Hockey players making the jump from the collegiate ranks to the professional level are becoming a fairly common breed. In fact, a record 314 former NCAA athletes comprised 32 percent of the National Hockey League last season — and that’s not including players still developing in the American Hockey League.
But the vast majority of those are Division I athletes. For players like Rockford IceHogs forward William Pelletier, a four-year member and former alternate captain of the NCAA Division III Norwich University Cadets, the path to pro hockey was a little more unclear. Division III teams don’t get the same exposure or competition level as their Division I counterparts, making it more difficult to be noticed by professional team personnel.
Pelletier knew the tricky path ahead as he entered his final year at Norwich, but focused on keeping his play consistent as he looked to make the transition to pro hockey.
“I’ve always been a hard worker. Even at Norwich, my coach liked me for working hard at every practice, every game. I wasn’t scared to go into the corners to get the puck, and I think that’s what my coach tried to get me to focus on to get (a chance in pro hockey) at the end of the season,” Pelletier said.
The St. Jean Chrysostome, Quebec, native’s hard work yielded a stunning 53 goals and 73 assists in 83 games at Norwich, along with a national championship victory in his senior year. Pelletier was also named the 2014-15 Division III Player of the Year. With a few good words from a friend and future IceHogs teammate thrown in for good measure, he got his chance in Rockford.
“My senior year at Norwich (University), I talked with (now-former IceHogs forward) P.C. (Labrie) in the summer and he asked if I would be interested in having a tryout here at the end of the season. I said yeah; obviously I was looking for a tryout somewhere,” Pelletier said.
“P.C. talked a lot with (Blackhawks senior director of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard), and after we won the national championship at Norwich, I got a call from my agent and (Bernard) offered me a tryout.”
But if you ask Labrie, he played only a minor role in Pelletier’s success.
“(Pelletier) helped himself a lot by just winning the MVP and winning the national championship. He put his name on the map himself and I just had to pass the word that he did great,” Labrie said after Pelletier joined the team last season.
Even with Labrie vouching for him on top of his impressive Norwich numbers, Pelletier couldn’t have predicted his transition to pro hockey would have gone as quickly as it did.
“I was very surprised to get a tryout right away in the AHL. I was expecting to get something, but maybe just a tryout in the ECHL. I had a good season and we won the national championship so I was expecting to get something, but not a tryout in the AHL right away,” Pelletier said.
The novelty of playing just a step below the NHL didn’t keep Pelletier from making the most of his chance. He posted three goals and four assists in eight games with Labrie and the IceHogs at the end of the 2016-17 season, including the team’s only four-point effort of the season in his second outing. And on June 23, 2017, he earned his first pro contract – a one-year deal that kept him in Rockford for the 2017-18 season.
Now, Pelletier is tied for third on the IceHogs active roster with 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) this season and recently signed an extension on Feb. 1.
“This year, they decided to give me another contract and I’m just trying to make the most of it, taking it a day at a time and competing every game. I guess they like my energy level and my intensity, so that’s why they offered me an extension for next year,” he said.
IceHogs head coach Jeremy Colliton offered a similar sentiment regarding Pelletier’s strengths.
“He’s fought for everything he’s gotten this year, as far as ice time and opportunity,” Colliton said. “He’s been very versatile, played in a bunch of different situations for us and done a really good job and been a big part of our success this year.”
Even now, Pelletier keeps everything in perspective and remains the same speedy, high-energy winger that led his fellow Cadets to a national title.
“It’s the same thing, the same job. I try to bring energy for the guys, work hard to recover pucks in the offensive zone. I’m trying to play well defensively, trying to do well on the penalty kill as well. That’s pretty much my job,” Pelletier said.
“I’m just trying to get better each day. I want to help get some wins for the team and do my job.”
There’s no denying that Pelletier’s route to the AHL is unconventional. But the long shot from Norwich continues to defy expectations as he carves out a place with the IceHogs, and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
And with his unrelenting style of play, that should come as no surprise.