From Hollidaysburg to Pittsburgh, Penguins rookie Sam Lafferty writing ‘awesome story’ | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

From Hollidaysburg to Pittsburgh, Penguins rookie Sam Lafferty writing ‘awesome story’

Seth Rorabaugh
1829913_web1_gtr-Pens06--102019
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins Sam Lafferty plays against the Golden Knights in the first period Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
1829913_web1_gtr-Pens03--102019
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins Sam Lafferty plays against the Golden Knights in the first period Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
1829913_web1_gtr-lafferty-102019
Getty
Sam Lafferty of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates in the first period of his NHL debut against the Winnipeg Jets at PPG Paints Arena on Oct. 8, 2019.
1829913_web1_gtr-Lafferty2-102019
Getty
Sam Lafferty of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates the puck up ice against Carl Dahlstrom of the Winnipeg Jets in the second period of his NHL debut at PPG Paints Arena on Oct. 8, 2019.
1829913_web1_gtr-Pens01--102019
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins Sam Lafferty plays against the Golden Knights in the first period Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
1829913_web1_gtr-Pens04--102019
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins Sam Lafferty plays against the Golden Knights in the first period Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.

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.

Lafferty is the newest member of a still-select fraternity of Western Pennsylvanians who have played in the NHL. He’s now also part of an even more exclusive group of area players who have suited up for the Pittsburgh Penguins, joining Ryan Malone and Dylan Reese, each of Upper St. Clair, as well as Nate Guenin of Hopewell and Bill Thomas of Fox Chapel.

“All the kids grew up huge Penguins fans,” Weaver said of Lafferty, his brother, Charlie, and sister, Natalie. “To get drafted is amazing, obviously. Then to play some NHL games is incredible. But when you’re doing it for your hometown team you grew up following and just rooting for your whole life is amazing. Not just for him but for all of us who followed the Penguins for a lot of years.”

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.”

There was a considerable devotion as well with the time and finances invested in allowing Sam and Charlie to pursue the sport. Each played for the Mid-State Mustangs, an independent travel team, and the Altoona Trackers, members of the Pittsburgh Area Hockey League. Both groups are based out of Altoona.

“Financially, hockey is a commitment for every family that plays travel hockey,” said Weaver, who now lives in Bozeman, Mont., and is the coach of Montana State University. “Since I’ve worked in this business, it’s the biggest challenge that we face. Can we get kids on the ice if they can’t afford it? Even when they can, it’s a lot of money. Sure, there’s some sacrifice there, but as parents, the kids like what they’re doing. And they love it. They’re out there having fun, and they’re exercising and they’re meeting friends and they’re out there learning how to compete. It’s worth every penny.”

Weaver did not specify an economic figure the family spent on the sport over the years but acknowledges it was significant. Of even more significance was the family’s initial goal in pursuing the sport as they did.

Academics.

“When you’re in the hockey world like I am and you’re raising kids, the focus was never on, ‘Is this kid going to be a professional hockey player?’ ” Weaver said. “The focus is always is on raising three good kids and hoping they’re productive members of society and doing what they love. When he got to about 10 or 11 … I said to Jill if he continues on this path, because he was doing so well in school as well, we should really look at getting him to prep school because No. 1, academically, it will challenge him and he’ll be really able to name his (college) if he does well academically. No. 2, the hockey is top notch. If he’s good enough, colleges will find him. They’ll see him there.”

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.

After posting a robust 69 points in only 16 games his final season at Hollidaysburg, he only could muster 16 points in 25 games his first campaign at Deerfield.

“Pennsylvania hockey is obviously getting better and better as the years go on,” said Weaver, who played at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. “We’re seeing more players getting to play at the USHL and college levels. And obviously, some pros have come out of it. But the level of play from prep school hockey to Pennsylvania high school and club hockey is a huge jump. It may have been the biggest jump that he ever made in his hockey career.

“It certainly was a learning experience. You get there, and all of a sudden, every team has Division I commits on it. There are NHL prospects all over the place. Then here comes this 15-year-old from Hollidaysburg that no one’s ever heard of. He got up there and had to compete. It was hard at first, then when he got comfortable and started playing well, he started realizing he could play at this level. That first year was a real learning experience. It’s certainly a big, big jump compared to Pennsylvania high school hockey.”

Lafferty eventually made the adjustment as he 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.

“His senior year, he exploded,” Weaver said. “He had (55) points his senior year at Deerfield, and that’s where you realized this kid is good. He committed to Brown. We were thrilled obviously that he was going to go to an Ivy League school which, as parents, is the ultimate goal. Get your kids a great education. We felt like we won when he committed to Brown.”

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.

Still, a professional existence seemed far-fetched.

“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. Wednesday, he was the No. 2 center when Jared McCann was injured and even started getting some time on the penalty kill.

“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.”

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.