, and might not be the right fit at such an academically challenging institution.
“You’ve got to watch him really close,” Gadowsky remembers being told.
Part of a recruiting class with natural freshmen and others who had attended prestigious prep schools, that player ended up with the highest grade-point average of them all.
Since then, Gadowsky has become an advocate for a gap year.
The idea that his players might spend a year or so with their school books on the shelf doesn’t concern him. In fact, he considers it a positive. Even more than one year, Gadowsky insists, can be a positive if the player spends them the right way.
“I think if you just go from hockey practice to the pool hall, yeah, I think it’s a problem,” Gadowsky said. “A lot of these guys now are taking different courses, or they’re working, or they’re doing internships, and I really think that they turn those experiences into a benefit for when they come back to school. The ones who approach it that way, I think, can actually get ahead.”
At Penn State, where Gadowsky didn’t sign any natural freshmen — those who come in at the same age as their non-athletic peers — in this year’s recruiting class, that philosophy has proven effective.
The NCAA tracks academic performance with a statistic it calls Academic Progress Rate, which is a team-based metric that holds teams accountable for the eligibility and retention of their student athletes. For the 2017-18 school year, Penn State’s 997 APR was 11 points higher than the national average among Division I hockey teams.
“The good thing is they’re very mature, obviously,” said Mark Hinish, an associate director at Penn State’s Morgan Academic Center, which helps and monitors varsity athletes in the classroom. “They’re pretty focused on what they want to do and achieve. So typically they do pretty well. They recognize that it’s going to take some time.”
Hockey players aren’t all that different from typical college students in the sense that the beginning often poses the biggest obstacle.
That holds true for Johnson, who said he failed his first exam as a college student but has since settled and even excelled.
Hinish said hockey players often need to re-learn their study habits, having sometimes spent years without taking a test or an exam.
“It’s a skill,” Hinish said. “Like any skill, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.”
“They’ve had success in hockey. They can smell it. Some of them have been drafted, and odds are they will go on to play professional hockey... They know what’s on the line.” Penn State's Mark Hinish
The Summer Bridge program, offered to first-year students at Penn State, and encouraged by Gadowsky, often provides the platform players need to re-acquire those skills.
Part of the program includes weekly seminars, helping students shape the tools they’ll need — like studying, for example.
Otherwise, Hinish said hockey players will sometimes require an update on classroom technology, which seems to be always advancing.
But these aren’t obstacles that are insurmountable by any means, Hinish said. Thanks in part to Gadowsky’s philosophy — which is “no nonsense” when it comes to academics, according to Hinish — the hockey team is consistently one of the top two or three men’s teams with regard to academic performance.
“They’ve had success in hockey,” Hinish said. “They can smell it. Some of them have been drafted, and odds are they will go on to play professional hockey — it might not be here, but overseas. They know what’s on the line.”
A longtime power in revenue sports like football and basketball, the Big Ten conference began sponsoring men’s hockey in 2013-14, sparking massive conference realignment across the sport that tore apart longstanding rivalries between teams that had previously played in the same conference.
Then, in 2015, the Big Ten proposed a rule that would limit the age of incoming college hockey freshmen to 20. Those who were 21 would still be allowed on rosters, but they would lose a year of eligibility to play — getting three years instead of the standard four for college athletes.
All the Big Ten coaches, Gadowsky included, were reportedly in favor of it. The reasoning they supplied didn’t point toward academic issues associated with older athletes. Instead they highlighted hockey-centric problems in recruiting and compatibility with the NHL that the small change might solve.
The reaction of the rest of the college hockey community was swift and vehement.
Turned off by the manner in which the Big Ten proposed the change, coaches launched thinly veiled shots at Big Ten schools in the media, asserting that they were just trying to gain an upper hand because of the conference’s already-established tendency to recruit younger players.
College Hockey News, a national media outlet, posted comments from Big Ten coaches in news stories about the subject — but also included them in an editorial piece titled “Just Say Nay on Age Limit,” where it looked to debunk them.
A straw poll obtained by College Hockey News indicated 49 of the 60 head coaches were against the rule change. They won out. In 2016, the Big Ten withdrew the legislation.
SB Nation College Hockey — a blog with a national reach — called it a “big win for the sport of college hockey as a whole.”
When the system was threatened, even with the idea of speeding things up by just a year, the community and media alike moved with near uniformity to defend what it views as normal.
Especially for those within junior hockey, Youngstown Phantoms coach Brad Patterson said, the path is standardized to the point that players may not realize just how unusual a course they are on compared to other athletes, or even everyday people.
“Every day they’re with a strength coach, they’re with a high-level youth program that they don’t have to sit back and say, ‘Oh jeez, I’m not going to a prom. I’m not going to the things that everyone goes to.’ And it’s just natural,” Patterson said. “You don’t understand it.”
"I think I’m more experienced. I can speak somewhat differently than everyone else." Kenny Johnson
Johnson carries his lunch in a Panda Express to-go box into a small classroom on the first floor of Penn State’s Thomas Building.
His final class of the day is discussion-based, and Johnson certainly is not hesitant to engage. Here he can put perspective he’s acquired spending the better part of three years playing junior hockey in Canada to use. Sometimes, he admits, he’ll just mess with his classmates.
“I sit there and I’m like, ‘I’ve lived in another country, I’ve lived with a different family,’” Johnson said beforehand. “I’m not saying that I’m wiser or smarter than anyone else, but I think I’m more experienced. I can speak somewhat differently than everyone else, and you just don’t know what you don’t know.”
The course is based on famous speeches, and the day’s lecture focuses on Joseph McCarthy’s address to the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, where he condemned the atheist spirit of Soviets in Moscow and highlighted the importance of the West’s Christian morality.
While other laptop screens in the room browse Amazon and Facebook, Johnson’s remains focused on the speech’s transcript, and his mind remains engaged and open to debate.
He wonders aloud if political policy is a product of moralism or the other way around. Later, he comments on the extremity of McCarthy’s political statements, noting how politicians often exaggerate what they actually believe to keep their followers happy.
This is a Communication Arts and Sciences course, and, as it stands, Johnson’s major. He may switch to criminology, though. While playing junior hockey, he took a ride along with undercover Vancouver police in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods, and that career path hasn’t left his mind since.
Later, walking through the chilly air toward Pegula for practice, it’s time to refocus.
His goal today, and every day, is to create a conflict for Penn State’s coaching staff. If it’s a difficult choice for them to leave him out of the lineup, then Johnson knows he’s doing his job.
As a freshman who signed on late in the game with one of the top-10 teams in college hockey, Johnson isn’t rushing it. After spending three years in Canada waiting for his chance, patience is one of his strong suits.
The sliding doors to the rink open, and Johnson walks down a long hallway toward a set of gray doors.
Those few steps before he reaches for the doorknob are the last Johnson spends as an outlier, an older athlete who’s experienced life on his own by taking a path few around him even know exists. When the door shuts behind him, though, Johnson becomes just the average freshman among teammates who know exactly where he’s been through.