This time last year, John Hayden ’17 lived just like any senior: dealing with midterms, counting down the days until October break and preparing for the start of the NCAA hockey season. Fast forward a year later and Hayden is taking the ice in the National Hockey League with the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the best teams in the league.

Several of Hayden’s former college teammates have played professionally after graduation. Rob O’Gara ’16 and Kenny Agostino ’14 are teammates once more, both playing in the American Hockey League with the Providence Bruins. Alex Lyon ’17 is the starter on the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and stands next in line to be called up to the NHL in case of an injury to one of the two Philadelphia Flyers goalies. An even longer list of former Bulldogs with whom Hayden shared a locker-room appear on the rosters of various professional teams in both North America and Europe.

“The players who have gone on from Yale to have successful professional hockey careers all have several things in common,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “[They have] a great passion for the game of hockey, a high capacity for hard strenuous work, the determination and mental toughness to overcome adversity and a strong desire to improve each and every day.”

However, Yale’s most recent former captain is the only Eli to make the 23-man roster of an NHL team and the only Yale graduate playing in any of the major American sports leagues. Hayden, a 2013 third-round draft pick, has started the 2017–18 season with a Chicago team that has been a dynastic force over the last decade.

Hayden joined the Blackhawks late last season, signing immediately after Harvard ended Yale’s season in the ECAC playoffs and made his NHL debut just four days later. He appeared in just 13 games, including one playoff game, recording four points and one goal. His brief debut stint with the team was cut short when the eighth-seeded Nashville Predators swept Chicago out of the playoffs in the first round. The forward used the long summer to focus on improving his game and notched one of the top results in the Blackhawks’ annual fitness testing.

“The thing that really stuck out to me, in getting to train with Hayden in the summer and being his teammate for 3 years, is his work ethic,” Yale captain Ryan Hitchcock ’18 said. “It’s absolutely second to none and it allows him to constantly be getting better. He’s going to have an extremely successful and long career playing hockey.”

An expansion draft and several salary-related decisions meant that the team underwent significant changes in the offseason, and left Hayden with no guarantee of a roster spot in the big leagues.

The forward entered training camp in competition with six other players for the right wing spot on the fourth line. However, Hayden’s play throughout training camp and in the preseason earned him a spot in the lineup to start the year. The decision forced Chicago to place two other players on waivers — giving other teams the opportunity to pick them up before they moved down to the AHL.

“I am not at all surprised that John made the Blackhawks out of camp,” Allain said. “He understands that he has to earn a spot in the lineup every night and he will approach the season that way. My expectations are that he will continue to work hard, earn the respect of his teammates and become a valued contributing member of one of the top teams in the NHL.”

Just two games into the season, Chicago is off to a flying start. The team opened up play against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and blew them out in a lopsided 10–1 victory, scoring double digits for the first time since 1988. Hayden had a point in the shellacking, assisting on Brent Seabrook’s goal in the third period that ran up the score to 10–1. The Hawks produced an equally strong performance against the Columbus Blue Jackets, winning 5–1, and although Hayden did not get on the scoresheet, he had four hits and a few good chances.

Across two games, the forward has skated an average of 14:27 minutes per game, significantly more than that of his linemates. He has spent time on both the penalty kill and power play, and his size and physical style of play stand out on the Blackhawks. At 6’3” and 225 pounds, Hayden is the heaviest and second tallest player on a team known more for its skill and speed than for its physical play, allowing him to fulfill the power forward role Chicago usually lacks.

“Playing in the NHL is a privilege. It’s a lot different than college — more games and more travel — but it’s a lot of fun,” Hayden said. “There’s a great team bond and a lot of leadership and that has transferred to on-ice success. Obviously it’s a long year, but it’s been a good start.”

Hayden was in the lineup on Monday night in Chicago’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, the most storied franchise in NHL history.

Masha Galay | marie.galay@yale.edu