NHL fans expect a lot from our star players, from being 250 lbs and graceful as a ballerina at the same time to being able to win a fistfight on ice skates.
One thing we don’t expect, however, is for our toothless, fearless heroes to be geniuses off the ice as well as savants on it. But that doesn’t mean the NHL’s ranks don’t have their fair share of big brains—in fact, plenty of players, from goalies to goons, have made their marks on the academic world as well as on the bruised bodies and spirits of their opponents.
In a professional sports world where the old and injured are discarded like misfit toys, having a second skill could be the difference between becoming a millionaire success post-sports and becoming a cautionary tale. This doesn’t always mean having an academic background (Lebron James never went to college and is now among the savviest businessmen in sports; his lifetime contract with Nike will keep generations of Jameses in private school) but there’s no denying that a degree offers a safety net that many pro athletes don’t realize they might need until it’s too late. The premium placed on college hockey in the NHL—and the fact that many Ivy League schools still boast top-tier teams—means that some of the athletes who are most likely to break each other’s bones are also some of the most likely to engage each other on combinatorial mathematics or Kierkegaard.
The NHL is often thought of as a league of speed and brawn, and those attributes are common among all of its great players. These 15 standouts, however, combined their athletic prowess with genius levels of intelligence that are rare in anyone, let alone someone who also happens to be a physical genetic lottery winner and compulsive worker.
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14 T14. Alex Biega
The first Ivy Leaguer on our list made his NHL debut in the 2014-2015 season with the Vancouver Canucks after paying his dues in the AHL’s Portland and Rochester franchises. But before that, he was, as the Crimson’s website proudly reminds readers, “The 116th captain of Harvard men's hockey ... [Two Time] Recipient of the John Tudor Memorial Cup for Most Valuable Player." He had considerably more hair back then—and what glorious 90s inspired hair it was—but the spirit remains the same. Before entering the 2006 draft, Biega got his degree in Sociology from a program that has graduated everything from Fulbright scholars to Wall Street mavens.
T14. Danny Biega
Alex’s younger brother Danny splits the opening spot with his fellow Ivy Leaguer. Before being brought up from the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers to the Carolina Hurricanes in March 2015, Biega spent a scant half-season in the minors before lacing up in the big leagues. His quick rise was no shock for those who had been following his school career, first at Salisbury in Connecticut where he won a prep school title and second as a member of the Harvard Crimson just like his brother. The first defensive player to tally more than 30 points in consecutive seasons for Harvard since the 1980s, he also took a degree in Sociology, so don’t be surprised to hear the Biega brothers debating the pedagogy of Max Weber when they’re home in Quebec for the holidays.
13 Brett Lebda
He hasn’t been in The Show for a couple of seasons, but Brett Lebda, the 34-year-old journeyman defenseman most recently employed by the Columbus Blue Jackets doesn’t have to worry about post-hockey security. While making life miserable for powerhouses like Yale as early as his freshman year at Notre Dame, Lebda stood out on the ice while adhering to UND’s notoriously stringent academic requirements and completed a degree in Business. As part of the Detroit Red Wings’ stalwart defenses of the mid-00s, he was often called on to share the ice with one of his boyhood idols, Chris Chelios—a story he’ll no doubt be able to regale clients with now that he’s putting that business degree to use.
12 Matt Moulson
The 6’1’’, 2012 lb. winger for the Buffalo Sabers had 331 career points at press time, which is a nice complement to his Ivy League education. As a member of Cornell’s Men’s Hockey Team until his graduation in 2006, Moulson wore number 24, two lower than his current 26, and was also billed by Cornell as a full inch shorter. Talking to the Olean Times Herald for an article reprinted by Buffalo Hockey Beat, Moulson said his economics degree was a saving grace when he wasn’t sure if he’d make it in the NHL: “I said, ‘Thank God I went to school.” Moulson told the paper. “I had something to fall back on.”
11 Dominic Moore
In addition to being one of the NHL’s most useful veteran centers, Dominic Moore is also another of Harvard’s recent NHL transplants. As a member of the Crimson’s all-Moore line in the early 00s, Moore tallied 64 goals, placing him in a tie for eighth place in the history of the Harvard hockey team. Moore’s real value to the Rangers isn’t just in his goals, though they help. The 2014 Bill Masterton Trophy winner is the kind of player coaches dream about having in their locker rooms. The trophy is given, according to the NHL, “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” qualities Moore honed at Harvard.
10 Darroll Powe
As a captain of the Princeton Tigers hockey team, Darroll Powe, now an unrestricted free agent in the NHL, won the Vaughan Cup “for perseverance and dedication to Princeton hockey” as a senior despite his season being cut short by a shoulder injury. Powe, a Saskatoon native, has emerged as a leader in his professional roles, most notably as a member of the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, where he acted as a leader in the locker room and netted five goals despite being sidelined by concussions no less than five times. He’s played in more than 320 NHL games and is yet another member of the NHL’s Ivy League sociology club, gaining his degree in 2006.
9 Kevin Westgarth
He may have retired from the NHL and left for greener pastures in Belfast, but Kevin Westgarth earned a place on this list with points, championship rings, and blood. After moving to the UK’s EIHL, Westgarth has begun to shed his former image as a brutal enforcer in favor of the power forward position he has coveted since his somewhat surprising days in the Ivy League. A 2015 Sportsnet profile of Westgarth describes the imposing man’s incredible acumen in terms of unused potential. “His former bosses, Brian Burke and Dean Lombardi, believe him destined to someday run his own NHL franchise or perhaps succeed Donald Fehr as head of the NHLPA,” wrote Brett Popplewell of the veteran, who earned a degree in psychology from Princeton.
8 Shawn Horcoff
The 6’1’’ center for the Anaheim Ducks, Horcoff is the proud owner of a marketing degree from Michigan State University in addition to being a 15-year veteran of the world’s most demanding hockey league. With 50 career goals as a Spartan, Horcoff proved his worth in the clutch by scoring 15 of them in the final period of the game, whether that was the third or overtime. One of the few players on this list without a prep school and ivy league background, Horcoff’s academic prowess proves private schools don’t have a monopoly on athletic intellectuals.
7 Ben Scrivens
The second Cornell alumnus on our list, goalie Ben Scrivens has seven NHL clean sheets in his career nd a .901 save percentage in the 2015-2016 season as of print time. Before making his mark at Cornell, Scrivens worked his way up from the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. When Cornell accepted him into its school of Hotel Management, from which he earned his degree, Scrivens immediately made it known that the space between the Big Red’s goalposts was his domain, recording 19 shutouts and 2,873 saves on his way from the Ivy League to the pros.
6 Colin Greening
Cornell makes another appearance with Colin Greening, the work horse center for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Though he would eventually find a place on the ECAC’s All-Academic team four years in a row, Greening began his collegiate career at Toronto’s Upper Canada College before finding a place among the substantial fraternity of Ivy League alumni in the NHL, working his way through minor league team after minor league team. During his senior year, he was even Student-Athlete of the Year despite tackling the intimidating subject of applied economics. Tallying 15 goals and 25 assists in 59 games in the AHL after graduation, Greening went on to take a spot with the Ottawa Senators, his first NHL team.
5 Joel Ward
The 35-year-old San Jose right wing is a veteran of nine years in the NHL, most of them with the always-contending Washington Capitals, but he’s also a proud graduate of Canada’s University of Prince Edward Island. Relatively young compared to its American counterparts, University of Prince Edward Island was founded in the 1960s with all the forward-thinking and intellectually charged implications of that decade. While Joel Ward would go on to make a name for himself as one of the NHL’s toughest customers, his time at UPEI was spent like most college students’—making friends and working hard at both academics and athletics. In 2013, when one of his UPEI teammates died tragically in a house fire, Ward showed his soft spot by dedicating the 2013-2014 season to his friend, Drew Power.
4 Lee Stempniak
Dartmouth University’s record holder for NHL games played after attending, Lee Stempniak (Class of ‘05) also has the second-most games played in Dartmouth hockey history. It’s this consistency between the lines that led the New Jersey Devils to pick up the Ivy League veteran for the 2015-2016 season and add a steady voice to their bench. But before he worked his way up to an Ivy League degree and a place with one of the NHL’s most popular franchises, Stempniak was a Boston College freshman determined to give himself the best chance possible at professional success. Transferring to Dartmouth gave Stempniak the hockey background to make the pros and the academic background to thrive after his career.
3 Ben Lovejoy
A graduate of the prestigious Deerfield Academy prep school—where he lettered in hockey, lacrosse and soccer before eventually arriving at Dartmouth, Lovejoy is an example of the tried and tested academic NHL path—New England education punctuated with moments of brilliance on the ice as well as the classroom. A Hockey East Scholastic team member, Lovejoy was then brought up by the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he would eventually return after a brief stint in Anaheim. The imposing 6’2’’ defenseman holds the line for Sidney Crosby and his precious head—which, coincidentally, does not hold the wealth of an Ivy League education.
2 Mathieu Darche
Before his 2012 retirement, Mathieu Darche represented the pinnacle of Canadian student-athlete culture. Though many on our list were born north of the U.S. border, most made their way to American colleges—not so with Darche. As a member of McGill University’s hockey team, Darche—along with his brother J.P., who went on to become a professional long-snapper in football—paved the way for his a solid NHL career. A veteran NHL winger who logged time in Columbus, Nashville, San Jose and Tampa Bay before inking a deal with his childhood team, the Montreal Canadiens.
1 Alex Killorn
When he scored the first goal of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals, Alex Killorn became the first graduate of Harvard to score in the final quest for Lord Stanley’s silverware. With a degree in government and political science from the Ivy League school’s notoriously grueling civics program, Killorn can count himself among both the deadliest centermen in the league with a wrister and the most likely to explain the electoral college to you—and he’s not even from the United States. Killorn is second only to Dominic Moore on the list of Harvard’s NHL playoff goal scorers with 10 to Moore’s 11.
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