From Hollidaysburg to Pittsburgh, Penguins rookie Sam Lafferty writing ‘awesome story’
It’s not that difficult to get from Hollidaysburg to Pittsburgh.
You just hop on Route 22, taking it until it runs into Interstate 376 and you’re there. The only toll it extracts is on your tolerance for potholes and orange PennDot construction barrels over a two-hour stretch.
The road from Hollidaysburg to the NHL is much different. It will take you to rinks in the suburbs like New Kensington or Castle Shannon. And to places in nearby states such as Ashburn, Va., or Hicksville, N.Y. Don’t forget the the stop in Deerfield, Mass. Or Providence, R.I. Turn the corner in Wilkes-Barre, and then you can head to Pittsburgh.
That was the trek Sam Lafferty took from Blair County to the NHL.
It was a lot of miles, plenty of gas and a couple of tires for Lafferty and his family.
“At the end of the day, I’d never take back the time the five of us got to spend on the road,” said David Weaver, Lafferty’s stepfather and long-time coach.
The seed of Lafferty’s interest in the sport was planted during the 2000-01 season when Mario Lemieux returned from retirement and pushed the Penguins to a rousing run to the Eastern Conference finals that postseason. Sam, 5 at the time, and Charlie, who is a year younger, were each swept up by the enthusiasm of Lemieux’s comeback and prompted their mother, Jill, to get them involved in he sport.
Galactic Ice, a facility in nearby Altoona, just had opened and was operated in part by Weaver, a former hockey player at Hamilton College in New York.
“The very first hockey clinic that we ran, we had 70 kids come out on the ice,” Weaver said. “The only requirement that I had was that the kids had to be able to stand up on their own. As you can imagine, I’m separating 70 kids out on the ice. There’s two little kids out there who just couldn’t stand up. I found out their names after the practice, and it was Sam and Charlie Lafferty. They ended up not coming back. I didn’t see them the next time.
“A year later, they showed up at the rink for a clinic, and they could both play. I met their mom that way. She had been bringing them to public skates for the entire last year. I met her, one thing led to another, and we got married a couple years later.”
After spending his freshman and sophomore years at Hollidaysburg Area High School, Lafferty applied to prep schools. Initially committed to attend Shady Side Academy, Lafferty was able to enter Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts after an incumbent player left the school. The coach called and extended an invitation in the summer of 2011.
Lafferty led Deerfield in scoring his senior season with 55 points in 25 games. That success on and off the ice made it possible for him to get a scholarship to Brown University in Rhode Island.
There was another triumph before he formally began attending Brown.
In the fourth round of the 2014 draft, the Penguins selected Lafferty with the 114th overall pick.
“In June of (2014), all of a sudden, his name gets called and he gets drafted,” Weaver said. “Then to get drafted by Pittsburgh on top of it was such an added bonus. Even at this point, I was saying to myself, ‘Is he a professional?’ Let’s see how he does at Brown. He had a good career at Brown. He got better every year. By his senior year, I felt like, OK, this is a kid who can definitely play pro hockey. If it’s in the NHL is a whole other story.”
Lafferty finished as Brown’s leading scorer as a junior and as a senior. During the spring of 2018, he signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Penguins, then joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
After finishing the 2018-19 campaign, his first full professional season, as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s second-leading scorer with 49 points in 70 games, Lafferty once again began 2019-20 on the AHL roster following a strong preseason.
Then injuries hit. NHL regulars like Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad and Alex Galchenyuk went down with various ailments. That cleared the path for the kid from Hollidaysburg to get called up to Pittsburgh on Oct. 7 and make his NHL debut one day later against the Winnipeg Jets at PPG Paints Arena.
He got his first NHL goal on an empty net Oct. 12 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. He scored two regular goals the next night at the Bell MTS Center in Winnipeg.
“He’s gaining confidence with every game that he plays, as he should,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think he knows now that not only can he play in this league, but he belongs.”
Lafferty belongs because he dared to take a road not many have taken from this corner of the globe to the top level of the sport.
“To me, hopes and dreams are what make every NHL player,” Weaver said by phone Friday, on a bus ride near the Idaho border en route to a game. “When people say to me when (I’ve coached) a 10-year-old, they’re like, ‘He can’t do this.’ I always tell them, ‘Why not?’ I always said to Sam, ‘Why not you?’ There’s how many players in the NHL? Go for it. If that’s your dream in life and that’s what you want to be, then go for it.
“For a kid out of the Altoona, Hollidaysburg area to make the NHL is tremendous. It should give all these kids a dream and a realistic (goal of) ‘Boy, I can strive for that.’ There’s a kid who here that started here in Altoona at Galactic Ice and now he’s playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s an awesome story. It’s something that all these kids can strive for. I look at that as very positive. Sam takes it very seriously that the kids look up to him now. They’re following him, and it gives them all hope.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .