Princeton friends Veronneau, Kuffner realizing NHL dreams

Ottawa Senators left wing Brady Tkachuk (7) taps the helmet of his new teammate, right wing Max Veronneau (14). (Justin Tang/CP)

Ron Fogarty was at the Ottawa airport Friday morning, waiting for his flight back to Princeton, N.J., when he got a tip from a hockey scout.

The scout told him that Ryan Kuffner was being inserted into the Detroit Red Wings lineup and would make his NHL debut Saturday afternoon against the New York Islanders.

Fogarty, the head coach of the Princeton University Tigers, spent the next few minutes scrambling to change his weekend itinerary. He called his wife and asked if she could drive their daughter to her volleyball tournament in Baltimore, then arranged a flight to Detroit so he could watch yet another Princeton player, Kuffner, make his NHL debut.

Just the night before, Fogarty was part of the large contingent supporting Kuffner’s Princeton linemate, Max Veronneau, as he launched his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators in a game against the St. Louis Blues. Fogarty’s uncle, from nearby Pembroke, Ont., came down for the game and was among the sea of red wearing brand new Veronneau No. 14 Senators jerseys.

Fogarty was not about to miss these moments for his star grads from Ottawa, not after Veronneau and Kuffner committed four full years to Princeton and led the Tigers to an ECAC title in 2018, foregoing opportunities to turn pro before graduating.

“I wanted to make sure I followed up with these guys,” Fogarty said. “I think it’s important for me to be there, just to say thank you for what they did for the program.”

Princeton had a heck of a run last week, despite having its season end in heartbreak with a triple-overtime loss to Brown on March 9. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was at that game. Over the next three days, Veronneau would sign a two-year entry-level contract with Ottawa. Kuffner got a similar deal with Detroit and defenceman Josh Teves agreed to a one-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks. Tigers are trump.

“To have three players on the same college team go undrafted, and then sign as unrestricted free agents all in the same week, I’m not sure that’s happened before,” Fogarty said.

All three had exams to write, even as they left Princeton for their new NHL homes. Asked how he was going to celebrate his debut and a 2-0 victory over the Blues, Veronneau said: “I have to go home and study.”

Veronneau would write his astronomy examination as a take-home exam following Friday’s Senators practice. Kuffner had the same exam deferred until later this week.

These are not slouches in the classroom or dressing room. Kuffner, 23, is a Hobey Baker nominee, a finalist for ECAC player of the year, holds the Princeton career record for goals scored (75) and is a three-time ECAC all-academic selection while studying economics.

Veronneau, 23, a two-time Hobey Baker nominee, holds the Princeton record for points (54) and assists (38) in a season (2017-18) and was recently named a finalist for ECAC student athlete of the year while finishing his degree in mechanical engineering.

Teves, 24, from Calgary, was the team captain in 2018-19 and is also in mechanical engineering.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Theirs is a story of resolve and commitment, but also of friendship and local ties. In an era when families move to different cities to give little Junior a better opportunity in minor hockey, Veronneau and Kuffner never strayed far from their Glebe area neighbourhoods. Growing up about five blocks apart, both boys played for the Ottawa Sting organization, although on different teams as Veronneau was born in late 1995 and Kuffner in June of 1996.

They would eventually grow to a decent size – Veronneau is an even six feet, 181 lbs. and Kuffner six-foot-one, 185 lbs. – but both suffered the slight of not being drafted into the OHL and poured themselves into local hockey. Veronneau played a year of midget with the AAA Jr. 67’s and then helped lead the Jr. B Ottawa Canadians to an EOJHL title. That same year, Kuffner was playing midget hockey with the Jr. 67’s AAA club.

They were finally united on a CCHL Jr. ‘A’ Gloucester Rangers team in 2013-14 and ’14-15. By now, both were on Princeton’s radar screen and the two joined the Tigers together as freshmen in 2015-16. Ottawa Sting boys go Ivy League.

From the outset, Fogarty had the Ottawa duo on the same line. At first, Veronneau was at centre, but eventually Fogarty put Oakville Ont., native Alex Riche at centre with Veronneau on the right wing and Kuffner on the left. Over the next four years, they would become one of the highest scoring lines in Division I hockey.

Veronneau was like a second centre on the line, while Kuffner found space to use his killer shot. On display in Veronneau’s first two games with the Senators were his change of speed and hockey IQ. In his debut, Veronneau had five shots on goal, played 14:20 and saw first-unit power-play duty. Off a second-period line rush, he burst down the right wing and ripped a shot at Blues goaltender Jake Allen, forcing him to make a blocker save.

“The first period, I was pretty nervous,” Veronneau said afterwards. “I couldn’t handle the puck well or anything. The boys helped me out, told me to relax. The second period was so much better.”

In his next game, a 6-2 rout of the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, Veronneau displayed why 25 NHL teams were vying for his services. Gaining the Leafs zone, Veronneau stopped suddenly to avoid a check, pivoted right and quickly slid the puck over to defenceman Christian Wolanin, who dished to Cody Ceci for a goal. Veronneau had his first NHL point, off an elite play to initiate the opportunity.

It capped a smooth week of transition for the Ottawa native, moving home to join his hometown Senators.

“Max looked really good, with his change of speed, and put himself in good spots to get some passes and get some shots off,” Fogarty said, after watching Thursday’s game live at the Canadian Tire Centre.

“It was an entertaining game from my vantage point of watching him.”

Veronneau’s father, Marc, was once a track athlete at Laval and works as a geophysicist for Natural Resources Canada. Max’s mother, Pamela Cross, is an Ottawa lawyer. Sister Sophie plays hockey at Yale.

In his Motown debut, Kuffner didn’t get as much opportunity as Veronneau did in Ottawa. Kuffner played a little over seven minutes in the 2-1 victory over the Islanders. He had a ball, though, and showed his personality in interviews, even singing a few bars in a post-game TV spot with former Red Wings great Mickey Redmond. (Redmond sang right back, a St. Patty’s Day ditty).

“It was incredible, being part of such a storied organization,” Kuffner said. “I just tried to take it all in, especially in the warmup.”

Among those wearing No. 56 Kuffner sweaters were Kuffner’s parents, Joe and Debbie. Joe was a longtime Ottawa Sting coach, Debbie a former school principal. Ryan’s younger brother, Brendan, also played Sting hockey and enjoys men’s league hockey while attending Queen’s University.

Had he signed with Ottawa, Kuffner already had a neat tie-in. Kuffner’s great, great-uncle, Edwin Gorman, played on the 1926-27 Senators, the most recent Ottawa team to win the Stanley Cup. Today’s Senators had an eye on Kuffner as well, but made Veronneau the priority.

After the Wings game, Fogarty was finally able to return to Princeton, knowing his former charges were in good hands.

“It was a tremendous pleasure and opportunity to coach them,” Fogarty said of Veronneau and Kuffner. “And now to see their NHL dreams come true is remarkable.

“Since Day 1 at Princeton, they’ve always practised with a purpose, to get better. The majority of time, in one-on-one combat drills or puck protection drills, they went against each other. So they really drove each other to where they are today.”

College UFAs have been hit and miss in the NHL, but the Princeton boys will get a good look. Fogarty says of the hype around Veronneau: “25 GMs aren’t wrong.”

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Regardless of how long they play in the NHL, Kuffner, Veronneau and Teves all have Princeton degrees no one will take from them. They shine as an example that it’s OK to take the longer route to a pro career, and gain a fabulous college experience en route.

“It’s not a sprint,” Fogarty says. “It’s unfortunate with Twitter and social media, everyone is in a race to get drafted. To get to the next level, without truly developing at their present level. Sometimes they’re not both feet in, and always looking at what’s next.”

With the support of their families, these Princeton boys executed a simple plan to improve as players and lead their teams, whether on a local club or college. And they stuck it out to earn degrees even when the NHL wanted them to leave early. Veronneau in particular, had to fend off advances to go pro as early as his sophomore year. He said he and Kuffner talked to each other a lot during the pro courting process.

“Max had all that noise,” Fogarty said, “and he kept it at arm’s length.”

Until now, when some of those NHL arms are patting him on the back.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.