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College hockey players are leaving early for NHL, but more are finishing their degrees

GRAND FORKS — For decades, high-end University of North Dakota men's hockey players have signed NHL contracts before reaching their senior seasons.

That's been especially true as of late.

In the last 15 years, UND has had 30 players turn pro early, including eight in the last two summers alone.

But there's a unique twist with today's times.

More and more of those players are still getting their college degrees.

With the rise in online classes at UND and elsewhere around the country, players are taking advantage and finishing off their undergraduate degrees while playing in the pros.

Two UND players who left school after three years finished their degrees recently while playing in the NHL.

Goalie Zane McIntyre managed to complete his psychology degree this spring, while playing for the Boston Bruins and Boston's top minor-league affiliate, the Providence Bruins. He chipped away at it during the last two years.

Forward Rocco Grimaldi crammed 37 credits into one year while playing for the NHL's Florida Panthers and their top minor-league team, the San Antonio Rampage, to complete his degree.

A third player who left early, defenseman Tucker Poolman, finished his degree in three years and left UND this spring with a diploma in hand.

Others are in the process of doing the same.

"Obviously, it starts with the coaching staff," said McIntyre, who was unable to walk at graduation because he was in the middle of the American Hockey League playoffs. "They want us to complete it and make all efforts to help us out and give us resources to do so. It starts with Bubba (Brad Berry) and coach (Dave) Hakstol. They tell us, no matter what, to get your degrees because that will help you later on in life. It's very influential coming from those guys.

"But it's also something I set out for when I went to school—to get my degree. I come from a background with my grandma being the OT (Occupational Therapy) chair at UND. She knew how important education was. It was good for me to do it for her and myself and it definitely puts a little stamp on my time at UND."

While McIntyre spaced out his classes a little more, Grimaldi raced through his final year while playing pro hockey.

He took 13 credits in the summer—completing biology in five weeks—18 credits in the fall and six in the spring.

There were some challenges along the way.

Because San Antonio's libraries don't offer any proctored tests, Grimaldi had to take six tests in the span of two or three days when he went home to California for Christmas to finish his fall semester.

Grimaldi returned to Grand Forks to collect his diploma from then-President Robert Kelley. His parents, sister, brother-in-law and future wife all attended the ceremony with him.

"There's no way I wanted to go back to school after playing hockey for however long," Grimaldi said. "Most people say that they'll go back, but they don't do it. I wanted to get it done. I wanted to say that I went to college for four years and that I graduated in four years.

"It was cool for my family and I was proud of myself for finishing the way I did, squeezing in so many credits. I basically had one bio exam a week, and that's not the easiest course."

McIntyre and Grimaldi said they didn't hear many comments from teammates about studying on road trips—many of them played college and have either done it themselves or thought about doing it.

Other prominent college players who finished their degrees while playing in the NHL recently include Chris Kreider (Boston College, New York Rangers), Justin Abdelkader (Michigan State, Detroit Red Wings), Torey Krug (Michigan State, Boston Bruins), Colton Parayko (Alaska Fairbanks, St. Louis Blues), Mike Reilly (Minnesota, Minnesota Wild), Nick Bjugstad (Minnesota, Florida Panthers) and David Backes (MSU-Mankato, Boston Bruins).

Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College is in the process of doing the same.

These opportunities didn't exist 20 years ago without online schooling.

"There was definitely some chaos on my end, going up and down (between NHL and AHL) and doing classwork," McIntyre said. "But going through the schedule of a student-athlete, you learn to prioritize and figure out what you need to get done with deadlines and everything that comes with it. I was able to balance everything. There were definitely some long nights, but it's going to be worth it to have my degree."

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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