Two Knights complete their degree while holding down their dream job
Finishing your play is a term in sports; in hockey you finish your check, follow your shot to the net, recover after a save to be ready for the next shot. For two recent Golden Knights, it meant finishing what they started academically.
On March 29, 2019, Clarkson lost an overtime NCAA Regional Game to Notre Dame. In the days to follow, two key members of that 2019 ECAC Championship team made the tough decision to give up their final year of NCAA eligibility and sign an NHL Contract. On April 1, 2019, Nico Sturm signed a entry-level contract with the Minnesota Wild, and that same day the Vancouver Canucks signed Jake Kielly to a two-year entry-level contract.
The high of winning an ECAC title, the low of the OT loss to Notre Dame, then the quick signing provided a roller coaster of emotions for the players. Nico packed his bags and was practicing with the Wild that week, and then got into his first NHL game on April 4th, 2019 vs the Boston Bruins. Nico would play 2 nights later vs the Stars to finish up the Wild's season and then he returned to campus to finish the semester.
What's to be celebrated on this occasion is not the NHL signings (that is worthy of a huge celebration on its own) but the discipline and foresight of these two athletes to finish what they started at Clarkson.
The culture of Clarkson Hockey has long been to prepare players for the chance to play hockey at the highest level, but also to prepare for life after hockey, whenever that may be. When Coach Jones was asked about Jake and Nico finishing their degrees he said; "Standards! Our recruiting goal here at Clarkson is to attract motivated student athletes that are prepared to strive for excellence in all aspects of their life, and academics is a big part of that. With Nico and Jake you have two of the best examples you can find for the characteristics we want a Clarkson player to embody."
Jake Kielly had to juggle starting the season at various camps then establishing a home in Kalamazoo, MI with the Wings in the ECHL. The call up to Utica in the AHL was a great boost later in the season, but added to the difficulty of staying on task academically.
"I would say the biggest challenge was time management. In order to get everything done like schoolwork, workouts, on-ice stuff, etc. you had to make sure that you were rigid in making time for all of that while also making sure that you got the most out of every activity you participated in. Some days you had to make sure that you got good reps in during practice because you could not take more after practice in order to get schoolwork done. Or sometimes you had to make the most of the hour you got for homework because afterwards it was making sure you got a good meal. It was tough at times, but it also set me up really well for life in pro hockey and life after hockey," Said Kielly.
Nico started the season with the Wild and then was sent to AHL affiliate Iowa, recalled and returned to Iowa 2 more times during the season. His season ended in the playoff bubble with the big club where Nico scored his first NHL goal in game 4 of the series vs Vancouver. "Finishing my senior year online while essentially working full time was certainly not always easy. However, I have to say that I probably had more time available than while I was actually at college."
Most days, Nico would get back from the rink about 2:30 and then would have the rest of the day to do school work. But that kind of down time can lead to some procrastination. "Of course, not being on the rigorous college schedule with classes and practices being coordinated for you, it takes a lot more self-motivation to do some reading and homework, for example on a road trip when you are crammed into an economy seat on a flight from Des Moines to Denver."
To pile on to the difficulty, as one moves into their upper division classes, they may be more interesting, but certainly not easier. Kielly added, "The toughest class that I had to complete was an advanced accounting class that I took my junior year. The topics in that class are some of the hardest in the accounting profession and while I was taking that class we were going through playoffs (ECAC Championship, NCAA Regionals) and I also had just signed my first pro contract and went out to Vancouver. For a lot of that class I was learning the material remotely and had to make it work, but I did and that course ended up being one of my favorites during my time at Clarkson."
Along the way from freshman year to the finishing year away from campus, there were several professors that had a big impact on the progress for both Jake and Nico. Sturm credits one of his advisors for helping him finish, "Sandra Zuhlsdorf, my academic advisor, was certainly one of them, especially during my senior year which I finished online. She was always there when I had any questions and I was planning which classes to take next"
A good professor can set the tone for the rest of your time in school and have a lasting impact according to Kielly, "One of my favorite professors that I had during my time at Clarkson was Jay Vega. Unfortunately he moved to another school my sophomore year, but he taught a really good class my freshman year and actually introduced myself, Devin and Nico into one of our honor society's, Beta Alpha Psi. We had a really good back and forth in his class and made it easy on us to get our work done whether it was in the classroom or on the road."
While there are demands to finishing your academic career remotely, these two are also living out the dream of playing pro hockey. There were undoubtedly some benefits to having that as your "job" while you try to finish up. According to Jake and Nico, the biggest upside to pro life is the time available in their day, "I think the biggest perk up from playing college is the amount of time you have to get the things you want done, done." said Kielly.
Sturm explains that while he has time on his hands, he makes the most of it, "At college, my days usually wouldn't end until 10pm. Now, I thoroughly enjoy following the economy and the stock market every day and having the time to manage my own portfolio. Hockey-wise, it feels great to finally be able to combine joy and business and being able to make good money with what you love. Just being able to find more quiet hours here and there gave me the ability to be more ready physically and mentally for games, because I spend less energy on a stressful daily schedule."
Despite the positives of professional life, there can be some bumps in the road on the path to the NHL. Biggest drawback leaving Clarkson for the pros, for sure is how close you are with your teammates, according to Sturm. "That will never be the same. It can't be. At college you are literally with your teammates 24/7. Now guys have family and kids. Hockey is much more a job now. The biggest thing that I miss are the first 6 weeks of fall semester, when the season was still ways out and the guys were working so hard throughout the week just to have a ton of fun on the weekends, or coming back to your dorm after a Saturday night win and celebrating."
Kielly added, "When I look back on my time at Clarkson I will remember the memories that I created with my roommates and teammates the most, most of which happened away from the rink and that is something very special to me. In pro hockey, every guy is at a different point in their lives and careers which can make it hard to get together and create those close relationships."
Finishing his degree was never even a question for Sturm. "In 11th grade all I wanted to do was go to college in the U.S. At this point, pro hockey was maybe in the back of my mind, the NHL certainly wasn't. I initially came here for a degree, so there was no way I would leave without it." For both men the drive and attention to detail that has lead them to the NHL is the same skill set that made them a great fit in the culture of Clarkson Hockey and ultimately finish what they started academically.