In late 2013, Sam Piazza’s college hockey dream was in shambles.
A youth hockey star growing up in Darien, Ill., Piazza’s size and aggressive play just didn’t translate to the higher levels.
For two years, the defenseman had been shipped across the country in search of a place where he could overcome injuries and his game could flourish once again. Piazza crisscrossed to North Dakota, back to Chicago and finally off to Texas as he bounced around the edges of the junior hockey world.
He struggled to make game-day rosters, rode the bench and endured the lonely prospect of being hundreds of miles away from home without a clear plan.
The thought of being a healthy scratch was a new challenge, one that led him to almost hang up his skates for good.
As a young player, Piazza suited up for the powerhouse Mission AAA program and excelled alongside teammates who are now littered around the NHL and college hockey. He recorded 22 points in the 2008 season and committed to play college hockey elsewhere at the age of 16.
“I was all about the puck growing up,” Piazza said. “Once I got to juniors, it was exposed that I was bad defensively. I think I’ve come a long way.”
The college offers had long since disappeared, but Piazza finally broke out in the 2014 season, his final year of eligibility, with the Wichita Falls Wildcats. In the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, he secured a spot at Michigan and another chance to chase his dreams.
Those dreams are different today than they might have been back when Piazza was taken 34th overall in the USHL entry draft. In his first season at Michigan, Piazza slumped again, recording only one assist in 10 regular-season appearances. Pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, he is balancing heavy school demands with the discipline needed to crack the Wolverines’ defensive rotation.
But Piazza isn’t new to adversity, and he recommitted himself in the offseason.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been scratched a lot in the past couple years,” Piazza said. “I know how to keep my head in it and stay ready and keep my body ready.”
Piazza shed 10 pounds in the offseason and started grabbing coaches’ attention in practice. All that effort paid off when he filled in for suspended junior defenseman Michael Downing in the Great Lakes Invitational.
Piazza recorded three points in two games and earned a spot in the rotation against Michigan State. There, he picked up minutes on the penalty kill, a testament to his improvement on the defensive end.
“He’s smart with the puck, and he’s smart without the puck,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “He’s doing now what I was told he would be able to do here. I would call him a good teammate. The other guys are getting to play every night, and he has to do all the extra work to stay ready.
“It’s a tough role.”
For Piazza, the recent success has certainly been sweet. It’s validation that he can play at the collegiate level and that all the time he poured into the sport was worth it. But he didn’t make it in spite of the trouble in junior hockey — he made it because of that adversity.
“(Junior hockey) really impacted me a lot,” Piazza said. “That’s where I learned to be mentally tough. You can’t really complain about other people, you’ve just got to worry about yourself and do your best.”
Piazza’s broad shoulders filled the armchair as he talked about his rollercoaster career with a calm, casual air. He’s 5-foot-11 — small for a defenseman — and it shows on the ice.
It’s apparent that he isn’t bothered by the trials he has gone through to get here. Instead, the sophomore gives off the aura of a grizzled veteran — aided somewhat by the beard he’s sporting.
What’s also clear is that despite Piazza’s success, he isn’t satisfied yet. The 21-year-old has battled across three states in three years to get here. He wants a spot in the rotation, and he has worked too hard to settle now.