Not too many college athletes get to turn their dreams into a reality and go pro, but for 23-year-old Andrew Poturalski, his dream of playing in the NHL happened almost overnight. Well, sort of.
Last season Poturalski played his final game as a Wildcat on a Sunday and joined the Carolina Hurricanes organization the next day. Through hard work and determination, the former Wildcat achieved his dream and made his NHL debut on Tuesday, April 4, against the Minnesota Wild. Poturalski saw about 12 minutes of ice-time, contributing a blocked shot and a shot on goal in Carolina’s 5-3 loss.
“It was a very quick turnaround,” Poturalski said in an interview in December. “On one hand, I was very excited to be able to play pro hockey, but at the same time, I was sad to leave behind all my teammates who I had come to be very close to. Three days after I signed, I was in Charlotte [the Hurricanes AHL minor league team] playing in my first game, so there wasn’t too much time to really soak in what was going on.”
Let’s take a step back.
After having a breakout season with the UNH Wildcats, putting up an impressive 52 points (22 goals and 30 assists) in 37 games, there was no doubt that Poturalski turned some heads at a national level. He was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the best NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey player. Although he didn’t end up winning the award, the nomination was huge considering the last UNH player to be nominated before Poturalski was Paul Thompson back in 2011.
After UNH fell to Merrimack in the 2015-16 Hockey East playoffs, Poturalski had an important decision to make. He could stay at UNH and begin his junior year with the Wildcats, or he could venture off and come one step closer to his dream of one day playing in the NHL.
“After our season ended on that Sunday, it was a pretty quick turn around,” Poturalski said. “On Monday, I took calls from a few different teams who I was interested in signing with. I had it narrowed down to about five so I could do them all in one day.”
The decision to climb the ladder to the next level was an easy one for Poturalski. It wasn’t easy leaving a team who he had become very close to, but after playing the sport he loved for almost his whole life, the opportunity to sign with an NHL team was a dream come true.
“I have been playing hockey since I was five years old and my goal has always been to play in the NHL, so when the opportunity presented itself for me to take that next step, I couldn’t pass it up,” Poturalski said.
Going into his college career, Poturalski was undrafted which left him with the ability to make a name for himself and stand out in Hockey East. Ultimately, being undrafted ended up playing in his favor. It’s not every day that you get a dozen phone calls from NHL teams, all interested in signing you to their team.
“Going undrafted ended up working out for me because I got to choose where I fit in best,” he said. “It was a really cool experience for sure. At this level, though, there are no guarantees and you have to earn your spot every day, and I knew that so I wanted to pick where I had the best chance to prove myself.”
After much interest from a variety of NHL teams, Poturalski made the final decision to sign a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. He had a special friend who he consulted with before making the important choice. Former UNH defenseman and teammate, Brett Pesce, aided Poturalski and offered an inside perspective.
“I had a very good meeting with Carolina, and [Pesce] certainly played a role in that,” Poturalski said. “It was good to get an inside perspective from a player who knows the organization very well. Ultimately, Carolina presented the best opportunity and does a great job with prospects, so it was the best fit for me.”
The Hurricanes organization seemed to be the perfect fit for Poturalski because of their dedication to young prospects. Unlike a team such as the Pittsburgh Penguins that has a deep roster with lots of big names, Carolina gave Poturalski the ability to grow, and have a shot at the NHL.
“Carolina is a lower-market team so they really invest in their draft picks and free agents which is good for me,” Poturalski said. “They won’t go out and sign a ton of free agents like some teams can. They really care about their prospects and their development, which means a lot.”
After committing to Carolina, Poturalski signed a two-year, entry-level contract, meaning in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 season he is guaranteed to play for either the Carolina Hurricanes or their minor league team, the Charlotte Checkers. Last year, he reported to Charlotte immediately after signing the deal and finished out their 2015-16 season on an amateur tryout deal.
Former teammate, goalie Danny Tirone, believes that Poturalski’s work ethic is the driving reason to his success.
“He takes [hockey] very seriously,” Tirone said. “He has things he wants to get better at and he works very hard to improve. Since I’ve known him, he has continued to push himself to work harder, and with that he has gotten positive results. His work ethic is top notch, and he was one of our harder workers on the team. He dedicated himself on the ice, doing extra before and after practice and off the ice in the weight room. There is no secret to success. Hard work is the way to get there.”
During his rookie campaign with the Checkers, Poturalski learned that it takes a lot of hard work to stay at the level of hockey he is enduring. Things don’t come easy, and he knows that.
“It is a lot of fun to be playing pro hockey, but at the same time, it is now my job,” Poturalski said. “I need to do all the little things that come with being a pro, like taking care of my body, eating right and working hard. I just have to keep doing all those things and playing my game to try to make the NHL. It was great to sign a contract but I still have a lot of work to do.”
Although the future is unknown, there is still an exciting element of completing a childhood dream and appearing in an NHL game. For Poturalski, this is all he has ever wanted. All those early morning practices, long weekend tournaments and hours of training paid off when he put on the Hurricanes sweater with his last name on the back.