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College hockey players make fast transition to pros

Saturday night was one of the lowest points in their hockey careers. The Canisius Golden Griffins had just lost in the Atlantic Hockey championship game, an abrupt and disappointing finish for the senior class.

On the bus ride home from Rochester they reminisced about old games and former teammates, trying to take some of the sting out of the unceremonious ending to their collegiate hockey careers.

Then came Sunday morning. Kyle Gibbons, Tony Capobianco and Ben Danford started fielding phone calls of interest from professional coaches and general managers. By Monday the memory of that championship loss 48 hours earlier started to fade. All three found themselves en route to new cities to sign their first professional hockey contracts.

Gibbons signed a standard player’s contract with the Toledo Walleye of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). Capobianco and Danford signed standard players’ contracts with the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL, but Danford immediately got the opportunity to move up to the Manchester Monarchs, signing an amateur tryout contract with the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings.

Gibbons makes his pro debut tonight when Toledo plays in Wheeling. Danford begins writing his next hockey chapter tonight as Manchester hosts Worcester with the Monarchs in first place in the Eastern Conference.

“I went to Elmira on Monday with Capo,” Danford said. “Then on Tuesday I get called up to Manchester. It’s pretty exciting and it’s definitely been a whirlwind and a bit of a roller coaster.”

Whirlwind is the popular way to describe the end of the college season for seniors with aspirations of playing professional hockey.

It’s an emotional tug-of-war between the sadness of an ending and the excitement of a beginning.

“Saturday night on the bus ride home from Rochester, you had a bad feeling,” Capobianco said. “We were so close to the NCAA Tournament and we let it slip through our hands. Waking up Sunday knowing as a senior I don’t have anything to do with Canisius hockey anymore, I didn’t have any practices. That kind of hit me. Then I got the opportunity to play professionally and that felt great.

“I didn’t take any time off. I didn’t wait a week or anything so I’m still in hockey mode. I don’t feel rusty or anything like that in the net. You go from the low of losing and it’s a quick turnaround to having another opportunity with a new team.”

The turnaround is quick, but the buildup is at least a year in the making.

While student-athletes are not allowed to have contact with professional sports organizations or agents as per NCAA rules, their college coaches can and often serve as the first intermediary for their players who will become undrafted free agents once the horn sounds on their final game.

Canisius coach Dave Smith said he routinely sends out information to every professional team across levels at different times of the year. Through the relationships he builds with coaches and general managers, he’s able to share information on players and where they may best fit with an organization.

Then it becomes about helping his now former players make the decision that best fits their life situation.

“The process started last year to make sure each of them was on track with their academics,” Smith said. “You’ve put in three and a half years and all three of those guys are going to finish their degrees. They’re still able to do the work at a distance.

“The opportunity to play gives them a head start. It’s an opportunity to learn something about pro hockey and for pro hockey to learn something about them. It possibly opens up other opportunities for the future.”

Three other area college players have a chance to make a good first impression.

Elmira once again hit the Canisius pipeline for a defenseman, signing Duncan McKellar to an amateur tryout deal on Thursday. McKellar only scored four goals in 87 games with the Griffs, but two of them were game-winners during Canisius’ run to the Atlantic Hockey championship in 2013.

A pair of senior defensemen who played their final games for Niagara last Friday also signed pro deals. Kevin Ryan of Eden signed with the South Carolina Stingrays after compiling seven goals and 57 points in 147 games with the Purple Eagles. Matt Williams signed with the Central Hockey League’s Brampton Beast, which is a minor-league affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Tampa’s top farm team is Syracuse of the AHL.) Williams set career highs in goals (three), assists (13) and points (16) this past season for Niagara.

There’s a balance to the opportunity. Take Gibbons, for instance. Finishing his finance degree and graduating from college is important to him and to his family.

“I don’t want to throw three and a half years of school away for nothing.” Gibbons said.

And so Toledo became a good fit. With the Walleye not making a playoff run, Gibbons gets an opportunity to play for nine games, gain experience and hopefully catch the eye of coaches and general managers, giving him an advantage when it comes to battling for roster spots next season.

The way the coaching staff in Toledo “made me feel, it sounds like I could be an important player and play an important role for the last nine games they have left,” Gibbons said. “That’s all a player can ask for, all a player wants is an opportunity.

“It’s something I’ve always dreamed about and wanted to do – play pro hockey. It’s exciting. It’s almost a dream come true. I mean obviously your dream is to sign an NHL contract but to sign a pro deal and the fact that you’ll get a paycheck for playing hockey is really exciting.”

The paycheck isn’t the only difference. While they will be completing academic assignments from a distance, there are no classes to attend and fewer team-based activities. There’s more free time and less structure.

Pat Oliveto remembers that transition. He sat in this spot seven years ago when his career at Niagara ended in the College Hockey America Tournament. The next day he was making decisions on the fly and ended up playing two seasons with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL. In 24 hours, players go from the veteran to the rookie. The new beginning also means starting from scratch.

“You have guys you’ve played with for four years and they’re your best friends and then you go to a team where you don’t know too many guys, if anyone at all,” said Oliveto, now in his third season as an assistant with Niagara. “You have to learn new systems, new rules. You get per diem. There are no team meals. On the bus you have to learn where to sit. Sometimes you even have to use new equipment. You’re trying to make a good impression and the first 24 hours is a big blur.”