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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