Canton hockey legend gets first taste of NHL action

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Canton's Kevin Rooney (right) made his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals on March 2.

Canton’s Kevin Rooney (right) made his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals on March 2.

Editor’s note: After being reassigned to Albany on Tuesday, Kevin Rooney was recalled to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday, March 8.

He went from high school state champion to New England prep champion to NCAA champion to professional hockey player in a span of just five years, and last week, Kevin Rooney, the pride of Canton hockey, realized a lifelong dream when he suited up for his first National Hockey League (NHL) game as a member of the New Jersey Devils.

Just 23 years old and less than a year removed from a storied four-year career at Providence College, Rooney had been playing on a contract with the Albany Devils — New Jersey’s American Hockey League affiliate — and had appeared in all 57 games for Albany as of last Monday when he was inked to his first official NHL contract.

The former Bulldog standout and Hockomock League MVP made his debut with New Jersey on March 2 against the first-place Washington Capitals, logging 9:48 of ice time as a center on the Devils’ fourth line. Then he traveled to Boston to face his hometown Bruins on Saturday night at the TD Garden in front of dozens of family and friends, followed by a home game less than 24 hours later in New Jersey against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

By Tuesday of this week, Rooney had been reassigned back to Albany, officially ending his first NHL stint at three games — what is known in hockey parlance as a “cup of coffee.” He received about 10 minutes of ice time in all three contests and registered one shot on goal, which came in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Bruins.

While any young player hopes to stick at the highest level the first time around, call-ups and subsequent demotions are common occurrences in pro sports, particularly those with extensive farm systems such as hockey and baseball. Several of Rooney’s Albany teammates have already been called up and sent down on multiple occasions this season, and Rooney, having signed an NHL contract, could be recalled at any point over New Jersey’s final 16 games, depending on injuries, team needs, and Rooney’s ongoing development at the AHL level.

Throughout the course of this season, in fact, the humble and hardworking Rooney has continued to refine and adapt his game, most notably on the offensive end where he has developed into a more consistent threat, tallying 10 goals and seven assists.

Once a prolific scorer at the youth and high school levels, Rooney started to focus on other areas of his game when he got to Providence, and he developed into one of the team’s top “glue guys” and was a two-time winner of the Friars’ unsung hero award. During his last two years on the team, Providence went a combined 53-20-6 while winning the school’s first national title in 2015. Rooney, who was named a captain as a senior, played in all 79 games across his final two seasons and combined for 11 goals and 14 assists.

“As my career has gone along I think I’ve had to adapt my game to different levels, and I knew that the best way I could make it was to be a defensive-minded center,” said Rooney. “This year in Albany I started chipping in offensively, and I think that might have caught New Jersey’s eyes a little bit.”

Brian Shuman, Rooney’s former coach at CHS when he was lighting up the scoreboard for the Bulldogs, has followed Rooney’s career extensively since he left for the Berkshire School and believes that every new wrinkle in his game is by design and all of his success on the ice has been well earned.

“I think that with Kevin any level that he’s played at he has probably been the most improved player at that level and ended up being the best,” said Shuman. “Each and every time he’s elevated his game to new heights, and it’s a testament to how hard he works.”

As good a player as Rooney has proven to be, Shuman said he is an even better person — a sentiment universally shared by his coaches, teammates, and friends. As an example, Shuman said Rooney was texting words of encouragement and advice to the CHS coaches prior to their MIAA tournament game on Saturday — the same day and only hours before he was set to play the Bruins at the Garden.

“Here he is, his first time as a pro, about to play the biggest game of his life in the Boston Garden and he’s thinking about us and Canton High,” said Shuman. “It just goes to show how unique and amazing a person he is.”

Rooney faces off against David Krejci of the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on March 4.

Rooney faces off against David Krejci of the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on March 4.

Asked for his own take on those wild few days last week, Rooney said everything happened so fast — from his debut in Washington, which he acknowledged was a little “nerve-wracking,” to his quick turnaround flight to Boston to the Bruins game itself.

Rooney said he had a huge contingent of family and friends that attended the game in Boston and it felt like “everybody” he knew was there. “I don’t think there was anybody that missed it,” he said. “I left 50 passes for family and friends to see me after the game and my dad said it still wasn’t enough.”

And while it didn’t fully hit him until he had gotten back to the Devils’ home ice in New Jersey, Rooney said the chance to play an NHL game in Boston was very meaningful and he was blown away by all of the love and support he received.

“I think it’s just been amazing to have so many people come out to support me,” he said, “from Canton to Providence to Berkshire and friends I grew up with. And just to have them experience it with me is pretty special because I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Coming from a huge hockey family — his uncle Steve played in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens — and being on skates almost from the time he started walking, Rooney said he had always dreamed of playing professional hockey and when teachers would ask what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would always respond with “hockey player.”

Eventually, as he got a bit older, he started to think that it might actually be possible if he continued to work hard, listen to his coaches, and keep a positive mindset, although he never expected that at age 23 he would have already had a taste of NHL competition, which he described as much faster, stronger, and more structured than it is in the AHL.

Going forward, Rooney said he has faith in the Devils organization and hopes it works out for both the team and for him in New Jersey. In the meantime, he will continue to work hard on all areas of his game so that he can prove to evaluators that he belongs at the NHL level for the long haul.

Shuman, for one, maintains the utmost confidence in his former player and couldn’t be prouder of the player and person he has become.

“He’s obviously talented, but there is no one with the same level of determination and work ethic as Kevin,” he said. “It’s been such a joy to watch him and see the success that he’s had, because there’s nobody that deserves it more than him.”

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