Men's Hockey: Playing beyond their years
Unlike some counterparts on other varsity teams, the five men’s hockey players who comprise Princeton’s freshman class have already evinced their keen knowledge of play beyond the high school setting. Typical of Division I hockey recruits, four of the five joined the Class of 2016 after having played in junior hockey leagues, a program available to American and Canadian high school students and graduates for the purpose of fine-tuning skills and providing advanced competition before college.
With plenty of experience at other levels of hockey, Princeton’s incoming class of forwards Mike Ambrosia, Jonathan Liau, Kyle Rankin and Michael Zajac and defender Kevin Liss have already played vital roles and integrated themselves into a successful team.
In particular, Zajac and Ambrosia, playing at right wing and left wing, proved that they are far from novices on the ice in the Tigers’ first two home games. Against No. 4 Cornell on Friday, Zajac scored his first career goal early in the second period before Princeton (2-2 overall, 2-0 ECAC Hockey) nearly lost its edge against the Big Red in the final frame.
He also notched an assist to senior left wing Andrew Ammon in the third period, undoing Cornell’s brief one-goal lead after the Big Red (3-2-1, 1-2-1) battled back from a 2-0 deficit. In the end, Princeton topped one of its chief rivals with a 5-3 score.
“It was pretty high on my list of greatest hockey moments. My parents came here to watch the game, so they saw my first college goal,” Zajac said. “There’s no better feeling in the world than that.”
In his second game at Baker Rink, Zajac earned another goal at the start of the second period to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead; the hosts eventually cruised to a 4-0 win over Colgate (4-6-1, 0-3-1). Zajac is the only freshman — and the only player besides senior goaltender Mike Condon — to play for Princeton immediately after high school instead of spending time in a junior league.
“[Other players] always give me a rough time for not knowing the things that people pick up in juniors,” Zajac said. “I’m definitely the baby on the team, but I’m happy I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to come to one of the best universities and play D-I hockey right out of high school.”
The freshmen’s already-strong presence on the team was also shown by Ambrosia, who scored with just seconds left in the first period against Colgate, exploiting the Tigers’ five-on-three advantage.
“We don’t come back to Baker for about a month or so. Getting our first two wins there and helping to be part of that was pretty special after having two tough one-point losses [against Brown and Yale],” Ambrosia said. “Especially in the Cornell game, we didn’t play a full 60 minutes. We showed a lot of character by coming back after a deficit, but we know there are things we can always improve on.”
Rankin — who cited two fellow Ontarians, junior forwards Andrew Calof and Eric Carlson, as his mentors — also took a spot in the starting lineup in both home games.
“It was a pretty packed barn on both nights, so it’s always fun skating out to that,” Rankin said. “There’s always that nervous excitement before the drop of any puck. If you don’t have that, there’s probably something wrong.”
Even though the other two freshmen, Liss and Liau, watched the two victories from the upper deck because of ACL and groin injuries, respectively, the pair already knows each other — and the entire team — more than most incoming freshman athletes.
“I played on a Youngstown, Ohio, team with first Ambrosia, and then Johnny [Liau] came halfway through the season last year,” said Liss, who tore his ACL in a junior-league playoff game last April. “Knowing those two guys well has made the transition a little easier. It’ll be tough coming back later in the season after the doctor clears me, but it’s a challenge, and you just have to rise to it.”
Liau, who took a spot in the scoring column in the Tigers’ preseason exhibition against Guelph, shared his junior league teammate’s excitement from a spectator’s perspective.
“I wasn’t playing, but to get two wins in our first home games was my welcome-to-Princeton hockey moment,” he said. “The band is playing; it’s packed, it’s loud ... Even in the balcony, I was so happy, but we have to stay humble and keep building off of that.”
Thanks to the five rookies’ keen awareness of the game, their backgrounds with each other and upperclassman mentorship, Princeton’s newest players have already knocked down some of the barriers that incoming freshmen often encounter. If their central roles so far are any indication, the men’s hockey team can expect even bigger contributions during the next four years.
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