If Sam Anas ran or dribbled or threw, his path to collegiate and professional sports would have been much clearer. Hundreds of teenagers from his home state earn athletic scholarships every year, and a number have gone on to the NFL and the NBA.
But Sam Anas doesn’t run. He skates. He doesn’t dribble or throw. He dekes.
As the offensive catalyst for Quinnipiac ice hockey — the top-ranked NCAA Division I team in the country — Anas is an anomaly but not because he was a slight, 5-foot-7, 130-pound high school senior when he committed to the Hamden, Conn. university. No, what makes Anas an anomaly is the place he and those hockey skills call home.
Anas, 22, grew up in Potomac, playing four years of high school hockey at Landon in Bethesda. Now he’s trying to become the first player to play for and graduate from a Washington-area high school and make it to the NHL.
“The NHL has always been my dream. Maryland isn’t a hotbed for hockey, so you don’t follow people and say, ‘This kid went from this high school to juniors to college, then pros,’ ” Anas said. “I’ve never known what the path was going to be. I’ve just known that I wanted to play at the highest level possible.”
Anas was the American Hockey Coaches Association rookie of the year in 2014 and led Quinnipiac in scoring in each of his first two seasons, amassing a combined 45 goals and 37 assists across 78 games. This year the junior — now at 5 feet 8 and a more robust 170 pounds — leads the Bobcats (19-1-5) in points with 15 goals and 14 assists.
“His best trait is his composure with the puck — there’s no panic in his game. He’s so poised with the puck on his stick. He has that ability to wait and wait,” Quinnipiac Coach Rand Pecknold said. “There are great players stuck in the minors because they don’t have poise in games. If anything, Sam gets better when the puck drops in a game.”
For Anas, the road to becoming indispensable for college hockey’s top team was paved with rejection and determination. As a rising high school freshman, he was cut from a local travel team for being too small.
“I remember how that felt. I remember that coach,” Anas said. “I’ll never forget them telling me I was too small.”
In high school, Anas would arrive at the rink around 3:30 p.m. for Landon practice. After a weightlifting session and another on-ice practice with his club team, he would head home sometime after 9. As a senior, Anas was the All-Met Player of the Year after he tallied 46 goals and 26 assists, leading the Bears to an undefeated season and their first Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League title.
“The thing I liked most about Sam was his competitive level. He had a different gear he could go into,” said longtime DeMatha Coach Tony MacAuley, whose Stags lost to Anas and the Bears, 8-2, in the 2011 MAPHL final. “He was the player we tried to key on, and he still snuck up on us. He’s quick and good with his stick, and he uses all his assets the right way.”
Quinnipiac noticed Anas when he played for the now-defunct D.C. Capitals, whose former coaches, brothers Jason and Jared Kersner, currently run SkipJacks Hockey Club in Odenton. The program’s rosters are a mix of the best local talent and transplants who move to the area and live with host families. Players gain exposure to college scouts on weekend travels in the top under-16 and U-18 leagues on the East Coast. During the week, the locally based players can live at home and have a “normal” high school experience — an opportunity not afforded to past NHL hopefuls from the area.
Former Washington Capitals captain Jeff Halpern is one such example. Halpern, now 39, began at Churchill High in Potomac in 1990-91, before the school had begun its ice hockey program in the Maryland Student Hockey League. The next school year, Halpern went off to St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, before starring at Princeton and signing with the Capitals.
Halpern, who made his NHL debut with Washington during the 1999-2000 season, went on to play 976 career games across 14 NHL seasons — playing considerably more hockey in the DMV as a pro than he ever had growing up.
“Around here, the idea of playing college hockey was something so unheard of. If you wanted a chance to go play at college, you had to go away,” Halpern said.
“The New England prep schools were not the best option but the only option.”
When Halpern was growing up, he watched the best athletes drop their skates under pressure from football, basketball and baseball coaches. D.C. was too far south, some believed, to produce hockey talent.
“There was a sense of embarrassment. In the hockey world it was embarrassing to be from D.C. at that time,” Halpern said. “You always have that stereotype that kids can’t play hockey from places as south as D.C. I remember trying to downplay that as much as possible.”
Two locals have helped chip away at that stereotype. Jarred Tinordi played his freshman year at Severna Park in 2006-07, then attended Ann Arbor Pioneer High School in Michigan before he was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. Tinordi, the son of former Capitals defenseman Mark Tinordi, made his NHL debut in 2013 and is now with the Arizona Coyotes. There’s also Bullis graduate Nick Sorkin, the 2008-09 All-Met Player of the Year and a standout forward at the University of New Hampshire, who played in a preseason game with Montreal in 2014 but never took the ice in the regular season. He’s playing for Västerås IK in Sweden’s second tier.
But even as the stigma about Washington-area players was slowly shifting, nearly every college scout in 2010 overlooked Anas.
“My assistant told me, ‘I got this kid from Maryland. He’s a little undersized.’ ” said Pecknold, who was the only Division I coach to offer Anas a scholarship. “I asked, ‘How small?’ He said, ‘Small — really small — but he’s unbelievable. He’s dynamic. He can play.’
“Most NCAA schools thought Sam was too small to play at our level, but he’s got the skill and hockey IQ to play with anyone.”
As his high school friends left for typical college experiences in the fall of 2011, Anas moved to Ohio to live with a host family and play juniors for the U.S. Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms. He racked up 97 points in 115 games in two seasons, spending the second one settting a new single-season record for the franchise with 37 goals.
“I’d be texting all my buddies, and we’d talk about life because we were all leaving home for the first time,” Anas said. “I’d hear about them partying or see pictures of all my friends getting together for Thanksgiving break while I was in Ohio playing hockey. But I never questioned whether this was the right decision for me. I’ve never regretted making hockey my life.”
The past three summers, Anas has competed with other prospects at NHL minicamps with the Capitals, Canadiens and New York Islanders. In July, Anas featured in a scrimmage in the Islanders’ first game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn; against a slew of NHL draft picks, he scored twice. As skeptical as some may be of D.C.-area hockey, he had been more than prepared.
“Playing in an arena with 10,000 people you don’t know, that’s one thing,” Anas said. “But playing in a [Georgetown] Prep-Landon game at a small rink like Rockville when there’s 500 people there and you look into the stands and you know everyone, that’s a different kind of pressure.”
This spring, Anas will complete his undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac. Next year, he plans on returning for his senior season to play hockey and complete an MBA, all the while carving a line for the next generation of local hockey stars to follow.
“I never had anyone show me how to make the NHL,” Anas said. “It would be cool for little kids to look up and see the path I’ve taken — and see that it works.”