Thirty percent of the NHL (283 players this season) went to college for at least one season, and 71 percent of that group played at least three seasons of college hockey before turning pro. And while a professional hockey career tends to translate into a more-than-comfortable living, many players who left school early continue to work toward their degrees years later. Their motivations range from preparing for a life after hockey to fulfilling a promise made to a parent or coach to just wanting to finish what they started.
“I’ve got three boys,” said Columbus Blue Jackets forward Thomas Vanek, who played two seasons at the University of Minnesota. “I think it’s a good example for them to set.”
But with an 82-game schedule that has players regularly traveling across North America for more than six months, not including the playoffs, finding the time for college coursework can be tricky. The Boston Bruins recently signed forward Ryan Donato, who just finished his junior season at Harvard and was Team USA’s top scorer at the Winter Olympics. After he scored a goal and recorded two assists in his NHL debut on Monday, he missed practice the next day to attend class.
Star Vancouver Canucks rookie Brock Boeser played two seasons at North Dakota, and though he just left the campus last year, he already knows he’ll be finishing his degree, and will likely be taking classes again next year.
“My mom will get me on that soon,” he said.
Some players, like former Capitals defenseman Taylor Chorney, are able to take advantage of online classes. Chorney left North Dakota needing two semesters worth of coursework to finish his degree, and he’s taken one online class per semester for the past three years. He’ll typically email the professor at the start of the semester, explaining his profession and the hectic schedule that accompanies it to gain a little flexibility on some due dates.
“We have so much free time,” said Chorney, now with the Blue Jackets. “I rarely do any homework or anything when I’m at home. It’s always on road trips. You know, you have the nice desk in your hotel room, you bring your computer and lock it down for a couple hours. You’ve got to make a few sacrifices. I’m kind of a procrastinator, so especially with homework, if I’ve got something due, sometimes you go on the road trip and the guys are going to dinner, but I’ve got to say no and order room service and hunker down. …
“I’m in a position where I’m fortunate to be playing in the NHL, and you get to lead a pretty good life, but at the same time, eventually I’m going to have to get a real job. Not everybody’s in that position — some guys make enough money where you can just kind of retire and are good to go — but I’ll have to find something that I want to do after I’m done playing hockey. The first step is going to get some sort of degree.”
Vanek has taken online classes during past seasons, but the 34-year-old said that because he lives near the University of Minnesota during the summer, he plans to just wait until his playing career is over and then be the “old man back on campus.” Current players who recently finished their degrees include Los Angeles’s Alec Martinez, St. Louis’s Colton Parayko, Boston’s David Backes and Torey Krug, Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader and New York’s Chris Kreider.
Like Vanek, Winnipeg Jets forward Andrew Copp has the benefit of living near his old college campus during the offseason. Copp went to Michigan for two years, and the Ann Arbor native said he isn’t a fan of online classes because he doesn’t feel as mentally engaged as when he’s sitting in a classroom.
“It’s funny that this interview is happening because I kind of had a little bit of a meltdown yesterday,” Copp said last month. “Not like an actual meltdown, but kind of about rounding out myself as a person. I was a very successful student. My parents spent a lot of money on my education when I was younger — I went to a private elementary and middle school — and I’m very confident in my abilities to do a lot of different things in the world, not just play hockey.
“We’re so sheltered here, you know? And I don’t want to say I’ve been sheltered my whole life, but I’ve been very privileged. So, kind of rounding out myself as a person is really important to me, and I feel like education really does that for you. Hockey doesn’t last forever.”
Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik used to have the convenience of living close to Boston College, taking night classes there for three summers. But then he moved to Massachusetts’s South Shore, and considering rush hour traffic, it’d be inconvenient for him to get to campus for a night class during the summer. With just a handful of elective classes left for him to take, his online options are limited, so he and longtime Boston College men’s hockey Coach Jerry York have a sort of agreement that when Orpik’s NHL career is over, he’ll serve as a graduate assistant with the Eagles. He’d be able to finish his degree while also getting some coaching experience.
“I remember when I left, [York] wasn’t pushing me out the door, but he told me, ‘We’ll be happy either way, and we’d love to have you back, but for hockey development-wise, it’s probably better off that you turn pro,’” Orpik said. “At the same time though, he said, ‘If you do make that decision, you’ve just got to promise me you’ll finish your degree.’ Every summer when I see him, he brings it up. He’s not going to forget anytime soon.”
A bachelor’s degree is required to coach college hockey, another reason graduating is important to Orpik. Oshie signed an eight-year, $46 million contract with Washington last season, so he’s in no rush to try to take another class after the old unpaid parking tickets foiled his first attempt. But it’s something he’s considered, because he, too, hopes to coach when his playing days are over.
“If I don’t go to that college level, then we’ll see,” Oshie said. “Right now, with two young kids and a career, it’s kind of hard to jam it in.”