Ivy League cultivates NHL toughness

No two paths to the National Hockey League are identical, though they all share some similarities. Through various levels of minor and junior hockey, through colleges and minor leagues and European programs that develop the workforce that staffs the NHL, there’s the near-universal established avenue of early morning practices, cold locker rooms, host families and extensive travel through hazardous weather.

Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth experienced all of that during a fairly typical hockey upbringing in Amherstberg, a southwestern Ontario town near the mouth of the Detroit River’s entry into Lake Erie.

Westgarth was also held to a much higher standard by his school’s athletic department at Princeton University and is one of several NHL enforcers hailing from an Ivy League institution in the academically sound Eastern College Athletic Conference. Not all routes to the NHL include a 12-person undergraduate seminar with scholar and civil rights activist Cornel West as a psychology major at Princeton University.

“He’s just an incredible speaker,” Westgarth said of West, eager to talk about the opportunities presented as a student-athlete at Princeton. “Most of the classes were extremely stimulating and interesting. I enjoyed my time there immensely.”

Those are interesting words coming from a player who in 88 career regular-season games has one goal, five points, and 148 penalty minutes, representing a collection of players from elite colleges who relied on their fists and a nasty sandpaper element throughout their advancement.

“It’s just a lot of guys that are willing to do whatever it takes to play the game,” Westgarth said of how several fellow Ivy Leaguers have developed into roles as tough guys, including the Ducks’ George Parros (Princeton), the Wild’s Darroll Powe (Princeton), the Avalanche’s Ryan O’Byrne (Cornell), the Jets’ Tanner Glass (Dartmouth) and the Flyers’ Harry Zolnierczyk (Brown).

“There’s just a lot of love for the game, and people want to excel at whatever they do. That was always [former Princeton coach] Guy Gadowski’s thing. It’s like, people say that we’re a smart school, so maybe we won’t have good sports teams, but that’s crap. If you want to be the best at schooling and your education, then you should be the best at anything you do.”

All of the players mentioned above offer skills beyond the ability to land or take a punch, and with players such as Cornell’s Colin Greening, who has excelled in a depth scoring role in Ottawa, or Harvard’s Louis LeBlanc, a former economics major selected 18th overall in 2009 and playing now in the AHL, top-end skill is still capable of flowing through Ivy League schools.

For Parros, fighting provided another channel towards sticking with a professional team.

“It was more of a window and opportunity than anything. It had to do with my size and my ability to play the game, but also to throw it into the mix,” Parros said. “I don’t know why the Ivy Leagues tend to have a little pocket there moreso than maybe other university schools. You’ve got your junior ranks, obviously, that produce a lot of fighters, but it seems like us Ivy Leaguers like to get into the mix a little bit. I can’t say there’s an explanation for it at all. Who really knows? It’s kind of funny, though.”

There’s a major step up from playing ECAC hockey to playing against grown men and professionals in the AHL after NCAA eligibility has expired. Two days after signing as a free agent with Los Angeles in March 2007, Westgarth made his AHL debut with the Manchester Monarchs while finishing up his senior year at Princeton. After four years of wearing a helmet cage and adhering to college hockey’s rules against fighting, there wasn’t much of a turbulent transition after he logged 44 penalty minutes in 14 games as a 22-year old rookie, part of 50 points and 580 penalty minutes in 224 AHL games between 2007-10.

“Obviously there was an added element to my game that I was taking pride in with being in an enforcing role. I took a lot of pride in that,” Westgarth said of his adjustment to professional hockey.

“It was a big step trying to get better at that and just trying to learn guys that I would fight and guys that I’d played against, just kind of seeing how it was done, because not fighting for four years, it’s a bit of a time lag there. It was an adjustment a bit that way, just trying to bring those two sides of the game together, playing solid, dependable hockey and being the enforcer.”

Parros, five years Westgarth’s senior and a teammate at Princeton with Westgarth’s brother, Brett, offered a similar realization.

“You definitely have to make an adjustment. The college game is still a lot different from pro. It’s faster and you’ve got to figure out where you fit out there,” Parros said. “For me, I had to change my game a little bit. I had to obviously learn how to fight, because the way I was playing, I wasn’t going to be a goal scorer in the NHL, but I could certainly be a character-type player or a grinder in the NHL if I could fight, too.”

One of the league’s more legendary enforcers took a more roundabout Ivy League path – one that came after recording 2,242 penalty minutes over 696 NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Boston Bruins. Ken Baumgartner will be celebrating his 10th anniversary from Harvard Business School this year, highlighting a smooth transition from a willing fighter to the vice president of the NHL Players Association to business student to his current position as an investment director at Wellington Management in Boston.

It’s all part of the mens sana in corpore sano ideal – a healthy mind in a healthy body.

“Princeton is definitely a challenge,” Parros said. “There’s a lot of requirements that you face as a student there that other students don’t face at other schools. So you certainly have to apply yourself and have great time management amongst other skills. The fact that a few of us are now able to come out of there and play pro hockey is awesome.”

“It’s nice to finally start feeding some more guys into the league.”