Making the Jump

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The collegiate careers of nine senior Wildcat hockey players ended in Ann Arbor’s Yost Ice Arena on March 10 with an 8-3 season-ending defeat at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines. Refusing to dwell on that defeat, the players have quickly moved on and are currently placing their marks on the world of professional hockey.

Dusty Collins (Springfield Falcons), Darin Olver (Hartford Wolfpack), Pat Bateman (Milwaukee Admirals) and Zach Tarkir (Lowell Devils) have all left the Marquette area and are currently playing hockey in the American Hockey League (AHL).

Rob Lehtinen is also playing professionally for the Johnstown Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL).

The players have spent the first couple of weeks of their professional careers trying to adjust to the differences between NCAA and professional hockey, which they say are noticeable.

“All the guys kind of know where they need to be and what their job is,” Collins said of the AHL. “It’s more up-tempo (than college), but at the same time, it’s almost easier in the fact that there’s not as much running around and guys know where to be. It’s a step up for sure, but the NCAA and college really prepares you for the next level.”

Lehtinen, a Marquette native, was one of the first Wildcats to go pro and one of the first to leave his mark.

Lehtinen, on the road with the Chiefs just one week after the end of NMU’s 2006-2007 campaign, promptly proved that he can compete in the ECHL when he scored a goal in his second professional game on March 18.

“Your first pro goal is something that you’ll remember,” said Lehtinen, who also has an assist in seven games as a Chief. “It would have been nice to get it in my first game, but it was still a pretty big deal for me. I got the goal, but I wish we could’ve gotten the win. I would’ve enjoyed it a little bit more.”

Johnstown lost the game to the Trenton Titans, 5-2.

One day earlier, former NMU assistant captain Darin Olver posted his inaugural pro goal in his first game with the Wolfpack.

“It was nice to get it right away, but it’s not really a weight off your back,” said Olver, who has played five games with Hartford.. “You still have to produce and one goal isn’t going to do anything for you, in the end.”

Olver’s marker came in a losing effort against the Springfield Falcons and former teammate Dusty Collins was on the ice when the light went off.

Although he hasn’t done it in a few years, Olver has attempted to score goals against Collins’ teams in the past, when Olver played in the British Columbia Hockey League and Collins skated for the United States National Team Development Program U-17 team.

“Before college I used to play against Dusty, I used to play against Pat and Zach,” Olver said. “It’s kind of funny that it is right back to that so soon, though, and it was interesting playing against Dusty again.”

All hockey players exist within a tight-knit fraternity and a player can quickly become accustomed to perpetually seeing the same faces on the other bench, Collins said.

He admits, however, that it is strange to play against a long-time teammate, such as Olver.

“Hockey is such a small world to start out with,” he said. “You’re at this level and now you’re playing against guys that you played with at Northern. It’s a little weird when you get a guy that you have played with for four years in the same jersey and now you and him have different jerseys on.”

Lehtinen and Olver are the only seniors to pick up pro goals at this point, but all of the players say that they are making a smooth overall transition into professional hockey.

One of the biggest hitches in this transition may be the fact that, although they are finally professional athletes, the players are still student-athletes.They are currently balancing games, travel, practice time and homework assignments, which they submit via e-mail to their professors in Marquette.

“I think the biggest thing is just having to teach everything to yourself,” Olver said of the school work. “You take it for granted when you’re sitting in class on your computer, but what I wouldn’t give for a professor to explain the assignment that I’m trying to do right now. It’s a tough task.”

In addition to these basic duties, Lehtinen said that he has visited hospitals, read to children and done team-related community service in and around Johnstown.

When he is not playing, practicing or serving the community, Lehtinen is often doing his homework in the house that he shares with former Wildcat defenseman and current Johnstown Chief Geoff Waugh.

“[Waugh] was my best boy back in school and I roomed with him a little bit on the road when I was at Northern,” Lehtinen said. “We hung out all the time and now to get the opportunity to play with him again is a treat.”

Ex-Wildcat players Jamie Milam, Andrew Contois, Dirk Southern and Craig Kowalski also play in the ECHL, while Nathan Oystrick, the captain of the 2005-2006 Wildcat squad, plays in the AHL.

Although Lehtinen managed to find both a familiar face and a place to stay in Johnstown, all players aren’t as lucky and most will finish out the current season living in a hotel room.

And although the players are now staying in largely unfamiliar cities and playing on their first professional teams, they all attribute their success to NMU and the opportunities that they were afforded here.

“I have grown as a player in four years at Northern and it has helped me to develop into a pro hockey player,” Lehtinen said. “I [am] also getting an education and a degree to use after hockey when I have to get a regular job.”

The players said that they have kept in touch with the seniors that departed before them and that, through those players, they were able to gain an insight into the life of a professional hockey player.

Surprisingly, though, the players didn’t get much last minute advice from NMU head coach Walt Kyle, Olver said.

“He didn’t need to say much,” Olver said of Kyle. “He’s basically been preparing me for four years now. There was nothing really that he would tell me that he hadn’t been telling me for the last four years.”

The ex-Wildcats will finish out the current season in the pro ranks before deciding their future. Next year, they could again be teammates or they could be sitting on opposing benches.

The only thing that matters now is the experience.

“This introduces you to the life of professional hockey, which has been my dream since I was five years old,” Collins said. “To get this experience and to learn what it is all about and to try to prove yourself at this level is a neat thing and a great opportunity.”