Hearing your name called in a pro sports draft is a special day — no matter where you might be.
Three Penn State hockey players were chosen during the NHL draft in late June, and the experiences for each could not have been more different as each told their tales Thursday afternoon at Pegula Ice Arena’s for the team’s preseason media day.
Freshman forward Evan Barratt was at the draft festivities in Chicago’s United Center. Sophomore forward Denis Smirnov was in a car on the final leg of his trip from Russia back to State College. And Cole Hults was playing golf with senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton.
“Growing up, I didn’t think the call would be like that,” said Hults, a freshman who was taken in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Kings. “The phone was ringing and I was confused.”
The call came from his family advisor, letting the native of Stoughton, Wis., know of his future pro organization as he stood somewhere on the Penn State Golf Course.
“I was just kind of speechless,” he said. “It was definitely a cool experience, but not how I expected it to go down.”
Smirnov wasn’t sure what to think when his best friend from Russia connected on FaceTime with the Nittany Lions’ scoring leader last season, since his friend was laughing as he broke the news of the sixth-round selection by the Colorado Avalanche.
“I didn’t know if it was real or he was joking,” said the nation’s top-scoring freshman last season. “I was kind of confused at first but then I got a call from Colorado.”
Smirnov, who caught a 6 a.m. flight the next morning to Denver for a prospect camp, then ran into Hults at the rink later that day. There also were group chats and text messages bouncing around as the team celebrated a big day for the program.
Having his name called brought a little relief for Barratt. He had been in Chicago with a friend — who was picked in the first round — the night before. The native of Bristol, near Philadelphia, had to go back to the United Center the next day before he and his family could finally celebrate.
“It was awesome sitting there, but it’s also very anxious the whole time,” Barratt said.
Another future Nittany Lion also was selected, center Aarne Talvitie of Finland taken by the New Jersey Devils, though he is still a verbal commitment to the program and not expected to join the team until next season.
With the first official practice Saturday, an exhibition game at 3 p.m. Sunday against Canadian college program Ottawa and the season opening next Friday at Clarkson, they are all ready to get a new season started.
But fresh off last season’s success, winning the Big Ten tournament and advancing to the NCAA regional finals, the three Nittany Lions know that Saturday in June was another milestone day for the program.
“It was a fun day,” Smirnov said. “It’s better for our program to have more guys drafted. It was a good day.”
A good pair
Saying good-bye to last year’s seniors was expected, but Penn State also had an unexpected opening in the lineup after the season ended. Sophomore Vince Pedrie signed with the New York Islanders, a surprise to many including to coach Guy Gadowsky.
Pedrie and Erik Autio had been Penn State’s top defensive pairing the last two seasons, a match of compatibility from one end of the ice to the other.
Autio said the prospect of Pedrie leaving did not arise during the season.
“I wasn’t too surprised, but I kind of let him do his own thing,” Autio said, now seeking a new teammate who hopefully can match Pedrie’s vision, puck-moving ability and crisp passing.
Gadowsky said during the team’s captains’ practices — they can hold sessions without coaches until the first official day of NCAA practice on Saturday — Autio has had a few partners including Hults.
“We are going to give an opportunity to Cole,” Gadowsky said. “If that works well that will be nice, but there is no guarantee it will.”
Strengthening the ‘D’
Penn State certainly made a name for itself the last few seasons with its offense, a high-tempo, fire-at-will unit that led the nation in goals. Gadowsky has no plans whatsoever to alter that plan.
However, he would like to see more consistency from his defense, and not just from the defensemen but also from forwards. The trick, though, is to improve at one end of the ice without having an impact at the other end.
“That sounds easy,” Gadowsky said. “What I don’t want to have happen is that we take the added emphasis on the defensive side of the puck (and that) takes away from anything we do offensively.”
The team did have its share of stellar defensive performances last season, including a 2-1, double-overtime win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Peyton Jones was spectacular in net in that win, making 51 saves and earning tournament Most Valuable Player honors, but Gadowsky would rather not have to hope for that kind of performance every game.
“We can’t always guarantee Peyton Jones playing out of his mind for three games,” Gadowsky said. “We have to have much more consistent defense.”