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Blackhawks prospects learning there are countless paths to the NHL

There are few moments in a hockey player’s career as exciting as the day he gets drafted by an NHL team. And there are few moments as excruciating as the day he gets passed over by every team. Matthew Highmore experienced that. Twice. And the second time, he watched helplessly as a record seven of his St. John Sea Dogs teammates were taken instead.

“It’s a little bit of a shock to your system when you don’t get drafted,” Highmore said. “It’s hard. It’s tough. That’s where your support system comes in and makes a difference.”

Two years later, though, Highmore has a three-year NHL contract with the Blackhawks and is among the more promising prospects in the system. He’s one of countless examples around the league and around prospects camp that there are many different paths to the NHL.

Highmore went undrafted, slumped the next year, then burst onto the scene as an over-ager, dominating teenagers as a 21-year-old and earning a contract.

Forward Dylan Sikura skates up ice during Blackhawks prospect camp on Monday. (Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times)

Alexandre Fortin came out of nowhere as a camp invitee last year and is knocking on the door of the NHL.

Defenseman Luc Snuggerud went the college route after being drafted in the fifth round in 2014, then turned pro after his junior season and went straight to the Rockford IceHogs.

Forward Matheson Iacopelli, a third-rounder in 2014, was an over-ager in midget majors and in the United States Hockey League before starting college at Western Michigan at 21 and turning pro and joining the IceHogs after two years.

Winfield native Anthony Louis stayed at Miami University all four years to develop there before turning pro and heading to the IceHogs.

And Dylan Sikura, a sixth-rounder in 2014, spurned contract overtures from the Hawks this past spring to go back to Northeastern, from where he hopes to jump straight to the NHL in the final weeks of the season, as John Hayden did from Yale.

None of them was a high-end prospect, a first-round draft pick, a sure thing. Yet each of them is now within sniffing distance of the NHL.

“Everyone has their own path to make it to the NHL,” Iacopelli said. “I chose a longer path.”

Sikura, who had 21 goals and 36 assists in 38 games as a junior, could have been one of Rockford’s top players this season. But rather than take that next step, he’d rather make a big leap — go back to school, get his degree and join the Hawks for the stretch run. Others have done it in recent seasons, including Hayden last spring and defenseman Michael Paliotta in 2015.

It’s what Sikura envisioned when he went the college route in the first place — playing and developing against men, rather than 16- and 17-year-olds in juniors. It wasn’t that long ago that college was only an option for inferior players, long shots to make the NHL. But in recent years, American college hockey has become a go-to option for elite prospects.

In fact, 24 players drafted by the Hawks in the last six years have gone on to play college hockey.

“A guy like me,’’ Sikura said, ‘‘kind of a late bloomer, a smaller guy, if I went the [junior] route, I would have been two years pro by now. The fact that I can still go back to school and kind of fit into my own body and get ready for the pro level definitely helps a lot.”

Said Snuggerud: “The good thing about the college route is you can go to school and take your time and develop. You have the same coaches for two, three, four years. It takes a little longer, but if you’re patient and you keep working hard, it’ll pay off, for sure.”

Well, not for sure. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of young players — drafted and undrafted — it won’t work out. But every NHL player started somewhere, and these days, somewhere can be just about anywhere.

“You can get to the NHL from anywhere,” Iacopelli said. “Not everyone can step right in. It can get a little nerve-wracking when you take a different path, but you just have to work hard and stay dedicated. That’s all you can do. And hopefully, eventually, you make it.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com


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