While Chris Robertson took the junior hockey route in search of his National Hockey League dreams, Alec Richards' journey followed an Ivy League path.
Richards, a rookie goaltender from Minnesota, was recruited by Yale University. He played four years at the prestigious institution that does not offer athletic scholarships.
Now 22, Richards is in his first year playing pro hockey for the Toledo Walleye. He said adjusting to an abundance of newly found free time can be a tough task.
"In college, you have to go to class. People are responsible for you. They have a schedule for you," Richards said. "You have to turn in your work on time. Then you have to go to the rink. Some days, you are getting three hours of sleep because you're up all night studying for a test. But you're expected to perform in both aspects.
"Playing pro hockey, you can do whatever you want. The hardest part is getting used to it. There's a lot more free time. Sometimes you're staring at the wall trying to figure things to do. But the weekends fly by. It's nice being able to focus on one life at a time. It's not too tough."
Richards landed a contract with Toledo's American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Ill. He has been called up six times to the Triple-A level and has played in six games there.
"You always have to be ready," Richards said. "If your boss calls, you have to go do it. But it's easier for a 22-year-old kid. You're living out of a suitcase. I have clothes all over my apartment still. I haven't unpacked. But that's the business. You don't have control over who is where."
The 6-foot, 4-inch goalie signed a pro contract after graduating from Yale with a history degree. He signed with Rockford and attended the organization's preseason camp before he was assigned to Toledo, the team's ECHL affiliate.
Richards, a native of Robbinsdale, Minn., has performed admirably for the Walleye. He has a 13-6-4 record with a 3.47 goals-against average. His solid play led to call-ups to Rockford twice in December.
Richards, nicknamed "Richie" by his teammates, is one of five goaltenders in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Toledo and Rockford serve as the NHL team's minor league affiliates.
"There are five of us in the system," Richards said. "Something could happen in Chicago or Rockford and you can be on a plane or car in 10 minutes. A guy could catch the flu bug. But that's the job."
The young netminder said he loves working at the new Lucas County Arena, calling it "top- notch."
"I've enjoyed my time here in Toledo," Richards said. "It's a fun place to play. You hear horror stories from guys in different parts of the league that don't even want to go to the rink. But I go every day and I'm one of the first guys there. I can go and watch TV and hang out on the couch for a bit. And I can have a nice coffee. It's a nice environment to hang out in.
"Plus we have the best fans in the league by far and hands down it's the best rink."
Richards said that during the Walleye training camp in October, team officials took the players to The Docks restaurants in East Toledo.
"We got to see a lot of the city," Richards said. "We got to know some of the people."
Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, a former goalie who played three seasons in Toledo with the Storm, said he enjoyed playing here.
"As a player you get some benefits. People in the community know you," Vitucci said. "You're able to meet a lot of people and maybe set up opportunities for yourself after hockey as well."
He said Toledo offers a young hockey player plenty of off-ice activities.
"They can have fun without crossing any lines," Vitucci said. "All I ask is that if they have fun at the different establishments around town, the next day they come to work with their hard hats on and be ready to go to work. Everyone has respected that."
Richards said that while he was in college, he would work over the summer for recreational spending money.
"You have to have a little spending money for the year," he said. "But now I'm under contract. So I have the benefit of not having to worry about working in the summer. It's the same basic schedule. I just go to the rink. There just aren't any games."
On Feb. 3, Richards was recalled to Rockford for the sixth time this season. But he rejoined the Walleye for a southern road trip to Gwinnett, Ga., and Charlotte last weekend.
Richards said the travel time is longer in pro hockey and the style of play in the ECHL is "a little more offensive-minded."
"Getting to compete at another level is something I really wanted to do. It's been a lot of fun so far," Richards said. "We have a good set of guys in the locker room."