Look at any given NHL roster and you’ll find players that took different routes to get there. Some came from overseas, some played in junior hockey and others took the college route. There’s not necessarily one way that’s better or more effective than another, but they all have different qualities that make the experience unique.
College hockey is the route that a lot of American players choose to take. However, that route is about much more than just hockey. It’s about the overall college experience that average, every day students get to experience at their respective colleges or universities, and that’s the route Nashville Predators forwards Craig Smith and Eric Nystrom chose to take.
Smith attended the University of Wisconsin for two years (2009-11) before he turned pro and started his NHL career with the Predators. Nystrom attended the University of Michigan for four years (2001-05). Both of them look back very fondly on their overall college experience.
“It gave me the ability to work with people,” Smith said. “To get every element of life in a way, instead of just hockey as your life. You’re doing different things. You’re going to school, you’re socializing, you’re introduced to a bunch of new qualities of life. I think it’s something that everybody should really consider because it’s a lot of fun. You learn to manage your time well. You learn skills that you can’t really learn anywhere else.”
“It’s just so much more than hockey,” Nystrom said. “It’s a whole lifestyle and tradition, and it was an amazing experience. I met so many great people outside of hockey, and I’m so thankful that I got an opportunity to play there.”
One of the biggest parts about the college experience is the relationships that are built in that community. Now that he’s able to look back on those days, that’s one of the things Nystrom appreciates about his time in Ann Arbor. He still communicates with some of the friends he made at Michigan.
“All the time. The Michigan community is huge. It’s such a big school, and the alumni are everywhere. There’s people all over and some of the smartest people that I’ve ever met so I always keep in touch with a lot of people from school, and they’re all great people,” Nystrom said.
Nystrom played at Michigan for four years even though he was drafted by the Calgary Flames after his freshman year. Playing hockey at Michigan for four years meant that he also had to take classes at Michigan for four years. Nystrom’s choice of a major in college leaves the door open for him to pursue a wide variety of options later on in life.
“Liberal arts,” Nystrom said. “A whole lot of everything, you know? I don’t know what I could do with that, but it’s a start.”
Because Smith was only at Wisconsin for two years, he didn’t major in anything, but he was able to consider what his major was going to be. He was interested in sociology and made the decision after his freshman year to take that route. How did he come to that decision?
“Process of elimination,” Smith said with a laugh.
Both Nystrom and Smith know that one day they’re playing days in the NHL are going to be over, and they’re going to have to pursue other avenues rather than just playing hockey for the rest of their lives. Because of that, both of them have taken time to figure out what they’re going to do when it’s time to hang up the skates.
At least, they’ve tried to figure it out.
“Yeah I try and think about it, but I can’t ever come up with something,” Nystrom said with a laugh. “I think just having schooling to begin with is already an advantage. I’m not necessarily sure what’s going to happen with that, but I’ve made so many contacts and have such a great network that if there is an opportunity to do something, who knows what it is, that having an education is definitely an advantage.”
Smith’s college days aren’t over. He still has a goal that he’d like to accomplish outside of playing hockey.
“I’d like to graduate still,” Smith said. “At some point I’m going to chip away in the summers here. I’ve got a long way to go so that’s my goal after I guess. I want to get my degree.”
Smith and Nystrom still keep up with what’s going on at their respective universities. In Nystrom’s case, the football team at Michigan lost to their arch rival Ohio State by a 42-41 score a couple of weeks ago on a failed two point conversion attempt. That’s enough to agonize any Michigan football fan, but it was of even bigger significance to Nystrom. His sister attended Ohio State.
“It’s all right,” Nystrom said. “She’s had a lot more success than we have so I’m kind of jealous.”