Former Dartmouth hockey players prepare for professional level
Four former Dartmouth hockey players have spent their fall terms preparing to join professional hockey programs when the competitive season begins. Drew O’Connor ’22 signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in March, Will Graber ’20 signed with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears following the 2020 season and two of Graber’s classmates — Cam Strong ’20 and Adrian Clark ’20 — signed with clubs in the ECHL.
Clark, Graber and Strong all said that they have not been able to join their teams in person yet, as the start of their seasons continue to be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clark, who is signed with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, said that the offseason has been a strange one given the uncertainty around the season’s start date. Strong, who will play his first professional season for the Reading Royals, echoed that sentiment.
“I've been talking with the coaches every couple of weeks, and they're just making sure that we're staying prepared for whenever the season may start,” Clark said. “And that just involves training hard, staying in shape, really conditioning well and also making sure we're staying safe, staying healthy.”
Graber had planned to go to Hershey, Pennsylvania following his signing at the end of this past winter term, but said that the cancellation of the season upended those plans. He added that he has been in regular contact with his coaches, as well as player development staff for the Washington Capitals — the NHL team affiliated with the Hershey Bears — while he awaits the start of the season.
When the season does eventually begin, Graber said he anticipates that the faster pace of play at the professional level will be the biggest adjustment he will face.
“You're taking the best players from the college level and giving them a few extra years, right?” Graber said. “So everybody's faster, bigger, stronger.”
Strong also said the speed of play might be a challenge to adjust to, as well as the longer duration of the pro season compared to the college season. Clark pointed to the fact that, at the pro level, younger players fresh out of college are pitted regularly against adults who have played in the league for years.
“There [are] guys with full families, upwards of 35 years old,” Clark said. “So I think they bring a whole different game in terms of playing physically, playing with tempo, shooting the puck harder just because they've been around the game for so long.”
Clark, Graber and Strong all credited Dartmouth’s hockey program and the player development environment it cultivates for preparing them to succeed at the professional level.
“One thing I was able to do at Dartmouth, over the course of the four years there, was build quite a bit of confidence with our coaching staff and build a trust there,” Graber said. “They trusted me to do my job, and in exchange I kind of got some leash to do things and grow as a player on the ice.”
In terms of their expectations for themselves and their seasons, Clark and Strong both said that they hope to push for playing time this season to increase their exposure and level of comfort at the professional level.
Graber echoed his former teammates’ desire to earn playing time and a lasting job in professional hockey, adding that he hopes to eventually parlay his AHL experience and exposure into an NHL contract.
Clark, Graber and Strong all expressed excitement at the opportunity to continue playing hockey beyond the collegiate level.
“I knew I wanted to play hockey as long as I could, and I thought it'd be really cool to get paid to do it someday,” Strong said. “I really made the decision just senior year that I was going to keep playing because I still love it, I want to see what I can do and I also feel like I have a lot more to prove.”
Graber said that he had wanted to play college hockey from the time he was 11 years old, and that the “lofty dream” above that was to make his way to the NHL.
“I'm really, really happy with the way things worked out,” Graber said. “So now it's just a matter of trying to prepare for the next phase and see how long I can make the pro hockey dream last, and then move on from there and do whatever life has next.”