by Brian Smith || AHL On The Beat Archive
While growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Aliquippa, Nate Guenin was of course a Pittsburgh Penguins fan.
But as is the case in all sports towns, there are residents that are also quietly rooting for the enemy, so as not to be publicly scorned. Guenin was one of those people.
“I was always a closet Flyers fan,” he said. “I had a hat and a T-shirt I’d wear every once in a while. I just always liked the mystique about the Flyers and their brand of hockey.”
Today, Guenin is working on becoming a part of that mystique. He’s in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Phantoms, working on making the transition from a Division-I NCAA defenseman to patrolling the blue line in the NHL.
He’s already seen time with the Flyers, having been called up for a total of nine games this season. Those watching have been impressed, and are of the opinion that Guenin could be a full-time NHL player before too long.
“I think Nate’s done very well for himself this year,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. “What we liked about him was his physicality and his competiveness and his ability to defend. I think he’s done a good job certainly with the Phantoms, and even in the few games he was up with the Flyers, he handled himself well. His skating’s really improved, his puck skills have improved and I think he’s developed into a good young prospect for us.”
While many Flyers and NHL players in general reach the professional ranks via the Canadian junior leagues, Guenin is a 100-percent American-bred player. He played his youth hockey with the Pittsburgh Hornets, where he spent about four years playing with R.J. Umberger. He then went to Wisconsin to play for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League.
He was drafted by the New York Rangers in 2002, but instead chose to attend Ohio State University. He played four years there in an athletic environment that is among the tops in the country.
“It was unbelievable,” Guenin said. “I don’t know if there’s another school that treats their athletes as well as Ohio State does. Just the facilities from the football stadium to the Schottenstein Center, the weight rooms, it’s unbelievable. Just first class. And you’re still getting a very good education. Hockey-wise we had three very good years.”
When Guenin wrapped up his career there last spring, his initial contact was with the Rangers. But things didn’t work out there, so he landed in Philadelphia.
“I couldn’t have been happier when my agent told me Philadelphia wanted to sign me,” Guenin said. “It was a place I always thought I wanted to play.”
It was less than a month from the time Guenin signed to the time he reported for rookie camp. Things went well for him there and in the preseason. But after a pair of scratches early in the season, Guenin wasn’t sure where things were going for him.
“I played the first game and sat out the next two up in Manitoba, and I was thinking it might be a long year. But I kept working hard and eventually got a solid spot in the lineup. There was an adjustment period with the speed. Everything happens faster. When you get the puck you have to move it, where in college you might have a little more time. As the season’s gone on I’ve gotten more comfortable.”
Guenin got so comfortable that on Jan. 16, as the Phantoms were getting ready to leave for Binghamton, he got word that he wouldn’t be making the trip.
“We had a nutrition meeting and then I was going to run back to my apartment and pack, and head back for the trip,” Guenin said. “Don Luce pulled me aside and said I was staying back to play against the Islanders in a couple days. I thought he was joking. But he said ‘Yeah, you’re gonna play.’”
Luce, the Flyers’ director of player development, and the rest of the Flyers front office had liked what they’d seen out of the young defenseman.
“Nate’s a very competitive player,” Luce said. “He’s a solid defenseman and likes to play physical. I think he’s improved his game at reading the rush and not over-committing to get the big hit. I think he did that before a little too much, and when he didn’t get the big hit, he’d get beat. I think his defensive play has really picked up. He’s a really good skater and he can chip in on the occasional offensive play.”
Guenin’s NHL debut was understandably exciting, but he was able to take things more or less in stride.
“You get nervous during the day, but once I got to the rink I was fine,” he said. “We’ve been playing hockey our whole lives, and once you get on the ice, it’s where you feel the most comfortable. In warm-ups you look around at first, but you don’t have time to be in awe up there. If you’re in awe you’re going to be back down a lot faster than you went up.”
Guenin registered two assists in his nine NHL games, averaging about six minutes of ice time per game. But he left with a new perspective on his goals.
“You always hear what the NHL’s like and you have to do this and that,” Guenin said. “But to get there and experience it first hand, now I know what to expect and what I need to work on in the off-season to come back and crack it next year.”
He also received a vote of confidence from head coach John Stevens, who has been in Guenin’s shoes before.
“When I got sent back down, he pulled me aside and said he’s been there and walked in our footsteps,” Guenin said. “He said the American League’s a great league, just go there and work hard, be sound defensively, and good things will happen.”
So, Guenin is now doing that, working hard with the Phantoms in hopes of finding himself a permanent spot in the Flyers locker room. His dimensions of 6-foot-2, 210 pounds give him a solid foundation towards becoming a sizeable defenseman who can compete in the new NHL.
“His size is probably going to be the ideal size to go along with mobility,” Luce said. “You have to be able to skate with the players and also be strong enough to hit them. Nate has both of those things.”