Each player’s mind is wired in a different way – on the ice, they’re fixated on textbook plays, learned skills and different drills. But off the ice, it’s different.
A number of Washington’s players hold passions beyond the game, and for former college players, they hold a passion for academics and different topics. And because of this, their teammates speak highly of their intelligence.
“Nisky and Orpik, they’re pretty smart,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “They know a lot about their country [and] pretty much everything.”
Prior to his college career, Niskanen was drafted by Dallas in the first round of the 2005 NHL draft. He then went to play at the University of Minnesota- Duluth, pursuing his goal of playing college hockey as well as an education.
“My parents preached, ‘You better go to school,’” Matt Niskanen said with a smile. “Not many kids make it to the NHL and they preached going, and I wanted [to go]. It’s a stepping stone, it’s a pretty elite level if you want to be an NHL player and at the same time, you’re getting a free or semi-free education while you’re playing... I loved my time at Duluth.”
Having been a high pick in the draft, Niskanen was sure that he’d at least get a glance from Dallas and a chance to make an NHL roster, but still focused on his studies and rolled with a backup plan.
Not just a backup plan, but a genuine career he wanted to pursue had he never made it to the NHL.
“[I majored in] health and physical education, yep,” he laughed. “I wanted to be a teacher at that point. I wish I’d done something different now that I’m a little older, but when I was 18 that’s what I thought I’d want to do.”
In school, Niskanen said he was best at math, but didn’t enjoy it as much as he did other subjects. He’s held an interest in history, especially American history and still reads numerous books on the subject.
Like Niskanen, Orpik also had a choice to make: playing junior hockey, potential with the London Knights, or taking the NCAA road to the NHL. After a long debate between the two, Orpik chose the latter, attending Boston College, where he majored in communications.
“For myself, it was definitely the whole college experience,” Orpik said. “In case hockey didn’t work out, that was a safety net.”
The now 38-year-old said he still stays in touch with a number of his ex-teammates, many of who have degrees in various subjects but have pursued different careers.
Looking back, Orpik said he was genuinely interested in his major and that it allowed him free time and to focus on hockey, but if he had to go back, he wouldn’t know what to do.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to do,” he laughed. “I [tried] to find a balance where you can be good academically... Kinesiology I was really into. I really wanted to later on go into that, maybe biology.”
Andre Burakovsky referred to Orpik as the most book-smart player on the team, given how he’s the “oldest, wisest” in the dressing room.
Pheonix Copley was another former student, studying mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech. The Alaska native left after two years, but said he still plans to go back and finish his degree.
He decided on his major based on its fundamentals, and also knew that Michigan Tech had a good program, making that decision easier.
“I liked figuring out how things worked; it was a hands-on kind fo thing and it was something that interested me,” Copley said. “We had a design class where we were building parts... and we’d make them and see them and feel them. It was hands-on.”
The 27-year-old netminder admitted that being in the NHL comes with the trade-off of not having a lot of free time to focus on things like studying, and that he hasn’t done math in a long time.
To compensate, he spends a lot of time reading, focusing on non-fiction biographies. His favourite book is Kingdom of Ice, a non-fiction survival story that takes place in the late 1800s (he included this in his Caps holiday gift basket), and his favourite biography is Steve Jobs’.
Nic Dowd attended St. Cloud State University, ultimately building on his skillset and eventually becoming a Hobey Baker candidate.
Off the ice, though, he also shared a passion for academics. He pursued studies in biomedicine, aspiring to be a veterinarian if he didn’t get to go pro.
“I enjoyed school; I didn’t enjoy homework as much but I enjoyed the classes and getting the brain working,” Dowd said. “It gives you something to think about besides hockey and gives another element.”
Dowd also explained that it was easy to get the full college experience, from making friends right away to living with teammates.
As the Caps continue to pursue careers in hockey, they still put emphasis on their education and cherish that time at college.
“Any university is what you make of it,” Dowd said simply.