By Hannah J. Goldman
At age seven, Grant Lewis strapped on some skates, picked up a stick, and was immediately hooked on hockey. But for this defenseman, the “typical” journey to the pro ranks ended there.
Lewis grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh and played a multitude of sports as a kid, including baseball, football, lacrosse, basketball and hockey. When he started high school, he turned his attention to the ice. However, at the age where other kids with the same dream were deciding between juniors or Division I hockey, Lewis found himself on the outside looking in.
When it was time to apply to colleges, the young blueliner was actually thinking of playing club hockey at Penn State University. But the tides turned his senior year of high school when he earned the opportunity to play for the Pittsburgh Forge of the North American Hockey League. All of a sudden, Dartmouth College came recruiting.
“Senior year, I tried out for the junior team, the Pittsburgh Forge, but I got cut,” Lewis said. “I continued to play for the Pittsburgh Hornets, a Midget Triple A team, but at that point, I was actually looking to go to Penn State and play club. Division I hockey wasn’t an option for me. Fortunately, about a month into the season, two players left the Forge and I got called up, had a great year, and ended up winning the national championship. Dartmouth started recruiting me, and once they did, Cornell jumped on the bandwagon, too.”
Once the blueliner realized an Ivy League education was a possibility, his parents really pushed for it. After one trip to Dartmouth, Lewis needed no more persuasion.
“I went and visited the school on my official visit and I just fell in love with it – the people there, the organization, and the school itself,” Lewis said. “I went there and it already felt like home. It set me up for the best four years of my life.”
The Pittsburgh native was excited to begin the next phase of his life at Dartmouth, despite the fact that Hanover, New Hampshire, is a three-hour drive from any major metropolitan area.
“Dartmouth was fun,” Lewis said. “It is a small school, so you get to know a lot of people. There isn’t really any way to get away from Hanover, unless you make the trip to Boston or Montreal, so I spent a lot of time with my teammates. You had to make your own fun, but we had a lot of it. It was a homey college, and I loved it.”
Lewis refutes the assertion that he had it easy as an athlete when it came to academics at the prestigious school.
“School came first at Dartmouth, for sure,” said the psychology major. “Some teachers were a little more giving than others, but some actually held it against you that you were a hockey player. It was hard, but it was the right fit for me and I knew it was the right choice.”
If Lewis was having any trouble adjusting to the rigorous academics, he showed no signs of it on the ice. He had a standout rookie campaign, earning first team All-ECAC and All-Ivy League honors, and was named to the ECAC and Inside College Hockey rookie teams.
“I kind of live my life day-by-day, and I never knew what the next year would bring,” Lewis said. “But Dartmouth gave me an opportunity and I like to think that I ran with it.”
Lewis’ play at Dartmouth earned him a look from National Hockey League scouts and before he knew it, the Atlanta Thrashers selected him with their second choice, 40th overall, in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
One round later, they added Lewis’ current Wolves teammate Scott Lehman to the organization. The two blueliners met at the draft and bonded immediately. A couple of years later, Lewis and Lehman roomed together during prospect camp and became great friends. Lehman, a Toronto native who started playing junior hockey at 16, was not sure what to expect from the American Ivy Leaguer.
“I didn’t really know what to make of him when I first met him,” Lehman admitted. “He was this Ivy, preppy hippy. But we roomed together the following summer and have been friends ever since. It works because we share the same attitude toward hockey. Since that camp, we have visited each other every summer, go on yearly trips, and have been roommates here in Chicago for the past two years.”
Armed with a college degree and an NHL contract, Lewis embarked on his next challenge: entering the pro ranks. While his college classmates applied for jobs, Lewis was vying for consistent playing time in the American Hockey League.
“After senior year, I signed with Atlanta and I wasn’t sure what life would bring me,” Lewis said. “I ended up in Chicago and was in and out of the lineup for the first half of the season.”
The second half of the season went more smoothly for Lewis – and very smoothly for his team, which captured the Calder Cup that spring.
“I was able to work my way in, though, and I played a lot more toward the end of the season and in our run to the Calder Cup championship,” he said. “My first year out of college, hockey really couldn’t have gotten much better for me.”
The hard work continued to pay off for the 24-year-old, who made his NHL debut with Atlanta on March 3, 2009. Just a few games later though, back with Chicago, things came to a screeching halt when he suffered a season-ending injury to his knee.
“The knee injury was a very tough injury,” Lewis recalled. “I was off the ice for about four months and that hadn’t happened since I started playing hockey. It was definitely frustrating.” The injury was hard on his best buddy, too.
“Even though we are both defensemen, we wish each other to do well,” Lehman said. “When he got called up, I was really excited for him. Then the injury happened and it was depressing to see him hurting. He worked really hard this summer to rehab the knee. Some people would have given up and he didn’t. He really showed his true colors.”
Now a third year pro, it is hard to believe that just seven years ago, Lewis’ dream of playing professional hockey was almost fleeting. But like Lewis says, you never know what next year may bring. It is possible that your dream is right around the corner, even if the path to get there isn’t what you expect.