Run Your Own Race

Kyle Criscuolo

When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing in the NHL. I grew up watching the Philadelphia Flyers and imagined that one day I would represent the orange and black. There was no way for me to know, at the time, the amount of sacrifice, risk, and dedication it would take to reach the professional ranks twenty years later. Despite all the uncertainty and detours, I wouldn’t change a thing and can proudly say that I ran my own race.

Growing up, undersized and from southern New Jersey, there weren’t any simple choices that would have led to a certain future in hockey. Undrafted, and in a small market, there was no junior or college team that would undoubtedly help me achieve my dream of playing in the NHL. With this in mind, there was no other choice but to focus on my own journey, without becoming preoccupied with the paths taken by teammates and peers around me.

After three years of high school in Philadelphia, I made the decision to go after my dream and to leave home before college. While this is common for kids playing junior hockey in Canada, this had been a foreign idea to me growing up. Some of my U16 teammates were already committed to play Division I college hockey and were staying in the area to continue to develop. However, I felt my best opportunity to grow as a player and as a student was to attend a boarding school, Choate Rosemary Hall, with hopes of playing Division I. Statistically, the vast majority of kids playing prep school hockey don’t end up playing professionally and most don’t even play at the DI level. The Choate coach had never seen me play, I wasn’t highly touted, and I was leaving a great education in Philly for an unknown future. Nonetheless, I was ready to take a risk that I felt was necessary for my aspirations of continuing my hockey career as well as my education.

By the end of my first season, I had a handful of colleges that were willing to offer me a spot in their 2011 class. That summer, I made the decision to commit to Harvard. By the end of my senior year, the Harvard coaching staff was ready for me to attend school in the fall.

With the capacity to still improve and grow, I wanted to enter college with the best chance of having long-term success; I wanted my four years of college to be my best years of hockey. In trying to maximize my college success, I decided to play a year of junior hockey before heading to school in order to continue to mature my game on and off the ice.

Many of my friends took that season to play juniors on the East Coast and stay close to home. For me, I felt the USHL would best prepare me for the next level. Despite being a late round pick by the Sioux City Musketeers and after being warned that unheralded players often get lost in the USHL, I was determined to continue to run my own race. I had never focused on the journey of others and wasn’t going to start now. During training camp and the first bit of the season, I had to outlast all of the players drafted before me that year by the Musketeers organization. After a dismal 2-7 start, we fought back to make the playoffs. There was a sign in Sioux City’s locker room that read, “It’s a privilege.” It certainly was, and I believed that. The sign was a reminder that I couldn’t take my opportunity for granted and needed to keep getting better each step of the way.

Before committing to Harvard, another school had been recruiting me. This other college was the first to show interest in me and was just a few miles down the road from Choate. Yale had a lot going for it at the time. They had been to the NCAA tournament the prior year and were gaining national prominence. Harvard didn’t have quite the same success rate, as of late, but it did have a rich history of excellence, on and off the ice. All said and done, I would be lying if I told you the decision to attend Harvard was based solely on hockey.

When I matriculated at Harvard in the fall of 2012, I was still fairly unknown. The assistant coaches who had recruited me were both gone, and there were some high-end prospects in my class. For me, it was time to, again, stick to the program and earn my keep. After two seasons of dedicated work alongside my teammates to help get the team back on track, I was named a co-captain. I would serve again as co-captain my senior year, next to my linemate and eventual Hobey Baker winner, Jimmy Vesey. The team would rebound from the bottom of the league; finally returning to the NCAA tournament, winning the ECAC Championship, as well as the Ivy League (not to mention the 2017 Beanpot captured after our graduating year). Jimmy and the third member of our line, Alexander Kerfoot, are both NHL mainstays. Each of them had great success right out of the gates for their respective NHL teams and have certainly earned what they have gotten.

Late in my senior year, with two AHL contract options, I chose an advisor to help push my career forward. Up until that point, my family had helped guide my decisions. Soon after, I signed with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Throughout my rookie season, teammates were making their NHL debuts. Though for me, being on an AHL contract allowed me to focus all of my energy on becoming the best player I could be in the AHL without worrying about anyone else’s journey. It was my race and I was now playing professional ice hockey!

Once again I would have to earn my way, believe in the process of establishing a rapport, taking it one day at a time, and earning my opportunity to eventually play in the NHL. I focused on the process of getting better, learned how to be a professional, and gave everything I had to the team. We ended up winning the Calder Cup – a great reward for staying in the moment and focusing on the journey.

A couple weeks after we won, I was a free agent and decided that the Buffalo Sabres organization provided the best opportunity for me to continue my career. Fortunately, the organization believed in me and helped make my dream come true. Earlier this season, I played in my first NHL game, as a Buffalo Sabre. It is something that I will never forget. However, my short stint has made me hungrier to become a regular for the Sabres in the NHL.

I write today as a proud member of the Rochester Americans. Day in and day out I continue my journey to reach the next level and help my team win. There is no playbook that has allowed me to get to this point. I try to stick to my gut, focus on what I can control, and rely on endless support from my family, friends, and teammates. With impending practices, leading into some important games, this undersized kid from South Jersey anxiously looks forward to continuing this leg of his race.

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