He was undrafted and undersized.
Still, Kyle Criscuolo carved out an impressive collegiate career at Harvard. A captain his final two seasons, Criscuolo finished with 53 goals and 60 assists, leading the Crimson back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years.
During his time at Harvard, he played with and against NHL draft picks, including facing off against Jack Eichel in his only season at Boston University. In practice and in games, Criscuolo, who clocks in at 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds, saw he could hold his own against the predestined NHL players. He started to really believe a pro hockey career was possible, that the NHL wasn't just a dream.
The perseverance has paid off as the 25-year-old is on the cusp of his first game in the National Hockey League.
Criscuolo was recalled by the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday — his first NHL call-up. He practiced on a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Jordan Nolan in KeyBank Center. While Sabres coach Phil Housley said the lineup will be a "game-time decision," it's likely to be the NHL debut for Criscuolo when the Sabres play the Detroit Red Wings in Little Caesars Arena Friday night.
"Super excited," Criscuolo said as the media scrummed around his locker in KeyBank Center Thursday morning. "Very excited to be here. Good first practice.
"I think it’s obviously a long road to get here. I’m excited to be here. I’m going to think about it maybe in a couple weeks. But right now, I've got to focus on the game."
The professional part of his journey began after his senior season at Harvard when he signed with the Detroit Red Wings and played four games with their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.
"The caliber of players I was playing with in college and knowing they were going to be making the next step to pro hockey, NHL, I sort of felt like I could play with these guys and I could keep up," Criscuolo said. "Certain guys I was playing against I felt like I can do it. I didn’t know what was going to come of it, but I was definitely motivated and wanted to keep going."
He returned to Grand Rapids last season, his first full year of pro hockey, and was a key component of the Griffins run to winning a Calder Cup Championship. In 76 regular season games, Criscuolo had 17 goals and 24 assists. In 19 playoff games he had five goals and four assists.
But over the summer he moved on from the Red Wings organization, choosing to sign with the Sabres. It was a difficult decision, but one he felt made the most sense for his hockey style.
The Sabres "understood how I play and how I want to play," Criscuolo said. "I think they did a good job of knowing what kind of player and person I am and what I want to bring to the team. I think what they said to me was pretty convincing that they want to put me in spots they think I can be effective.
"They said you can come in here and you’re going to have to earn everything you get. I think everyone was pretty honest with me. They didn’t promise me anything. They said you can try to earn your spot and work your way up from Rochester and be one of the top nine guys in Rochester and then try to make it to the next level and earn your way up."
And earn his way up, he did.
Criscuolo, who signed a two-year contract in July, is tied for the team lead with the Rochester Americans in scoring with 11 points (five goals, six assists) through 14 games. He leads the team with a plus-4 and with 40 shots on goal.
But it's not just the stats that earned him a shot at his first NHL game. It's also the way he plays the game, something Housley noticed through the two preseason games Criscuolo played for the Sabres.
"It's just his competitive nature," Housley said. "His willingness to get in the tough areas, go down low and win puck battles against bigger guys and using his speed and the energy he brought. I thought it really rubbed off well on our bench and our coaching staff."