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Four NCAA Capitals prospects on normalcy, finishing their degrees, and the quiet minority of college players in the NHL

Four NCAA Capitals prospects on normalcy, finishing their degrees, and the quiet minority of college players in the NHL

For many NHL hopefuls, getting drafted into the league overrides everything else in their hectic lives.

A lucky few end up in the big leagues their first season, especially if a team is strapped for options on their roster or wants a fresh start. 

But for the Washington Capitals — who have kept a significant amount of their roster intact since 2015 — those next in line have more time to consider their options. 

At this year’s Capitals Development Camp, a third of the prospects on the Caps’ roster spent the 2017-18 season as NCAA student-athletes.

Although players who choose to finish their college career may not get as much media attention, it doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. 

”I think [about] a third of NHL players nowadays are college guys,” said Capitals prospect Steven Spinner.

Capitals RW Prospect Steven Spinner (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

The league’s quiet camaraderie among collegiate players is obvious in the Caps’ locker room. When approaching Benton Maass, Brian Pinho, Chase Priskie, and Steven Spinner to talk to them on Friday, I found them pressed shoulder to shoulder in four consecutive stalls, chatting about the morning’s defensive drills. All are equally driven to success both on and off the ice.

Pinho, who graduated from Providence College in May with a degree in finance, attended his sixth dev camp this year. He feels like finishing all four years of school was the right choice for both his academics and his NCAA career. 

“I worked so hard the first few years to get my degree. It was important to me to finish,” said the 23-year-old. “I really enjoyed what I was studying.”

Capitals C Prospect Brian Pinho (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

Classes weren’t the only motivator for Pinho, who had a strong team community behind him. After winning the NCAA title in his freshman year, he finished his senior year as captain of the Friars. 

“It was a natural fit. I was assistant my junior year, so I kind of just eased right into it,” Pinho said. “But I really enjoyed it. We had a young team, but everyone really dialed in to [our] process and our game plan and we had a good year.”

Maass, a rising sophomore at University of New Hampshire, still has plenty of time. While undecided about his major, he plans to finish his degree and further his role in his team’s community.

“Being from the United States, college hockey is the only thing I ever planned on doing,” Maass said. “I didn’t look into major junior or anything. I guess it was just always the best option, especially because I wanted to stay in school.”

Capitals D Prospect Benton Maass (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

Spinner, a 22-year-old right wing majoring in marketing and management, also spoke of the desire for normalcy. 

“I just decided that I’m going to go back next year to [University of Nebraska-Omaha], get my degree, finish out – just be a college guy. Be an American [young adult].”

For many players, playing Division I competitive hockey offers a middle ground between developing skills and a normal college experience. The student athlete lifestyle feels like a natural extension for those who grew up going to practice every day after high school classes.

“Time management’s the biggest thing in college hockey,” Spinner added. “That and discipline. If you don’t have a good week in practice, you should expect it [to affect] play. But I think [the NCAA] is a great league, and I enjoy every single day of it. I’m happy.” 

Priskie of Quinnipiac University, who finished his degree in finance and computer science in three years, stressed the chance to mature without major-league pressure. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to be ready to play pro hockey at 18, 19, 20, so I figured I can use the extra two-three years to develop physically. So I just thought it was a better route for myself. Some of the other guys that came out of Florida like Shayne Gostisbehere ranted and raved about how fun college was, such a great experience.”

Capitals D Prospect Chase Priskie (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

When you’re dividing time between hockey and school, fun can be essential. 

“I took an acting class with a couple of my buddies on the team and some of their friends,” Pinho said. “At first we were all really shy, and then our class was pretty close knit, so it ended up being really fun, actually.”

So what’s next? Though everyone is obviously excited about their respective NHL hopes, Spinner and Maass will return to school in August while Pinho and Priskie have an eye on the AHL. Priskie also plans to work towards a masters’ in business analytics this year. 

At the end of the day, both are grateful for the safety net that a college degree offers. 

“When hockey ends, eventually, I have something else I can crash on,” Pinho said. “But obviously, right now, hockey is the most important thing.”


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How former Capital Joel Ward helped Brenden Dillon adjust to life in the Washington area

How former Capital Joel Ward helped Brenden Dillon adjust to life in the Washington area

When trying to adjust to life in a new city, it can be nice to have a familiar face around to help you. That’s exactly what Brenden Dillon had after he was traded to the Capitals in Joel Ward.

Dillon was acquired by Washington on Feb. 18. In just his third game with the team, former Cap and San Jose Shark forward Joel Ward participated in the ceremonial puck drop prior to the Capitals Black History Game on Sunday, Feb. 23.

Dillon and Ward were teammates in San Jose for three seasons from 2015 to 2018. Dillon credited Ward for helping him get acclimated to Arlington, Va. and the Washington area.

“There's a bunch of great restaurants and walking around areas,” Dillon said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Brodie Brazil. “I was pretty fortunate when Joel Ward actually did the drop the puck for I think it was either my second or third game as a Capital. He kind of gave me a bit of the lay of the land while we were out here, showing me some of his little hidden gems from when he played. Obviously Wardo and I have a great relationship so it was nice to have a familiar face for the first few days.”

Ward spoke glowingly of Dillon following his puck drop so it should come as no surprise that he was willing to help out his former teammate.

“He's a true pro,” Ward said of Dillon. “He's an unbelievable human being. I think he's probably one of the nicest guys I've come across in my hockey days, to be honest with you. He's just a humble guy that wants to work and learn.”

The extra help in finding the right places to eat has certainly paid off. Dillon remained in the hotel in Arlington with the season on pause until just this past week and had to rely heavily on take out.

“I've been walking around and grabbing some to go,” Dillon said. “If you ever need good pick up options in Arlington, Va. or the D.C. area for food, I'm your guy.”

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Trade, coronavirus makes for tumultuous year for Caps' defenseman Brenden Dillon

Trade, coronavirus makes for tumultuous year for Caps' defenseman Brenden Dillon

This is not the way Brenden Dillon envisioned his year going. At the start of the season, he had Stanley Cup aspirations with the San Jose Sharks. Now he plays for a team across the country from where he calls home and is waiting for the NHL season to resume.

"What a year it's been, really," Dillon said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. "I think for anybody, not just myself or not just a hockey player or a Sharks player specifically, if you were to talk to us in August what things would be like come March time, what it would be. I think it's just at this stage with how everything's gone for me, I almost feel like a little bit of just a lone ranger with where I'm at."

Dillon has been with the Sharks since getting traded by the Dallas Stars in November 2014. During his time there, he made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. After several years there, San Jose began to feel like home. That was evident in the emotional postgame interview Dillon gave when contemplating if he had just played his last game with the Sharks.

"Leaving San Jose, I was there for a long time, had a home there, had everything kind of stability," Dillon said.

He added, "It's not just somewhere that you work, it's not just somewhere that you move to for hockey. It becomes your home, it becomes your family, your teammates. It becomes second nature where the streets, the people you meet not just at the rink but at the grocery stores, the mall, whatever it might be. You really build those relationships and then really with one phone call your life can completely change."

That phone call came on Feb. 18 when the Capitals traded for the veteran defenseman to shore up the team's blue line.

The trade itself wasn't a surprise. On an expiring contract and with the team being where they were in the standings, Dillon knew he was likely to get traded. When he got word he was going to Washington, he was excited for the opportunity, but that transition to a new team is rarely an easy one.

"You're going from, in my case, one side of the country to the other," Dillon said. "You're going and meeting 22, 23 new coworkers that you're going to see every day. I was very lucky to come to a team like Washington where, when I did come out this way, the guys, I was sitting right in between [Alex Ovechkin] and [John Carlson]. It was pretty cool to be a part of that. I think just the opportunity for me on the ice, it was a perfect fit for my kind of game, being able to skate, move pucks and play my physical brand of hockey. I think it was pretty seamless."

Now that transition has been put on hold as life decided to throw another monkey wrench Dillon's way with the spread of the coronavirus.

With the season paused, Dillon was staying until this past week trying to stay in shape and adjust to his new life. But he was making the best of it with his new teammates.

"There's been a lot of guys here who even during this time, whether it's just a few of us getting together and playing some tennis in the area," Dillon said. "I mean there's a good chunk of guys that are still in town so it's kind of been nice to at least have a little bit of that other than staring at a wall. I've done more puzzles and watched more Netflix than I think a lot of people could. I think though when it does come to the actual hockey part of things, it has been good out here. "

Dillon's mentality has remained positive through it all.

Though emotional about leaving San Jose, Dillon is excited about the chance to come to Washington to compete for a Cup. After a few weeks, he has a good idea of where the good spots are for food in Arlington and Washington, and he is thankful for his new teammates who have made an effort to make him feel welcome.

Dillon is excited for the opportunity that lays before him, he is just anxious to get going again.

"It was fun to be a part of a lot of success in San Jose for the five, six years that I was there," Dillon said. "I will forever cherish that time, from the fans to the city and I'll definitely go back and visit and see some of my friends that are in the town. But to come out here, already it's been a great, great group of guys from management to the coaches to the players specifically too. Really made me feel at home."

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.