By Suzanne Grove, Johnstown Tomahawks
Not too many people can say they have a career in professional hockey.
But, having a steady presence as an AHL blueliner and possessing a degree from Harvard University?
The number gets even smaller.
Yet, Pittsburgh native and former NAHL player Dylan Reese can boast over 75 games played in the NHL and call himself a graduate of the legendary Ivy League institution. It would be an understatement to say Reese has made Pittsburgh proud. He’s a prime example to youth hockey players in Western Pennsylvania – and around the country – that hard work, passion, and intelligence can earn you hefty credentials in both academics and sports.
When he donned a No. 42 Pittsburgh Penguins sweater for the first time on February 7, 2013 for a game in his hometown against the much-despised Washington Capitals, he proved that it’s possible for a player to one day return to suit up for the very team he grew up cheering for in the stands.
While Reese may have been a hockey fan his whole life, he didn’t foresee logging ice time for the Penguins or any other professional club. When he first picked up a stick and laced up his skates, there was no plan to eventually earn a paycheck playing the game he loves.
“I didn’t know I wanted to play professionally when I was a kid,” said Reese. “But, the progression came naturally as I continued to play and moved to higher levels of the game. It shows if you work hard, you never know what can happen.”
The 6’1, 205-pound defenseman has spent his whole life proving that statement to be true. Reese, who grew up in Upper St. Clair, a suburb of Pittsburgh, made his way up the ranks from high school hockey to juniors and on to Harvard before finding himself as a seventh-round 2003 NHL Entry Draft pick of the New York Rangers. He played in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack and San Antonio Rampage before appearing in his first NHL game with the New York Islanders during the 2009-2010 season after being called up from their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He finished his 2011-2012 campaign with those two teams before signing with the Penguins as a free agent on July 1, 2012.
Reese counts his time as a junior player with NAHL’s now-defunct Pittsburgh Forge as an essential part of his development.
“Junior hockey is such a great stepping stone from amateur hockey and on to college and professional,” said Reese. “I was lucky enough to play at home when the Forge was around for the two years I happened to be playing junior hockey. Now, so many players have the option to stay near home.”
With former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Kevin Constantine as his coach and general manager, Reese excelled. He ended his two-season stint as a Forge defenseman with 54 assists and 64 points (18-46-64). For Reese, the chance to play juniors did not just help him learn the game, but also learn about life.
“We had a lot of players coming from out-of-state and billeting with families,” he said. “And with juniors, you have the opportunity to see a wide range of players starting to develop and become better. You’re becoming a man at that time and preparing yourself for college and the future, and you’re learning to live away from home for the first time.”
What advice would he give to the NAHL players of today?
“Listen to the coaches and work hard,” he said. “I think one of the most important parts of today’s game is skating, which is something people tend to overlook at a young age. When I was younger, I worked on my skating during the summer more than any other aspect of my game. If you always work hard, you’ll get a chance. And you have to be ready to prove yourself when you do.”
Clearly, Reese did just that. He would be named NAHL Defenseman of the Year (2003) and win the Robertson Cup (2002) before moving on to play with the Harvard Crimson, one of the oldest collegiate men’s hockey programs in the United States. Reese ultimately took on the role of team captain for his senior year at Harvard, where he was also named MVP before graduating in 2007 with a degree in economics.
“College was something I wanted for my future – something that was part of a plan I had,” said Reese. “I wanted to do well in school; it was important for life.”
He credits hockey for providing him with the opportunity to attend Harvard.
“Hockey opened the doors for me to attend college,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten to Harvard without hockey on my resume. If you do well and teams want you, then there are opportunities to go to good schools. You can definitely become a good player and earn a great education going to an Ivy League school to play hockey.”
Now, Reese is spending most of his time with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He has played in 53 games for Wilkes-Barre, going 6-14-20.
Reese understands the emphasis on hockey in Pittsburgh and how the Penguins organization helped to inspire and develop young talent throughout the region.
“When I grew up here, it wasn’t quite the hockey team it is now,” he said. “The Penguins winning the Cup in ’90 and ’91 added a lot of emotion and energy to hockey in the area. The franchise brought so much to the city and turned people on to hockey, especially now with people like Sidney [Crosby], there is a wave of new, young hockey players.”
The 28-year-old said he’s thankful to have grown up in the Pittsburgh area. In fact, Reese repeatedly pointed out how thankful he is for all the opportunities he’s had and looks to hard work as the reason for his success.
Despite his impressive credentials, he has not let that success or the media attention that followed it cloud his judgment or make him take any moment of his career for granted. He remains an inquisitive and humble person who truly loves the game that has shaped the path of his life.
“I’ve loved it since I was a kid,” he offered. “As a team sport, it’s unrivaled. You know all of your teammates on such a deep level and there’s so much camaraderie and loyalty. It’s just fun to watch and such a quick, great sport to play.”
And the fact that he now gets to play it for a living?
“I just work hard and try to keep improving. I’m lucky to be where I am.”