Hugh Jessiman ’06 returns to Dartmouth to finish degree

by Gayne Kalustian | 2/3/15 7:42pm

“A Draft Bust Playing in Vienna Pictures Life After Hockey,” reads a Nov. 2014 New York Times headline, the photo below it featuring a suit-clad Hugh Jessiman ’06 staring into the camera as horse-drawn carriages pass him in the streets of Vienna, Austria. Further down, two more in-line photographs accompany the story.

In the first, a 19-year-old Jessiman stands tall after the 2003 NHL draft, smiling wide. A New York Rangers hat covers his head, hiding what Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet called a “flow Hugh will tell you he doesn’t have anymore.” In the second, he stands in his Vienna Capitals jersey, his face missing that draft-day, ten-thousand-mile smile he regularly wears, his reflection in a locker room mirror shrouded in an ominous darkness.

The New York Times article details Jessiman’s statistics and his nine-year stint bouncing around the National, American, Kontinental and European hockey leagues. The article describes a first round pick for the NHL — 12th overall — who is now looking at “wearing loafers to work, not skates” and “letting go of his NHL dreams.” From the opening lines describing how the locals “largely ignore” the impressive player to the final footnote describing the alternate headline that appeared in print, it appears as the eulogy for a once-great prospect, living a new life without hockey, taking business classes on the side to prepare for the final “transition.”

It is a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an all too-obvious end. But it isn’t Hugh Jessiman’s story.

“I’m an adventurer,” Jessiman said on a bench in Carson Hall, back in Hanover to finish his final five classes, leaning over to rest his elbows on his knees and smiling the same toothy grin he sported back on draft day — now one tooth less toothy after 12 more years of hockey.

In his freshman year at Dartmouth, Jessiman accrued 47 points in 34 games before scoring 33 points in the 34 games he played during his sophomore season. He stayed at Dartmouth for his junior year, but was sidelined with a torn deltoid and surrounding ligaments early on in the season, feeling, he said, “immense” pressure from the Rangers to set aside Dartmouth hockey and the traditional four-year college experience to get his professional career underway. With three terms between him and his degree, Jessiman made the decision to leave the College behind.

“I knew what I was giving up: my senior year,” he said. “I also had seen skiers and military guys at Dartmouth enjoying it at a later age, so it was an assurance for me to say to myself, ‘Hey, I will finish,’ and I made a promise to my mom that I would. I didn’t know what it would be like, but I trusted seeing those guys go through it that it would be okay.”

Education, for Jessiman, wasn’t simply an option if professional hockey didn’t work out. It was a promise made long ago to his parents and himself. As the nephew, grandson, brother, cousin and son of nine College alumni, Jessiman couldn’t imagine finishing the decade-long quest for his bachelor’s degree at any other school.

“I was the product of Dartmouth,” he said. “It’s a pretty special experience to be here. My parents met on the Phi Delt lawn at some Green Key party or something. Dartmouth definitely runs in my blood.”

Upon first departing from Hanover, Jessiman bounced between the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League, not fully recovering from the ankle injury that cut his junior collegiate season short until his third year in professional hockey. After a 42-point season with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the 2007-08 season, he was traded to the Nashville Predators organization and assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals, scoring 20 goals for the team in his debut season.

In June of 2009, Jessiman lost his mother — Laura Woodberry Jessiman ’80 — to a hiking accident. The two were close, he said, and growing up, she played a big role in his formation as a person and a hockey player. When asked about his mother, he didn’t shift uncomfortably in his seat or avoid the question. Instead, he told a story.

“A lot of times my mom would be the one that would drive us to the games, and one time specifically — she used to always tell this story — we were driving home from Albany and she was driving us home, like six kids and you don’t shower when you’re 10 years old,” he said. “So she gets pulled over in upstate New York and she rolls down her window and the cop says, ‘Excuse me,’ and immediately goes, ‘Oh, what is that smell?’ And he says, ‘Do you know how fast you’re going?’”

He continues the story.

“And she said, ‘Yeah, sorry I was really going a little bit fast, but I was trying to rush home ’cause I got these kids.’ He goes, ‘That is just an awful smell. You know what, honestly, just drive safe,’” Jessiman said.

He struggled during the start of the 2009-2010 season after her passing, he said, feeling fine but not quite “mentally there.” Before a game, Jessiman’s coach pulled him aside and told him that even though he was in a tough spot emotionally, the team needed something from him if he wanted to stay.

That night, he skated onto the ice, scored a goal and served a fighting major, kicking off one of his most successful stretches of professional hockey, and ultimately ended the season with 42 points. By the end of next season, he was called up to play in the National Hockey League with the Florida Panthers, where he played his two career NHL games. He got in one fight inthe NHL, sending his opponent Troy Bodie to the ice from the heights of his 6’9” frame on skates. The following spring, he came back to Dartmouth for the first time, joining his sister Margaret Jessiman ’12 for her junior year.

“It’s funny because when I was here… You know, you have a feeling of it’s your school, your place, your home,” Jessiman said. “So I called my sister up and said, ‘Hey do you mind if I come back for school?’ She was obviously excited and pumped and called me the next day and said, ‘Hey, just so you know if you come back you gotta be a good boy. My reputation is here and established, and I do not need you screwing it up!’ I laughed, but I honestly made a point of respecting that because it was her time, her place, her school.”

The following fall, Jessiman rejoined the AHL for three more seasons, playing for a handful of teams before pausing his career in Binghamton and heading overseas. Jessiman spent the next two seasons in Europe, the first of which he described as “the best year of [his] life” and “a daily adventure.”

In 2013, the year he left the Binghamton Senators, Jessiman was awarded the IOA/American Speciality AHL Man of the Year award, his second time receiving the honor in his professional hockey career — the first coming in Hartford. Jessiman mentioned the first award in his interview at the end of a list explaining why he was “having a good year” in the 2006-2007 season. He didn’t mention winning it again with the Senators for organizing a team effort to support victims of Hurricane Sandy before individually volunteering in three separate community services initiatives later in the season. The awards, the humility and the decision to come back to school this winter, though, come as no surprise to Gaudet, who has known Jessiman since his early teenage years — even before he matriculated at Dartmouth. Since beginning classes this January, Jessiman has begun going to practices to work with the Dartmouth men’s ice hockey team after a conversation with Gaudet.

“He’s such a humble guy,” Gaudet said. “He just wanted to be treated like one of the guys and not get any special treatment. From working the power play to pushing pucks in a drill — he’ll do whatever we need… I care about him, you care about all the guys. They’re all part of the family.”

Jessiman makes a point not to put himself above others in practice — not an easy task with his professional picture on the wall in Thompson Arena. While he fits in with the guys in the locker room, he occupies an inevitably different role in the minds of the players on the ice, forward Tim O’Brien ’16 said.

“I definitely [look up to him],” O’Brien said. “He’s got a really good offensive mind. He’s experienced. He’s just a big help when it comes to one-on-one stuff, just talking about things you can do better.”

For Jessiman himself, coming back to Thompson and sitting down with the players isn’t a burden or an obligation. He views it, he said, as one of the best parts of coming home.

“I was pretty excited about that because I wouldn’t be here without Dartmouth hockey,” he said. “I owe a lot to Dartmouth hockey. I was hoping to give back to the team, but also just sort of be around the guys. The best thing about being a hockey player is going to the locker room and being part of the team.”

Off the ice, Jessiman is pursuing his degree in history, which he will complete this spring. He began studying history, he said, because his plan to study economics didn’t quite work out.

“Let’s just say I took an [economics] class my freshman year and pretty much got shooed out of the building after that,” he said with the same sense of humor he uses to look at almost every moment or setback he’s experienced in life. “They were like, ‘Hey listen, great having you, but do us a favor and don’t come back.’ That’s when I went to history.”

“But I’m glad I did because deep down history is my thing. I love it,” he said. “It’s a reflection of life, and right now, I’m definitely in a reflecting period of just how I got to where I am today. It’s not like I did Dartmouth from 2005-2007. I came back right in the middle — Hugh when he’s 18, 25 and 30… The ups and downs that you go through, I think, develop you into the person that you are today.”

This is the person The New York Times said for whom “anonymity is an elixir,” as if he were hiding in Europe from the shame of “the cumbersome label as one of the biggest busts in recent draft history.” Certainly no one expected a first round draft — especially in 2003 — to play only two games in the National Hockey League. Certainly, he hoped his presence at the highest level would have been longer. The last thing Jessiman wants, though, is for anyone to pity him for any reason at all — not for a short career in the show, the loss of his mother or any other situation that played out in his life in which things went one way when he might have preferred the other.

Now finishing an education long overdue for an Ivy League student, he certainly is not devoid of the signature smile he wore on draft day. In fact, Gaudet said he brought that with him to the rink.

“I’ve known Hugh half his life,” Gaudet said. “Hugh always had a passion for the game. He loves hockey. He has a big smile on his face when he’s playing and that’s how I remember him always.”

Jessiman’s cousin, Haley Woodberry ’17, sees a similar picture of him, the type of guy to always, as he says, “rolls with the punches.”

“Everybody loves him because he’s nice no matter what,” Woodberry said. “I feel like he doesn’t judge anyone for doing anything. He does his own thing. I don’t really know how to say it. He’s not afraid to do something completely weird or crazy.”

At 30 years old, Jessiman has walked back on to the Green and jumped into classes with kids who were still in elementary and middle school when he left for the professional circuit, talking now about music and history and papers and midterms. He hesitated to talk about his future plans, stopping himself before he outlined them, not wanting to limit himself with his own words. Some options he’s considering are returning to Europe to play after he recovers from the injury he is currently nursing, moving to New York to work for the summer or simply “adventuring.”

He’s a hockey player not at a crossroads but in a state of transition, fulfilling the promises he made to his family and self and looking to satisfy “the itch” for adventure he’s never been able to fully shake.

In a postgame interview after his NHL debut, Jessiman told reporters about his journey to the NHL, echoing the attitude he has taken toward all the journeys in life — from hockey to education to personal growth.

“You never really know exactly how it’s going to come, but you have to believe that that day is coming,” he said. “You have to surrender to what is happening in life and you’ve got to obviously accept the lows and manage the highs. It has been a long road but it was definitely worth the wait.”