After Sam Lafferty wrapped up a four-year college career at Brown University last week, he got into his car and began making the drive to Wilkes-Barre.
It was surreal for Lafferty, because it was just as if he was making the drive back to his hometown of Hollidaysburg, just outside of Altoona. Except he wasn’t going home.
He was turning professional with the organization he grew up cheering for and realizing a childhood dream, signing a two-year entry-level contract with the Penguins after they took him in the fourth round (113th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft.
The contract will begin with the 2018-19 season, and he will finish out the 2017-18 season on an amateur tryout contract with WBS.
“I definitely dreamed about it and imagined it when I was a little kid. But over the years, it’s gotten more and more realistic and for it to finally happen was just surreal,” Lafferty said. “But my real dream is to play for the Penguins, so I’ve got my work cut out for me in here in Wilkes Barre.”
The dream began when Lafferty was 6 years old and started watching the Penguins’ Stanley Cup playoff run back in 2001, where they were eliminated by the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“It just got my attention, I just absolutely fell in love with hockey,” Lafferty said. “So my mom took my younger brother Charlie and I to public skate and learn how to skate.”
As it turned out, a brand-new rink called Galactic Ice had just been built nearby. It took, as Lafferty said, “two minutes and 30-odd seconds to get there from my front door.”
It was there that Lafferty’s mother Jill met Dave Weaver, who was the general manager of Galactic Ice at the time, and the two of them ended up getting married. Dave then became Sam’s coach for the next 14 years until he went to college, starting with the Altoona Trackers.
“The only real team to play for was the Trackers if you wanted to play travel hockey,” Lafferty explained. “All of our away games were in Pittsburgh.”
They went, as Lafferty laughed, “everywhere” in the Pittsburgh area to play – listing Castle Shannon, Southpointe and Bladerunners, to name a few.
“When we would go to Cranberry, we would get off the same exit but we would go to Bladerunners instead of UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex,” Lafferty said. “That would’ve been really cool, but it’s awesome to see the new facility and just seeing how the game continues to grow.”
In 2004, Weaver started a program called the Mid-State Mustangs, which began as a tournament team for higher-level players in the central Pennsylvania region.
It developed into a full-season program in 2008-09 and the Mustangs have gone on to win 11 Western Pennsylvania state championships, 1 Mid-Am district championship and two USA Hockey national championships.
“We’d go to States, and if you won States you’d go to Nationals,” Lafferty said. “We started having a lot of success with that and it drew some more players to our area to play. Kids from State College would come down and a few kids from Pittsburgh as well.”
It helped that in 2005, the Penguins won the NHL Draft Lottery and the right to select Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick. Lafferty said that it had a huge impact on growing hockey in the area and inspiring more kids to play.
“When Sid was drafted, I was 10 years old and watching him, from then on, he was my favorite player,” Lafferty said. “I would see him do stuff on the ice and I would go to rink and I’d try to replicate it. It was just awesome.”
Lafferty hasn’t had a chance to play with Crosby yet, but that’s obviously the goal. Right now, Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin said Lafferty had to play a lot of different roles in college, so that over time, they’ll see where he fits best in the pros.
“But I think right now, we’re looking at him as a guy who’s going to be able to play a 200-foot game,” Guerin said. “He’s responsible in his defensive zone, he has an offensive touch to him, all those things. That’s what’s expected of all of our prospects.”
Guerin said that Lafferty is a skilled player with good speed, and that the most important development to his game is that the 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward became a lot stronger.
“That’s what he needed to do,” Guerin said. “He’s a heck of an athlete, he’s a scratch golfer, he even played on the team at Brown until eventually giving it up to concentrate full-time on hockey. But he’s a great athlete and he did put the work in in the weight room, which he really needed to do and it’s paid off for him.”
Lafferty was Brown’s team leader this year in assists (14) and points (22), and his eight goals were second on the club. He ended his season on a roll offensively with three assists in his final two collegiate appearances, and in his final 11 games, he produced 13 points (4G-9A).
He made his pro debut in WBS’ 2-1 win over Grand Rapids on Saturday, skating on a line with Tom Sestito and Joseph Cramarossa, and is looking forward to building on what he was able to do.
“I had my first game two nights ago in Wilkes-Barre and that was a great experience,” Lafferty said. “It went really well, so I definitely gained a lot of confidence from that. I think the biggest things are just soaking in everything you can from the older guys and from the coaches and just learning as much as possible. Basically, just learning what it takes to be a pro and to play for the Penguins. So it’s a day in, day out sort of thing and I’m just trying to get better each day.”