Alex Petan, the lone Canadian among the 10 finalists for this year's Hobey Baker Award, has a lot in common with previous award winners.
While there have been exceptions, such as last year's winner, budding NHL star Jack Eichel, recipients of the award – annually given to the top NCAA men's hockey player – are often skilled but undersized players by NHL standards. Three of the last four winners stand 5-foot-9 or less, and the only one of the three to find employment in the NHL so far is Johnny Gaudreau, the 2014 winner whose size undoubtedly played a role in the fact he was not selected until the fourth round of the NHL entry draft.
Nonetheless, Gaudreau overcame the size bias of NHL coaches and general managers – which persists despite the league's attempts to move to a more offensive game in the past decade – and is now an established star with the Calgary Flames.
Petan, 23, a senior forward and captain of the Michigan Tech Huskies, knows his size (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) is a major reason why he has never been drafted and remains a free agent at the end of his four-year college hockey career.
"Through my whole career I've heard 'You're too small, you're not going to make this team, that team,'" said Petan, a right winger who comes from the Vancouver suburb of Delta. "I definitely kept it within myself and used it as motivation. Throughout my career, I've had a lot of practice with getting that criticism and proving everyone wrong [by earning] the privilege of getting a scholarship here at Michigan Tech, and hopefully playing professional."
Petan does not have to look far for inspiration for his dream to play in the NHL. His younger brother Nic, who turned 21 on Tuesday, is the same size and he was called up last week for his second stint with the Winnipeg Jets. The younger Petan, who plays left wing, has one goal in 16 NHL games.
He was a second-round pick by the Jets in 2013.
"We're about the same height, and if you look at guys around the [NHL] and the way the game has become in the last little stretch, I don't feel size is a [problem] at all," said Alex, who adds that Nic was also told many times he was not big enough to play in the NHL. "The size of your heart is a little bit more important than anything else. If you're good enough and you're willing to work hard, anyone of any size deserves to play professional hockey."
Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson describes his captain as a goal-scorer with "real soft hands," but also as a late-bloomer who is not part of the conversation when this year's top NCAA free agents are discussed. Still, Petan hopes to land a professional contract as he finishes out his senior year. He is on track to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in sports and fitness management.
Petan was selected the Western Collegiate Hockey Association player of the year after scoring 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points in 35 games, but his season ended in disappointment. The Huskies were expected to advance to the NCAA tournament, but instead were upset 1-0 last weekend by Ferris State in the WCHA semi-finals.
Pearson says Alex Petan is not quite as quick as his younger brother, but still thinks he has a chance to play in the NHL thanks to his high hockey IQ.
"He's got real good vision and hockey sense," Pearson said. "He understands the game really well, especially the offensive part. He's got good stick skills; he's a goal-scorer who knows what to do. Some guys just shoot. He shoots to score, he can put it in an area. He's not the biggest guy, but that doesn't keep him from doing what he's good at."
Petan is a longshot to win the Hobey Baker. The 10 finalists will be pared to three on March 31, and then the winner will be announced on April 8 during the Frozen Four. Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey is the strong favourite; the winner is selected by a panel of coaches, NHL scouts, NCAA officials and media.
But given the choice between winning the award or getting lucky enough to play in the NHL with his brother Nic, Petan knows which one he would take.
"It would be a lot of fun playing with my brother, that's definitely the choice," he said. "No, we were never on the same team in serious hockey, but in the summer we like to fool around and get on the ice and play together. It would definitely be a dream come true to play together."