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The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

Inside Collin Graf’s first week in the NHL: ‘Something you’ll never forget’

(Photos courtesy of San Jose Sharks, Photoillustration by Cameron Levasseur)

 Collin Graf tried to take it all in as he walked out of the locker room at SAP Center in San Jose, California, on April 6. The 21-year-old was seconds away from his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks, doing his best to calm the nerves as he took the ice for his rookie lap. 

It was the culminating moment of Graf’s hockey career thus far. And then he almost fell flat on his face. 

“There was a nice little step down there that I wasn’t aware of,” he jokes a week later, now with a handful of NHL games under his belt. 

Graf recovered from that misstep, playing more than 13 minutes for the last-place Sharks in a 3-2 overtime win over the St. Louis Blues. It marked a new beginning for the two-time Hobey Baker Finalist, less than a week after his collegiate career with Quinnipiac came to an end, railroaded in a valiant effort against eventual national runner-up Boston College in the NCAA Tournament. 

The second Graf stepped off the ice that night in Providence, the clock began. As the undisputed top free agent in college hockey, it was no secret that he would turn pro — the only question was where. 

He fielded interest from more than 20 teams, but tried to maintain some sense of routine on campus. So Graf went to class, ran through workouts and got on the ice for a few skates to stay sharp. 

“I just sort of tried to use it as a normal week, but any free time that I had was analyzing and thinking about where I should go and what decision I should make,” Graf said. 

Day by day, the pressure increased as Quinnipiac’s top line splintered. Jacob Quillan — Graf’s centerman — signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday. Sam Lipkin — who played the opposite wing — neared a contract decision of his own. 

“It was getting to that point where … I wanted to make a decision, I just didn’t want to make the wrong one,” Graf said. “Once I decided and signed that contract, there was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders.” 

The 20-team field narrowed to five by Wednesday, a group of “more western conference” teams, Graf said. He met with each finalist on Zoom, after which San Jose emerged as the favorite. 

“They were honest with me. They said what they honestly thought of me. So I think that was really important,” Graf said. 

That, combined with a strong northeast contingent in the Sharks organization, sold Graf on the move to Northern California. 

San Jose general manager Mike Grier spent half a decade coaching at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, Massachusetts, 20 miles south of Graf’s hometown of Lincoln. Head coach David Quinn, a Rhode Island native, coached at Boston University. Senior advisor Tom Burke, director of player personnel Scott Fitzgerald and assistant coaches Scott Gordon and Ryan Warsofsky also all hail from Massachusetts. 

“The relationship with the northeast and the college guys was important,” Graf said. 

By Wednesday night, he’d reached his decision. By Thursday night, he was on a plane west. By Saturday night, he’d become the youngest Quinnipiac alumnus to play in the NHL. 

The learning curve was evident from the first time Graf touched the puck, barrelling straight toward 6-foot, 6-inch St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko. 

“He just sort of pushed me to the side,” Graf said. “The physicality is definitely a step up from college, going against men as opposed to college kids. I think that’s been the toughest adjustment for me.” 

Parayko was far from the only player to welcome Graf to the league. Seattle Kraken forward Yanni Gourde shrugged him off on an offensive-zone break in an April 11 game, spinning Graf to the ice and sending his helmet flying. But the lowlights have become moments to build from for the rookie. 

“The strength, it’s way different,” he said. “It’s good for me to learn now so I can work on it in the summer.” 

And on the offensive end, Graf is turning heads. He’s playing serious NHL minutes — averaging more than 16 per game — alongside Luke Kunin and William Eklund on the Sharks’ second line, and recorded his first career point against the Arizona Coyotes on April 7. 

“His puck skills are real,” Quinn said following an overtime loss to the Calgary Flames on April 9. “He’s got a lot of confidence with the puck which is good to see for a young player at this level, especially when you’re three games into your NHL career.” 

San Jose has long been eliminated from playoff contention, so Graf will return to Quinnipiac in a week to finish out the school year. But things have changed. He’s reached a tipping point in both his life and career, the moment where he goes from a 21-year-old college kid at an unpronounceable Connecticut school to neck deep in the waters of professional hockey, learning how to swim with the sharks. 

He shared the ice with Connor McDavid on Monday, but he’s living in a hotel room, trying to keep up with school work the best he can. 

Nearly every city he travels to will be a first. He’s still adjusting to the time change and has just become confident that he knows the name of every guy on the team. 

But his comfort with the pace of play is “growing every game,” and the tangible skills that first caught the eye of NHL scouts two years ago are translating more and more. 

“I think everyone’s advice was sort of the same thing,” Graf said. “Play your game, play what got you to this level. Don’t change your game now that you’re playing in the NHL.” 

The Sharks burnt a year of Graf’s three-year, $2.83 million entry-level deal to let him test the waters. And if this seven-game stint is any indication, it seems that he can swim just fine. 

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Cameron Levasseur
Cameron Levasseur, Sports Editor

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