Once a freshman trying out for the Shenendehowa hockey team, uncertain of his ability, now Patch Alber is making himself comfortable in the pro ranks.
The 5-foot-10 rookie defenseman has played 51 games this season with the Elmira Jackals of the East Coast Hockey League, two steps down from the NHL. He has spent the season proving to his coaches and himself that he can play with the big boys, continuing the pattern of his amateur hockey days.
He earned a spot on that Shen team, played with the Plainsmen for two seasons before heading to a boarding school. He then walked on at Boston College, earned a spot, eventually earned a scholarship and played out a four-year career that included two national championships.
Undrafted, he signed a one-year contract with the Jackals, and spent the early part of the season as a scratch before proving his value as an everyday player.
“I really, to be honest, had no vision of this,” the Clifton Park native said of his days at Shen. “I would have loved for it to happen, but I never really thought it was practical.
“After I committed to BC and got there, I was teammates with first-rounders and different guys who are now playing in the NHL. I decided if I could play with these guys, I could at least give it a shot. I didn’t want to look back on my playing days and regret not trying to at least give it a shot.”
Alber has six goals and seven assists, and he has a plus-six rating.
Once the calendar flipped to 2014, Alber started feeling himself catching up with the pro pace. He had two goals and two assists with a plus-two rating in January, another two goals, four assists and a plus-four in February. In a 10-game stretch spanning the two months, he had a goal, five assists and a plus-12.
“January kind of set me up for it. I had a rough first couple months of the season. I was getting used to it, trying to find my identity as a player in the pro game,” Alber said. “That definitely set me up to have a better February than I did January. I’m just trying to build on the things I’ve learned throughout the season, so far. Finding the way I should be playing at the pro level definitely helped me out last month.”
He has been regularly paired with Albany Devils prospect Harry Young, who stands half a foot taller and carries about 45 more pounds.
“It just seems like our styles of play fit together really well,” Alber said. “He’s more of a stay-at-home guy, where I like to jump into the play more. He’s also a much tougher player than I am, so it gives me a little more room to do a little bit more skating. It’s really worked out.”
Like so many players who come through Boston College, Alber gives a lot of credit to his college coach, Jerry York, for being a mentor and helping his players understand how to carry themselves in a professional manner.
That preparation only goes so far, though. There still was a lot to learn on the fly, and some of the leaders in the room have helped Alber adjust to life as a pro athlete.
“We have a great group of guys here, so for me, it was awesome at the beginning of the year, when I was struggling a little bit getting used to the pro lifestyle, and there were a couple veteran guys who really took me under their wing,” Alber said. “The coaches were trying to push me in the right directions for what they thought would be my strengths. It’s a little bit of learning on the job, trying to figure out my way.”
After sitting the first four games, he has played all but two games, so he seems to have found his way. It’s a new road he’s paving, and it looks like it will pass through pro hockey for at least a while longer.
“I’ve always had a pretty good confidence in my own ability,” he said. “But at the same time, going into a new spot, you get a little nervous as far as whether you’re really as good as you think you are. For me, I always want to prove I belong at that level and, hopefully, excel. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this year, and hopefully, it continues on into the future.”