Sports

Former Bears take NHL ice

Robertson ’14, Hathaway ’15 set to join minor league teams in pursuit of NHL careers

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2014

Three men’s hockey alums, Ryan Garbutt ’09, Aaron Volpatti ’10 and Harry Zolnierczyk ’11, have broken into the highest level of hockey thanks to a combination of hard work, natural talent and guidance from their Brunonian coaches. This year, defenseman Dennis Robertson ’14 will attempt to follow in their footsteps.

Though Brown hockey hasn’t claimed a winning season in nearly a decade, its best and brightest have drawn on their strengths and attitudes to carve out careers playing hockey against the world’s premier competition.

Whether the players reached the NHL through alternate pro leagues or entered directly, all four have drawn on similar qualities to achieve success.

 

Garbutt

Garbutt, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was a relatively sought-after recruit in 2005, choosing Brown over other notable programs at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, Rensselaer, Princeton and St. Lawrence.

“I really enjoyed the city of Providence and the campus of Brown, and all the players on the team seemed like great guys,” Garbutt said. “I was really impressed with the quality of people in the Brown hockey program.”

Garbutt was never a prolific scorer during his time with the Bears, posting a career-high 23 points in his junior year and scoring just six goals as a senior. His tenure came at a dark time during the program’s history, as Bruno went just 27-79-22 during his four years, a .211 winning percentage. After Garbutt’s senior year, Head Coach Roger Grillo resigned and was replaced by Brendan Whittet ’94. Garbutt has since been impressed by Whittet’s success during the first few years of his tenure.

“I wish I would’ve gotten to play under Whittet for one year,” Garbutt said.

After graduation, Garbutt took a somewhat circuitous route to the NHL, playing a season with the Corpus Christi Ice Rays of the Central Hockey League and the beginning of another with the Gwinnett Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League before gathering any mainstream attention.

“I didn’t receive any (NHL) interest until after my second year pro,” Garbutt said.

He joined the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves on loan during the 2010-11 season and then signed an entry-level contract with the Dallas Stars to join the minor league Texas Stars the next year. He was called up to the NHL midway through the year and never looked back. He has since thrived with the Stars, who signed him to a three-year, $5.4 million contract extension this past January.

The path to the NHL is difficult even for highly regarded prospects, so Garbutt’s tale is extraordinary by any standard. He credits his success to his work ethic, preparation and focus.

“You need to prepare yourself each and every day and focus on hockey,” he said.

Moving from college through three minor leagues on his way to the NHL, Garbutt had to continually adjust for more talented competition, but said he “enjoyed the challenge.”

“You definitely notice a step up,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique challenge to be able to play up to your competition at each level, and that was something I really relished.”

 

Volpatti

Volpatti was a top target of the Bears’ when he came out of junior hockey in Revelstoke, British Columbia, before the 2006-07 season.

“They recruited me pretty hard, and I actually flew out to Brown, which obviously (was) a pretty big factor in coming there,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”

He struggled under Grillo, recording 30 points in 86 games over his first three seasons. But he bloomed with Whittet, scoring 17 goals and 15 assists in his senior year to be named Third Team All-ECAC.

Although the coaching change greatly benefited him, Volpatti did not sense a significant cause for it when it happened.

“It’s not necessarily always about the coach, but unfortunately sometimes there’s just a change needed,” he said. “I really liked playing for Roger, and Coach Whittet was just kind of a new voice. … Sometimes change is good.”

Whittet allowed Volpatti to play to his strengths, contributing to his breakout year.

“Aaron was a guy, when I came in, … that played the game really hard, played it really, really tough, and sometimes that toughness, that physicality put him in the box, and so be it,” Whittet said.

Despite his struggles on the scoresheet, Volpatti started garnering professional attention after his junior year, propelling the Bears to a successful 2009-10 season that saw them make the semifinals of the ECAC tournament. In the end, he chose to sign with his hometown team, the Vancouver Canucks.

Shortly after signing, Volpatti went to the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. The increase in the quality of his opponents was surprising, but what he least expected was how much bigger his peers would be.

“It was a pretty big wake-up call getting to professional where … I was kind of more average-sized,” he said.

While he did not score often during his time in Manitoba, with just 13 points in 61 games over two seasons, he made enough of an impact to earn a short stint with Manitoba’s  parent club late in the 2010-11 season and a permanent spot with the team for the next two seasons. But an injury cut his 2012-13 season short, and he was put on waivers to be sent to the AHL again. Instead, he was claimed by the Washington Capitals.

“I had a lot of emotions going through waivers just because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Could you go back to the minors? Are you going to get picked up? Things can go a lot of different ways.”

Since the Capitals acquired him Feb. 28, 2013, Volpatti has been a full-time player, despite a recent shoulder injury sidelining him for two months of this past season.

Volpatti believes the key to his post-Brown success has been parallel to his experiences at Brown — playing to his strengths and adhering to the style of play he knows best.

“I think it’s just not changing who you are,” he said. “My game’s never going to change, so it’s just about getting better every day.”

 

Zolnierczyk

Unlike Garbutt, Zolnierczyk was somewhat unheralded coming out of the junior hockey ranks from Toronto in 2007.

“I didn’t have a ton of options out of juniors to pick out of colleges,” he said. “I just wasn’t sure how far or how long I’d keep playing hockey.”

With doubt about his hockey future, Zolnierczyk opted for the best education he could find ­— Brown was the only Ivy to offer him a spot. “To have the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school and get a degree from one of the best institutions in the world was key,” he said, adding that he was glad to have “something to fall back on if hockey didn’t pan out.”

His first two seasons at Brown were challenging. Playing on the lowest lines, Zolnierczyk tallied just five total points over 47 games. But everything changed after the 2008-09 season.

Zolnierczyk exploded onto the scene, tallying 33 points in his junior year and 31 the next, on his way to the Ivy League Player of the Year award his senior season. It was no coincidence that his breakout came in Whittet’s first season, just like Volpatti’s. Zolnierczyk fully credited his new coach with the turnaround.

“I was really given a great opportunity to play big-time minutes and fill a big-time role,” he said. “My career just really turned around with Coach Whittet.”

Whittet said the key to making Zolnierczyk a star was allowing him to play his own style of hockey.

“When I came in, what we needed to do was allow Harry to play to his strengths,” he said. “Harry’s strengths are he plays with an unbelievable pace and an unbelievable aggressiveness, yet he plays a little bit on the edge. And some coaches, they stifle that. They say, ‘You know what, we want you to be more in control.’ … I wanted him to play that style that would allow him to succeed.”

With success came attention, and by the end of Zolnierczyk’s senior season, nearly half the NHL had expressed interest in signing him. He ultimately chose to join the Philadelphia Flyers.

“We thought Philadelphia was the best fit for me in order to get a chance to play in the NHL right away, and I was fortunate enough to get that opportunity … in my first year with them,” he said. “It was a good spot for me to start my pro career.”

Zolnierczyk split the 2011-12 season between Philadelphia and its AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms. In 37 NHL games, he accumulated six points. He was later traded both during and after the season, ending up on the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played 13 games with the Penguins this season, scoring just two goals.

Much like how his coaches at Brown molded him into the Ivy League’s best player, maximizing his capabilities on the ice has allowed Zolnierczyk to achieve professional success.

“The biggest thing for myself is my speed and my grit and my determination,” he said. “Speed is something that all teams look for and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to carry that attribute. … I think that’s something that a lot of coaches find valuable.”

 

Robertson

With three highly successful role models paving the way, Robertson is Brown’s next player with a great NHL shot.

He just completed his senior season with the Bears, culminating one of the most decorated years for a Brown athlete. He was named First Team All-Ivy and Third Team All-ECAC and co-won the Best Defensive Defenseman award. The two-time captain was a true leader for the Bears, finishing fourth on the team in points.

As the 176th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Robertson was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs after his first-year season. The Maple Leafs traded his rights to the Carolina Hurricanes on New Year’s Day this year, so signing an entry-level contract was simple for him upon the conclusion of the Bears’ 2013-14 season. He was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers.

Robertson’s teammate Garnet Hathaway ’14 is also turning pro as an undrafted free agent, having signed with the Abbotsford Heat of the AHL, a Calgary Flames affiliate. He had 15 points in 31 games for Bruno this season.

Before Robertson went to Charlotte, he spoke to The Herald about his expectations.

“It’s going to be a little different, for sure, it’s going to be much faster and bigger, stronger guys out there, so it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “But I have to rise to that challenge, and hopefully I can have some success here early and continue that down the road.”

The players who have already trodden a similar path had a few insights about what Robertson will experience. Zolnierczyk, when discussing the challenges of being an undrafted free agent, mentioned the privilege a drafted player like Robertson will have.

“Your draft picks are always going to get a fair shot and a good look,” he said, adding that he also agreed with Robertson’s assessment that professional players are more physically imposing, describing them as “a lot faster, a lot stronger.”

“Now it’s your job,” Volpatti said of the difference Robertson will experience between college and professional hockey. “There’s obviously a lot more pressure now than in college. … Obviously I still enjoy it and still love it, but it’s a career and there’s a lot of pressure, and you worry about it a little more.”

Whittet is optimistic about the chances of his departing stars making an NFL roster.

Robertson and Hathaway “have that same trait that (Volpatti and Zolnierczyk) did. They’re just driven individuals who just play the game really hard,” Whittet said. “They’re competitive people, so those are the kind of people that ultimately succeed.”

Signed contract in hand, Robertson is prepared to chase his dream.

“I feel ready,” he said. If he can follow the examples of his fellow former Bears, he just might be.

 

A previous version of a photo caption accompanying this article misstated the team for which Aaron Volpatti ’10 is playing in the photo. It is the Vancouver Canucks, not the Washington Capitals. The Herald regrets the error.

  • Not at a caps game

    Think the caption is off here, he’s wearing a nucks jersey!