By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
It’s undeniable that every player on the UNO hockey roster dreams of one day playing in the NHL. For eight players, the dream is a little closer to reality than most.
Four current players, and four more who will join the team in the fall, have heard their names announced at draft day. Jayson Megna wasn’t one of those.
By the time the Northbrook, Ill. native had joined the Mavs last season he was 21, one year older than eligibility allows for the NHL Entry Draft. At that point, players hope to play well enough to attract attention from the league.
Megna did much more than that in 2012. As a freshman, Megna led all newcomers with 31 points, 13 goals and 18 assists.
Those numbers made him the third highest scorer on the team and earned Megna a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team. His plus/minus rating of +16 was tops for UNO, and Megna was one of only six Mavs to play in all 38 games.
Those kind of numbers attracted attention from more than just one club.
“When the season ended after we got knocked out by St. Cloud, I had a bunch of opportunities to leave,” Megna said. “I kind of took my time with that and really sat down and thought about it.”
“I was convinced to come back by Coach Hastings and Coach Renfrew. They said some things that made me want to come back. The pro situation didn’t feel right for me at the time.”
The opportunity Megna was looking for wasn’t there. So when summer training started Megna was there beside his teammates. He was excited to see what UNO could do next season.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t quite ready to give up on Megna yet. Pittsburgh had offered him a chance to make the team after Megna’s college season ended, but he told the Penguins he would be returning to Omaha for his sophomore season.
Summer came and Megna was training with his teammates when Pittsburgh offered Megna a spot at their developmental camp in July. Megna went, but was still intent on coming back to Omaha.
“[I] had a really good camp and I sat down and talked with Ray Shero, who’s their general manager, and Coach Bylsma who’s their head coach there in Pittsburgh, and they thought I was ready to turn pro,” Megna said. “They thought developmentally it would be best for me to leave school and sign a pro contract and start training with pros and skating with pros.”
Having the chance to play beside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would make anyone jump at the chance. But Megna decided to go home and think about it.
He spoke with his parents, former coaches and his brother Jaycob, a defenseman on the UNO roster. Megna also looked into other teams and made a trip out to Boston to meet with the general manager of the Bruins.
But after all the conversations and the looking around, Pittsburgh stood out the most.
“I felt really comfortable there just because they had really pursued me and also, their head coach had seen me play and he really wanted me,” Megna said. “The head coach of their AHL team was there, along with the AHL coaching staff. I just felt comfortable going into it that they had seen me play and were still actively pursuing me.”
Megna and the Penguins made it official last Wednesday when the two sides inked a two-way deal for $925,000. It’s a two year contract that can earn Megna that figure if he makes the Penguins squad, or no more than $70,000 if the team sends him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Scranton.
It’s easy for anyone, let alone a 22-year-old, to be taken aback by the number. But what might have been more remarkable to Megna was the faith that an NHL general manager and coach had in his abilities.
“It kind of did take me by surprise,” Megna said. “I’m obviously confident about my game but to hear it from them, such respected people-and obviously the NHL, it’s a nice thing to hear, it definitely boosts your confidence.”
Whatever the contract offer could have been, Megna says the six figures didn’t have anything to do with him leaving UNO. Playing a professional sport and getting paid for it is a dream come true.
But in Megna’s case it’s about the opportunity, not the money. So does he consider himself almost a million dollar player?
“I always believed in myself and I always dreamed it would happen. But if you asked me if I would have thought it would happen this quick, no I didn’t imagine it happening this fast.”
“You hope it happens, you work really hard to make it happen, you dream about it since you were a little kid, once it finally comes true…it hasn’t really set in yet.”
That doesn’t exactly make the decision easy. Megna would have been coming back to a UNO team with eight NHL draft picks, would have been able to play another year beside his brother and would have been one of the top scorers on a squad that is likely to challenge for a spot in the WCHA’s Final Five.
From the time he met with Shero and Bylsma, Megna said it was about two weeks before he made his decision.
“I decided I was going to come back (to UNO) and I got really excited about it,” Megna said. “I was there in Omaha for over a month. Having my brother there is a really special thing and something not a lot of people get to do.
For me to leave, it really had to be the right opportunity, the right team and the right people… everything kind of fell into place in the right way. The fans and my teammates, it was not an easy decision to leave them behind.”
Megna was in Pittsburgh for five days and skated beside 34 players at the developmental camp. It was a mix of players who had either been drafted by the Penguins, who had played a few games in the NHL or who were on Pittsburgh’s AHL team.
In terms of popularity, the Penguins are one of the most followed and talked about teams in the league. It also doesn’t hurt to have two of the best players in the world, Crosby and Malkin, as potential teammates.
But for Megna, Pittsburgh was right because of the system they have in place to develop players. The staff in charge of player development, Assistant to the General Manager Tom Fitzgerald and Player Development Coach Bill Guerin both had long NHL careers.
Megna said that those two combined with Shero, Bylsma and a tremendous coaching staff made him feel like more than just a guy signing an entry-level contract.
“I guess I just felt really comfortable when I was sitting having my meeting at the end of development camp that these people are sincere, they’re great people, they’re gonna help me, they want me to succeed,” Megna succeed. “They’re not just gonna hope for me to succeed, they’re gonna want for me to succeed and make sure that I do. I just had a good gut feeling and had to follow my heart on it.”
Regardless, nothing is guaranteed in the NHL. But the staff with the Penguins told Megna that they feel there is a chance for him to make the team. At this point, Megna says that’s all he can ask for.
Before training camp starts in the fall, the Penguins have given Megna some things to work on. Though he played as a center in Omaha, he’s most likely to get a spot in Pittsburgh on the wing.
Some of that work includes getting used to working the puck on the boards and taking the proper angles at defenseman.
Megna says he’ll also have to work on getting stronger and getting faster because you can never have too strong a shot or skate too fast.
“They like the fact that I’m a committed player,” Megna said. “They like my skating ability, and they think that I can make plays and at the same time at the other end make sure I keep the puck out of our net.”
What might have prepared Megna the best was his time in Omaha. As a college hockey player, Megna says you learn that every game matters.
Unlike junior players who play upwards of 60, 70 or 80 games a year, the college game only allows for so many opportunities. Staying at that high level of intensity for a whole season is something that Megna learned from Head Coach Dean Blais, the other members of UNO’s coaching staff and his teammates.
“Be confident in yourself and be confident in what you do,” Megna said. “If you’re gonna do something, make sure you do it going full speed. Don’t do anything half-heartedly, you have to be fully committed. I think that’s a great life lesson too.”