For Sam Lafferty ’18, the first time he put on a black and yellow jersey with his name printed on the back is a moment he will remember forever.
The Pennsylvania native made his NHL debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins Oct. 8, and he has appeared in 10 games for his home team since.
“It’s been a dream come true,” Lafferty said. “It’s been an absolute blast and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
The forward has racked up six points with the Penguins so far, including three goals and as many assists. He notched a pair of tallies against the Winnipeg Jets Oct. 13 after scoring his first NHL goal against Minnesota the prior night.
Lafferty now joins fellow Bears alum Garnet Hathaway ’14, a forward for the Washington Capitals, in the league.
In his four years at Brown, Lafferty was a key contributor to the men’s hockey team, leading the team in points and serving as an assistant captain in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. He credits his time with the Bears as a significant point in his development and a stride toward his professional career in the sport.
Brown “was a great four years — I loved it there, made a lot of great friends and had some great teammates,” Lafferty said. “The coaching staff really helped me develop as well, so that was a big step.”
Lafferty’s former teammates recall his tenacious work ethic and qualities of leadership and determination from their time together.
“(Lafferty) always came ready to practice, to play — whatever we had, he was always ready to go,” said Jack Gessert ’20, an assistant captain of the men’s hockey team. “He was a good mentor for all the guys. … You could tell that he was going to get a chance at the NHL eventually.”
Zach Giuttari ’20, current captain of the Bears, echoed Gessert’s sentiments. Lafferty “was one of the guys who knew he wanted to play hockey as his job through and through,” Giuttari said. “He was also a great role model, he led by example. … He was always working hard and letting guys know he was there on the ice.”
After finishing his senior campaign at Brown, Lafferty signed a two-year entry-level contract with Pittsburgh. He appeared in nine games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, the primary development league for the NHL, before the season was over. Though he saw ice time with the team, he described this experience as the most significant challenge of his professional career so far. “I was (in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) for like 20 games but only actually dressed in nine of them. … Having to deal with that I would say was the biggest challenge,” Lafferty said. “It was definitely an eye-opener but very motivating, and something I don’t want to have happen again.”
Lafferty overcame the initial adversity to become a key contributor on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team in the 2018-19 season, ranking second in points scorers with 13 goals and 36 assists in 70 games. He played one game with the team in the 2019-20 season before being called up to Pittsburgh, and two in a brief return to the AHL at the beginning of this month. He is now back in Pittsburgh after being summoned to the NHL again Tuesday.
The NHL is “definitely a big step up from the AHL in terms of pace of play and skill,” Lafferty said. “But, at the same time, it’s a little bit more predictable, so in some ways it’s harder but in some ways it’s easier.”
Brent Beaudoin ’20, an assistant captain of the Bears, said that Lafferty’s speed and puck-handling skills poise him well for success in hockey’s highest league.
“He definitely has the speed and the strength to play at that level,” Beaudoin said. “He was a good friend of mine when he was here, so I’m very happy for him that he’s doing so well, especially in that organization which is a pretty hard one to crack the NHL lineup for.”
Men’s Hockey Head Coach Brendan Whittet ’94, who coached Lafferty during his four years at Brown, also noted his skill and dedication to the sport.
“The fact that (Lafferty) is playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins now is a tribute to him, and the amount of work that he put into his craft — and his craft is his ice hockey,” Whittet said. “He worked extremely hard to improve himself in all facets, whether it be on the physical side or the mental side — he invested a lot of time and energy into improving himself as an athlete.”
Though it has not always been smooth, the path from Meehan Auditorium to the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh represents something of a childhood dream for Lafferty, who now skates alongside some of the players he used to watch.
“Just to put on the Penguins sweater for the first time in a real game was something special,” Lafferty said. “I started following the team when I was about five years old, so I’ve been a fan ever since.”