Dartmouth’s O’Connor moving to pro hockey

  • Dartmouth College's Drew O'Connor turns the corner against Rensselaer's Mason Klee during the ECAC teams' Feb. 29, 2020, game at Thompson Arena. O'Connor has chosen to end his college career and sign a pro contract with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image » —Tris Wykes Valley News — Tris Wykes

  • Drew O'Connor listens to Dartmouth College hockey coach Bob Gaudet speak during a Jan. 9, 2019, practice at Thompson Arena. O'Connor has chosen to end his college career and sign a pro contract with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image » —Tris Wykes

  • Dartmouth College's Drew O'Connor (18) works his way through congratulatory glove slaps after scoring a goal against visiting Harvard on Feb. 7, 2020, at Thompson Arena. O'Connor has ended his college career after his sophomore season by signing a pro contract with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image » —Tris Wykes —Tris Wykes

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2020 10:32:20 PM
Modified: 3/14/2020 10:32:17 PM

HANOVER — The men in black grew more numerous around Thompson Arena as the Dartmouth College men’s hockey season progressed. National Hockey League scouts dress almost identically, clad as if for a funeral and often carrying small, leather-bound notebooks in which they jot tiny text.

The source of their interest? The Big Green’s No. 18, a big forward with a sweet scoring touch. Drew O’Connor finished fifth in goals amongst NCAA Division I players despite his team playing roughly five fewer games than many of his competitors, per Ivy League rules. The undrafted free agent turned pro with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins last week.

“Going into this season, I was only going to leave if I had a perfect opportunity,” said the sophomore, who in mid-January said he thought staying in school was best for his development. “It’s surreal that I have that opportunity, and I’m thankful to everyone at Dartmouth, especially my coaches.”

Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet said he didn’t sense O’Connor began the season eager to leave and that he heard the news from his player on Monday, two days after the Big Green was upset by Princeton in the first round of the ECAC tournament.

However, the veteran bench boss wasn’t blind to the scouts buttonholing O’Connor in hallways and on the arena concourse after games. Gaudet is sad to see his star depart but said he supports his choice to move on.

“My advice is always to stay focused on the present, and I didn’t want him to get ahead of himself,” Gaudet said. “There was a lot of attention given to him, and it’s very difficult to limit that.”

Gaudet said he views himself as a “pseudo parent” to his players and that, as such, he had hoped O’Connor would stay one more year. He thought that would make it easier and more likely for the 21-year-old to eventually earn a degree. Speaking by phone while driving home to New Jersey on Friday afternoon, O’Connor said that’s a priority for himself and his parents.

“The most important thing is to come back and try to get the degree during the summers,” O’Connor said, noting that he’s planning to be on campus this summer and might also take online classes this spring. “It will definitely be difficult, but I’m going to try to do everything to make it happen.”

Gaudet said former Dartmouth standouts and eventual NHL players Hugh Jessiman (2002-05) and Matt Lindblad (2010-13) left the program after their junior seasons and later earned degrees. David Jones (2004-07) also left the Big Green after three seasons but did not finish his studies. Lee Stempniak (2001-05), Tanner Glass (2003-07) and J.T. Wyman (2004-08) all stayed all four years and graduated with their classes before reaching the NHL.

“I’d love to see Drew stay on top of it, and I’ve promised him I’m going to push him and be a pain in the butt about it,” Gaudet said.

Dartmouth assistant John Rose unearthed O’Connor while the teenager played in a second-tier junior league. He’d graduated high school at 5-feet-9 and was planning on possibly walking on to the varsity at NCAA Division III Hobart (N.Y.) College. If that didn’t work out, there was always intramurals.

Now 6-feet-4 and roughly 200 pounds, O’Connor projects to add another 20 or 30 pounds to go with skills that earned him 17 goals last season and 21 during the most recent campaign. He is expected to begin his pro career with the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pa.) Penguins if that league resumes play this spring. If not, O’Connor said he expects to report directly to Pittsburgh’s training camp in September.

“It’s good for our program to have guys who aspire to the highest level,” Gaudet said. “He came in as a relative unknown and we helped him work really hard. He was exciting. Holy smokes, every time he touched the puck he looked like he could score.”

O’Connor must now prove he can do the same in the pros or adjust his style to highlight defense and physical play. Even those NHL players perceived as knuckle-draggers were once the most talented competitors on lower-level teams.

“He’s going to have to do whatever he’s asked, in whatever role and situation,” Gaudet said. “And that might be on a lower line. But he’s a great kid and I love him, and he was fun to watch play and work with.”

Notes: Gaudet said senior Shane Sellar, who played three seasons before suffering an injury that kept him out of the 2019-20 campaign, was unsuccessful in finding a Dartmouth-approved way to skate for the Big Green next winter. However, the Pennsylvanian is looking to play elsewhere as a graduate transfer. … Lindblad, who played 118 professional games, including four in the NHL, now scouts that league’s Western Conference for the Boston Bruins. … According to College Hockey News, 15 former Dartmouth players have skated in at least one NHL game, dating back to Gerry Geran in 1917. Other Ivy League schools: Brown (18), Cornell (35) Harvard (34), Princeton (16), and Yale (20). … Cornell might be asking the most what-if questions surrounding the recent cancellation of the NCAA tournaments. The Big Red was top-ranked in men’s and women’s hockey before health concerns recently shut down the rest of the college hockey season.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.




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