If you are a sports fan or a sports movie buff, you’ve heard of Rocky Balboa and Rudy Ruettiger. You know the stories, they were unknown athletes who overcame the odds to achieve their dreams.
Add AJ White to that list.
White grew up in Dearborn, Michigan with the same dreams as every youth hockey player, he wanted to be a professional hockey player.
As White progressed to the bantam (U14) and midget (U16) levels, he watched teammates and opponents alike get drafted into the top junior leagues in America such as the United States Hockey League (USHL) and the North American Hockey League (NAHL) while others were selected to play in the Canadian major junior leagues. All the while, White waited to get the call informing him of which league he had been drafted into but that call never came.
White persevered and after midget hockey, he attended the tryout camp of the NAHL’s Michigan Warriors. He made the team and over the course of two seasons accumulated 85 points on 39 goals and 46 assists in 115 games but once again, White sat idly by as players he played with and against were offered scholarships to play at some of college hockey’s most prominent programs.
After graduating from junior hockey, White knew he had the ability to join those players in the NCAA so without a scholarship in his pocket, he packed his skates and headed east to UMass Lowell. When he stepped on the ice at the Tsongas Center, he made an impression on the coaching staff and once again, beat the odds and became a member of the 2012-13 River Hawks.
In four seasons with the River Hawks, White registered 28 goals and 51 assists totaling 79 points in 153 career collegiate games, more importantly, he exhibited the qualities of a leader on and off the ice and was named team captain for his senior season.
During those four seasons, White and his 2016 classmates enjoyed the most successful run of any class in team history compiling a 100-44-17 record. In that four-year span, the River Hawks appeared in four Hockey East tournament championship games, winning twice. They also played in three NCAA tournaments (2013, 2014, 2016). White and UML played in the 2013 Frozen Four but lost in the national semifinal to eventual national champion Yale University.
After his senior season ended, with a degree in Marketing safely secured, White signed with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League and saw action in five games.
This summer, White signed a one-way contract with the Providence Bruins, the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins. AJ White had achieved his dream of becoming a professional hockey player.
As it had been throughout his career on the ice, the process of signing with Providence was not an easy one.
“There was a lot of interest in a two-way deal for the AHL and East Coast Hockey League,” White said after a recent skating session under the watchful eye of High End Hockey’s Jon Hutcheon. “We were just kind of waiting that out for a little bit. We were waiting for a one-way opportunity for the AHL and luckily enough we were able to strike that.”
“It was kind of a long process. I heard from them (Providence) a month and a half ago and just worked our way through it. Luckily, we came to a conclusion and I think both sides are happy, hopefully at least. It was interesting because it definitely shows you a different side of hockey that shows you the business side of it, which was kind of cool. I’m just happy to know where I’m going to be playing next year and happy to move forward.”
With the NHL being the next rung on the hockey ladder, White hopes to continue to move forward.
“I think you have to have that idea in your mind that you can always continue to move up,” said the big (6-foot-2) forward. “I mean this is why we play. We always want to reach the highest level. Even if that never happens, I’m still going to give it my all. The players I’ve been around at UMass Lowell, obviously, you learn from them. I still keep in touch with Christian Folin (Minnesota Wild). I was roommates with Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets) so we still talk. I talk with Joe Pendenza (Milwaukee Admirals) since he’s still around (Lowell) in the summer. We talk all the time while working out and on the ice. It’s good to hear their input. They give you little tidbits and you can definitely add it to your game at the rink and away from the ice. I’m just humbled to have this opportunity to continue to play hockey.”
It is an adage, but hockey players literally give hour upon hour of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve their dreams and White is no exception but he also credits those who helped him along the way, especially River Hawks head coach Norm Bazin and his staff.
“I don’t think, if I hadn’t played at Lowell, that I would probably have the same opportunity (to advance to professional hockey),” White explained. “I’m fortunate that it helped me along the way from step one. It improved me not just on the ice but off the ice. I got bigger and stronger and just more mature. It got me out of my own comfort zone in being able to talk to other people, being more of a leader, but they show you how the business world works and how to prepare yourself for every day whether it’s a game or a practice and with Providence, they play on Fridays through Sundays so it’s similar to college in a way. I think there are a lot of similarities but it’s obviously a longer season and probably a lot bigger boys but luckily we (UML) have a great trainer in Devan McConnell and obviously, the coaching staff is probably the best around. They definitely did everything they could to push their players forward. It shows how hard they work preparing their players for the next step. That’s obviously one of their goals, to prepare you for the next level and help as many players as possible make their dreams come true.”
And White’s favorite moment as a River Hawk?
“I try not to choose one over another between the two Hockey East championships but, for me, it’s gotta be freshman year (2013) because of how tight both games were (2-1 win over Providence College and 1-0 win over Boston University) and just for our senior class, who had five wins the year before that, so you could see just how much it meant to them. That stuck with me more than winning, just seeing their reactions probably stuck with me the most.”
The Providence Bruins have a loyal and fan base that routinely sells out the Dunkin Donuts Center. They, like their fellow fans in Boston, appreciate a player who leaves every ounce of energy out of the ice every night and White will not disappoint them.
“I think I’m a strong two-way forward, good defensively,” White answered when asked to describe his style of play. “I have good net-front presence and can be pretty good along the walls winning puck battles but I just want to have a complete, well-rounded game. I would like to work on my offensive abilities. Throughout my college career, the coaches tried to get me to shoot more. I like to pass so going forward, I don’t want to limit myself. I want to be more effective offensively.”
Let there be no mistake, there were times when White questioned whether the hours, days, months, and years, would ever be worth the effort and now that he is a Providence Bruin and just one step below the NHL, he likes to offer some sage advice to young players who also dream of playing professionally but may be waiting for the phone to ring while their buddies seem to be getting all of the attention.
“One thing I was told a long time ago, I think I was 12 years old at the time, is that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” White said. “There are going to be some hard times along the way. You may not be drafted into the USHL, but you can still go to a camp and find yourself there and end up being a walk-on at a college and find yourself some success. Just know that there’s always opportunity regardless of how you go about it. There’s a way to get there. Just don’t give up. Keep working on your game.”
Like Rocky and Rudy, AJ White did not give up and he has achieved his dream but there is one more step on that aforementioned ladder, that being the NHL, and it would not surprise those who have watched him climb it, to see him reach that top rung in the very near future.
Follow ESPN New Hampshire’s NHL/NCAA Writer, Shawn Hutcheon, on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.
Reprinted with permission of The Lowell Sun.