Before Colin Wilson, Viktor Stalberg and Carter Hutton played together for the Nashville Predators, they all wore the sweaters of college hockey programs in the Hockey East conference, regularly facing off against one another in front crowds of rambunctious students and pep bands proudly playing their school’s fight song.
In addition to Wilson, Stalberg and Hutton who played against each other during their college careers, Preds forwards Eric Nystrom, Patrick Eaves, Matt Cullen and Craig Smith all laced up their skates and pulled on a college hockey jersey before they turned professional. While most college sports fans’ eyes are turned to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the next few weeks, the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament is also currently underway, with teams vying for a spot at the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia, Pa., April 10-12.
As they develop their hockey career, players end up taking the college hockey route for many different reasons.
“I was at that point in my junior career where UMass-Lowell was one school that offered me a scholarship,” Hutton, who played four years for the River Hawks from 2006-10, said. “When UMass came knocking, I figured it was an opportunity that I had to take, and from there I kept developing and I was able to get my education too, and that was awesome.”
In Stalberg’s first season with the University of Vermont in 2006-07, he saw action in all 39 of the Catamounts’ games, one of only two freshmen that year to do so. During his junior season, his last at Vermont, he was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in college hockey. Stalberg, who went to Vermont after growing up in Sweden, said he was looking to have an experience that included more than just hockey.
“I wanted to diversify a little bit, I didn’t want to just put everything on hockey,” Stalberg said. “I wanted to make sure I got an education as well to have something to fall back on if hockey didn’t work out, so that was the biggest thing for me.”
Growing up in Minnesota and playing high school hockey in the “State of Hockey,” Cullen said that the natural next step for him was to play in college. For two seasons Cullen played at St. Cloud State University, then of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). In 1995-96, his freshman season, he was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team and in his sophomore year, he was named a WCHA All-Star.
“When you’re growing up and playing high school hockey in Minnesota, your next big goal and dream is to play college hockey,” Cullen said. “For me, it was a lot of fun, I loved my college experience. It’s kind of a fulfillment of a dream, you grow up watching it, and it’s pretty cool to make it to that level.”
No matter the road that was taken, or what school they represented, the former student athletes on the Preds roster spoke to two main things that stick out to them when they look back on their college experience.
“I was able to really learn a lot about the game, develop, and at the same time, really growing up as a person,” Cullen said. “You’re out on your own, and you’re learning the life skills you need to keep advancing in this game.”
Stalberg echoed Cullen’s statements, speaking to how his experience in college not only prepared him to play professional hockey, but also prepared him to be a professional.
“You learn so much from just moving away from home and going away from all the safety nets,” Stalberg said. “You’re standing on your own two legs and figuring things out for yourself, and what you need to do to be successful.”
In addition to the learning experience players were able to garner away from the ice as well as on it, when asked about their number one memory of the college game, all the Preds collegians had one answer, the fans.
“It’s a lot different than pro hockey,” Eaves, who played three seasons at Boston College from 2002-05 said. “You have the band and the students there, kind of just an extra energy in the building. It’s different and unique, and I still love going to college games today.”
Across college hockey, fans are known for their specific chants aimed at both cheering on their own team and mocking the opposition. College student sections are notorious for their organization and creativity.
“It’s amazing, something I’ve never seen before,” Hutton said. “It shocked me, and it wasn’t something that I was expecting, the student section, and the fan base, and the creativity that goes into it all.”
The fans, the majority of which are fellow students, have a passion, not only for the game, but for their team, and their ultimate goal is to see their team advance to the game’s biggest prize, the national championship. While a few of the Preds collegians had a shot at the title during their college days, only Colin Wilson can call himself a national champion after playing a key role on Boston University’s 2009 championship team.
“It means a lot,” Wilson said. “Even though it was at more of the amateur level, it is one of the highlights of my career. There’s a lot of camaraderie in the college hockey locker room, there’s no trades, this is your team, so when you win it, it’s a great feeling to come together with all the guys.”
The NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament begins with 16 of the nation’s best teams, selected following conference tournaments. All 16 teams hope to advance their way to the Frozen Four where the final four teams compete for a spot in the championship game and ultimately, a shot at the national title.
“It [the Frozen Four] is exhilarating, exciting and passionate, a lot of emotion,” Wilson said. “It’s a one- and-done tournament, and when I played I felt we had a good team, and yes, we should win it, but you never know, we almost didn’t. You never know what’s going to happen in one of those games.”
With the tournament underway, a new champion will be name in just a few short weeks. In the mean time, the journey to the top prize will be a wild ride, with a few surprises along the way. But in the end, one team, full of players brought together for different reasons and with different life goals, will have the ultimate punctuation to their college career, the opportunity to call themselves a national champion.
Note: After a weekend slate of games March 28-30; Boston College, Minnesota, North Dakota and Union College (N.Y.) advanced to the Frozen Four. The Frozen Four begins April 10 in Philadelphia, Pa. as Union faces Boston College (5 p.m. ET) and Minnesota takes on North Dakota (8:30 p.m. ET). The winners of the two semi-final games will play for the national championship on April 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
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