If it wasn’t enough that Neal Pionk is having the kind of strong start to the NHL season that has observers across the all-Canadian division taking close notice, how about the fact he’s not just schooling people on the ice.
Pionk, 25, just recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor of business administration. The Winnipeg Jets defenceman took to Twitter earlier this week to show off his diploma, which he earned 4.5 years after leaving the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he was a student and hockey player from 2015-17.
"I made a promise to my mom when I signed my first pro contract that I’d finish my degree. So, that was first and foremost," Pionk told reporters Thursday, hours before the Jets were set to welcome the Montreal Canadiens to town. "But in all reality, it’s nice to have a backup plan and always have something to fall back on. It’s good to get yourself educated and I was proud to be able to get it done."
Pionk has been on a scorching pace this year, his second season in Winnipeg and fourth in the NHL. Heading into Thursday’s action, the Nebraska native was tied with Drew Doughty and John Carlson for seventh in NHL scoring by defencemen, with 15 points in 18 games.
The Jets signed Pionk to a two-year, US$6-million deal that expires at the end of the season. The restricted free agent is due a significant raise, too, begging the question of whether he’ll have to use his degree in the future. Predictably, he’s thought that far ahead.
"Hopefully I can play as long as I can. My initial plan is to stay in hockey after I’m finished playing. I’ve heard these stories of guys, they retire and they want nothing to do with hockey ever again. Like, what if that’s me? What if I want to go do something in business or go do something marketing? Well, now I have a degree to fall back on," he said.
"I remember sitting down at the dinner table, having that conversation with my mom and dad, deciding whether I should turn pro or not. And (not earning my degree) was obviously a con... it’s going to be hard to finish your degree if you leave school now and it’s going to take a lot of time and not only that, but a lot of money. So, my mom made me promise before I put my name on the dotted line. I was glad to fulfill that."
It’s an impressive feat, even if Pionk has had a light school schedule at times. He said that because he was used to taking a full course load and playing and practising nearly every day as a student, one or two classes a semester wasn’t really that difficult, even with the heavy demands of playing in the NHL.
His coaches and teammates were certainly impressed. Some were unaware he was in school, which only seemed to add to the achievement.
"I’m jealous. I’ve always told myself or told my family and my kids that I want to finish school eventually. So he’s got a leg up on me," said veteran forward Paul Stastny, who attended the University of Denver for two years before signing with the Colorado Avalanche in 2006.
"I think the hardest part is when you get away from it, it’s getting back in. Once you’re back in it’s easy to keep it going. It’s nice in that it kind of keeps your mind off it. Sometimes if we’re on the road a lot of time, we’re travelling and we’re not home, there’s not much to do. Because it’s just hockey and you’re kind of staying indoors, just playing it safe. Being able to educate yourself is always important as a person and keep growing as an individual."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Pionk finishing his degree is a symptom of his never-quit attitude and attention to detail. With what he’s seen on the ice, Maurice isn’t surprised to see that extend to his personal life.
"The time cost of the NHL job for these guys, then the physical cost — so the recovery that they need — you’ve got way more guys in the NHL online playing video games than you do taking classes," Maurice said. "Over the year and a half that we’ve had Neal, he’s invested in his career — his hockey — and you see it every day. There is that internal drive because he’s in a situation in his life that he makes a lot of money, he’s going to be OK. He does this as an investment in his future. You’ll find Neal when he’s done playing hockey, I’m sure, running business and being a leader in the community."
While Pionk might not be your typical student, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t felt like one before. He recalled one time while playing for the U.S. at the 2018 World Championships in Denmark, that he had to finish a paper due the next day.
"Obviously there’s a big time change, right? So, I had to make sure I kept up with my deadlines, but I also never wanted to do homework on game days. So there was one night... I found out I had a paper due the next day and obviously I wasn’t going to do it on a game day. And at the World Championships you share a room and I happened to be sharing a room with Jordan Oesterle," he said.
"I had to type out a paper, but I felt like my laptop was making so much noise that I literally went and sat in the hallway at like midnight and typed it out. It didn’t take too long and I wasn’t up too late, but it was just kind of bizarre that I was at World Championships sitting in a hallway typing a paper before one of our games."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.