Navigating the recruiting world of Division I hockey, Connor McGrath had a handful of options to consider.
The schools interested in him all presented huge positives. But for McGrath, a 19-year-old Beverly resident, one was just too good to pass up.
Now in his second season with the Chippewa Steel in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), McGrath committed in early November to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“There were a few other schools I was talking to, but none had offered,” McGrath said. “The Air Force had what I wanted. I talked about the pros and cons with my family, and Air Force had the most positives. When I got the offer, it was unbelievable. It would have been hard to say no.”
McGrath said he also had interest from Yale University, Dartmouth College, College of the Holy Cross, Bemidji State University and Bentley University.
In comparing the schools, McGrath said, the benefits of enrolling at the academy were perfect for the 6-foot, 165-pound forward.
“Air Force offered a full-ride scholarship, and they also offered exactly what I was looking for with aviation,” McGrath said. “Colorado Springs is a beautiful city, and the campus is gorgeous. Talking pros and cons with my family, there were so many pros.”
McGrath said he has long wanted to be a pilot, starting when he watched the movie “Pearl Harbor” with his older brother, Ryan.
The Air Force Academy commitment includes five years of active duty and three years as an inactive reserve after graduation, but that requirement did not affect McGrath’s decision.
In fact, the commitment was just the opposite.
“It is very cool to be able to serve your country,” he said. “Going to the Air Force, it helps set you up for life. The connections you can make and what it can do for your career, it’s huge.”
The plan going forward for McGrath is to play this season with the Steel and then report to the Air Force Academy in summer or fall 2021. Until then, he intends to make the most of the 2020-21 season with the Steel in the NAHL.
It’s been quite a journey for McGrath in pursuing his hockey dreams.
He attended St. Rita for his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to a prep school in Michigan for his junior and senior years.
Then, he made the jump to the junior level, playing with the Little Caesars 18U club and then with the Steel.
McGrath was drafted last May by the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League, the top junior league sanctioned by USA Hockey.
He started the season with the Phantoms in early December, after a two-week stretch in November when the team was shut down due to the coronavirus.
McGrath earned the start in a Dec. 4 game against Muskegon, and his parents, Bonnie and Don, were in attendance.
“I kept thinking, ‘Don’t screw this up,’” McGrath said with a laugh about his first start. “It was that ‘Let’s go!’ feeling. The adrenaline was pumping, and I was firing on all cylinders. We hadn’t played or practiced much, so we were a little gassed; but, we were getting our legs back.”
However, 2020 had one more curveball for McGrath in mid-December.
With several players returning from injuries and other players rejoining the Phantoms from college teams that weren’t playing, McGrath was cut by the team, a victim of a numbers crunch.
Nonetheless, he regrouped quickly and rejoined the Chippewa Steel.
“Players coming back limited my potential to play big minutes on one of our lines,” McGrath said. “I came back to the Steel. It’s tough [getting cut], but I can see the good of it with the opportunity. I want to show everyone what I can do and hopefully tear it up.”
Since returning to the Steel in late December, McGrath has played in 3 games, scoring a goal and adding 2 assists.
“I’m going to being playing a lot more, and I’m more comfortable with Chippewa,” McGrath said. “I’ll be trying my hardest to have a fast start and show that I’m able to play at this level.”