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The Deep Roots of an Engineers Captain

By Jawad Beg '05

Game Program, December 11, 2004

You're from the Midwest and you play hockey. No, it's not an unknown province in Canada. In the heartland of America there are those who take up the sport from the get-go. Just ask Engineers senior Nick Economakos.

"Lockport, Illinois is the place I grew up. It's about twenty minutes southwest of Chicago - which I think is the most beautiful city in the United States of America. It's a place my family still lives. I know I can always go back and see mom and dad at the end of the hockey season. Both my sisters now live in Chicago so I think it's a pretty good suburb."

When the current co-captain of the Engineers was only five years old, he spotted a flyer for a 'Learn to Skate' in school, which would ultimately shape the course of his future. "On the brochure there was an animation of a guy playing hockey in hockey equipment," he reminisced. "I thought it was the coolest thing in the world even though I had no idea what it was about." Since no one in his family ever played hockey, convincing his parents turned out to be somewhat difficult. His parents, who had no idea what hockey was, took hours of pleading and begging from a young Economakos to finally cave in and allow for him to begin skating. "Little did they know how much hockey was going to cost growing up," he said. "They didn't know anything, but they've been behind me from the beginning."

Upon his first skating lessons on the ice, Economakos became very eager to begin playing hockey. "I was real upset because in the pictures that I saw guys were shooting a hockey puck and wearing lots of cool equipment but I was just learning how to skate, so I had to push buckets for a while. Finally I learned how to do that and got a stick in my hand and have been playing hockey ever since."

Although the time came for him to pursue the interest, his first experience on the ice didn't turn out to be what he expected. "I'd say [the experience was] embarrassing," he said, laughing. "Embarrassing because, as I said, my parents knew nothing about hockey. So the first time I went to the rink I had like fifteen layers of clothes on. I had sweaters, sweatshirts, long sleeve shirts, turtlenecks, a snow mobile suit on - this was all underneath my hockey equipment. I remember coming off the ice bright red and I couldn't breathe and I was dying of heat."

As the process was a new experience for his parents as well, Economakos noted that they've been firm in support always. "When I was growing up my sisters were also really busy with different things. My one sister was a ballet dancer, which in the world of ballet dancing means you're there seven days a week. So my mom was with her much of the time so she didn't come to as many practices but she was always there for the games." His mother's thoughts on the increased physical contact within the game brought a smile to his face. "There were a lot of years - and I think there's sometimes nowadays - when my mom closes her eyes and doesn't watch the play. She doesn't want anyone hurting her son... but you know that's typical mom behavior. You'll see a few moms really get into it and go crazy. I've explained to her when you get hit, it doesn't hurt as much as it looks and she's been coming to terms with it."

He continued, "My father was a die hard fisherman. He still is a die hard fisherman. In the beginning he didn't really know what was going on as far as hockey goes. Then all of a sudden he started getting into it a little more and tried giving me hockey advice and I'd always be like, 'you never played hockey before, how could you give my hockey advice?'" he said with a chuckle. "But I think he's watched enough hockey [games] over the years where I can listen to what he says with respect. He's been absolutely amazing. So supportive of myself - whether with money, talking to me when I'm down, when things aren't going well... but mostly, he's been my biggest fan which means a lot to me."

His desire to excel in the sport was supported by his acceleration through the various leagues and programs offered in the region. "You start off with amateur hockey and right away they have the 'travel team' and you make the 'travel team' when you're like eight years old and you think it's the greatest thing in the world," he smiled. "Then you move up and get to the pee-wee level. You can play A, AA, or AAA. So I remember my first tryout was for Team Illinois and I was really nervous about that. It's almost like taking the Bach Test in France - you either go to the higher education system in France or go to a trade school or something like that."

"Thankfully I was able to make that team and I was able to play under a former Chicago Blackhawk - Murray Bannerman - for about three to four seasons. He really guided my career along and I finally made the midgets with a pretty solid team. From there I was lucky enough to sign on with a junior team, called the Danville Wings, which were two of the most interesting years of my life. On one hand, it was an absolutely amazing experience. You get to travel around, meet guys from all over the place, but on the other hand you're worried about getting into a college and getting a scholarship. Thankfully I had the experience of winning a championship my first year and my second year it worked out that I received a scholarship from RPI."

"RPI has been the icing on the cake as far as levels of hockey. You know, playing with guys from all over Canada, the United States, and Europe. What's nice about college hockey is that you're assured of being in the same place for four years. Even in juniors and in minor hockey you can be traded so at any time you don't really know what's going to happen."

While playing for Danville, Economakos was able to secure his first leadership role on a hockey squad by earning the assistant captain distinction. His thoughts on the accomplishment, as usual, were funded by modesty. "For some reason whenever I get into a team's genotype I guess I don't strike coaches in a way as being a flashy player or anything like that. So, first it seems like I'm always up in the stands taking a lot of stats, which was the same here at RPI. I think I'm a very hard worker and over time coaches get the chance to appreciate the kinds of things I can do. So, I know on my junior team and here at RPI I won the Most Improved Player Award in my second years, which you can look at it two ways," he laughed. "But I've always looked at it like people see what I can bring to the table. You know, anytime you're recognized for awards - personal awards - it's a complete reflection on your team. It was a great accomplishment going from a guy who took stats to be able to be the leader of a team."

It was during his time with the Wings when Rensselaer first approached Economakos. "Well, I was playing a game in juniors and [former assistant] Coach Ivan Moore '92 came up to me and he seemed like a really cool guy. I was looking at his coat and I'm thinking 'who is RPI? I have no idea who Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was really,'" he joked. "Then he told me a little bit about the program and then it kind of clicked in my head - I remembered when RPI won the championship in 1985. I don't remember watching the game - I was really little - but I remember reading about it in college history, about that team and where Adam Oates '85 went and then I realized what a great tradition they had at RPI. But being in the Midwest you don't always think about the East Coast schools so much. A lot of guys stay in the Midwest but I was always interested in going somewhere else for four years and starting over as friends go. So Coach [John] Burke and Ivan came to scout me and I came out for a visit. Vic [Pereira] happened to be on the visit at the same time. Right away Vic and I had a great chemistry. Our personalities got along really well. I went on a tour of the campus and I thought it was a beautiful campus. Everyone seemed to be so nice. It really seemed like a tight-knit community... it's like a family here."

With the majority of the players on the team delving into the field of management, Economakos felt that Rensselaer's electronic media, arts and communication program was the best fit for him. "I knew I wasn't going to do anything in engineering because it was something that just didn't interest me in any sort of way. So basically you're left with communications, EMAC, or management. So I took a lot of basic communication courses my freshman year."

"Theoretical analysis courses interest me, law courses interest me, and literary courses interest me. So basically it came down to choosing management or EMAC. And I've always thought to myself that business was something you go into with kind of a natural talent for. I think you can hone your skills in a university but I think people who have those skills, regardless of whether you go to college or not, will succeed in that path. And the aspect of management I'd be most interested in is marketing. I believe EMAC brings as many skills to the marketing table as management does."

The transition from junior hockey to college hockey along with academics was not, at first, fruitful. "It's definitely difficult, especially after taking two years off of school to play junior hockey. I took a couple of classes here and there but they were basically writing courses, which I enjoy. So you get back into the swing of things and it's definitely a wake-up call. It's tough. You really have to work your time management. I know that's something Bob Conway helps us with when we come in as freshmen."

"It's really tough to be enthusiastic about school sometimes, especially when the courses aren't what you enjoy the most," he continued. "You come home from practice, you eat, and sometimes it's 8 or 8:30 PM and you're just tired. You don't really feel like doing any work and you have to get up early in the morning to lift or for another class. It's definitely an around-the-clock job being a student-athlete here at Rensselaer - especially with the hockey team since our season is so long. And it's so committed. It's six days a week and it's not just the practices. It's [watching] film, it's working out, and it's on the bus for travel or on the plane for travel. But you know what," he paused, "when we have days off, I sit around all day and wonder what a normal student does all day. It seems like you're so used to being on the go all the time. When you have all this time to do stuff, I don't know what I would do... I'd probably end up playing video games all day or adopting other bad habits. I think it is good when you're on the go a lot... it forces you to, you know, as the Army would say, 'Be all you can be.'"

Entering as a freshman, Economakos played in 12 games, scoring four points in his first two collegiate games, including a goal. He pointed out that it was difficult for a freshman forward to get playing time at that point as the Engineers had only graduated one senior, a defenseman, the previous season. "And you have Marc Cavosie '03 and Matt Murley '02 on the team," he said. Both players, he noted, were two of the most amazing players he's ever been on the ice with. He also emphasized how Coach Dan Fridgen always says, "It's not the twenty best players, it's the best twenty as a team."

Sophomore year was a turning point as he attained a position on the penalty kill. As he puts it, "It's not the most glorious." He cited that the penalty kill allows for a player to really showcase their talents. Blocking shots and giving up their body for any means to prevent the other team for scoring can certainly gain the attention of the coaches and team.

He believes that he didn't become a "different player" after freshman year, but rather seized the opportunity placed before him. His philosophy is that hockey is not a game about points. "Some of my best games I've played in I didn't have points in." The culmination of his efforts that sophomore year led him to attain the team's Most Improved Player Award. He was thankful to those who noticed his efforts and again recognized that such success would not be possible without the efforts of his teammates.

His strong work ethic is also seen academically. He has garnered ECAC All-American honors for two years. His motivation is simple: his desire in not wanting to waste an education - especially at a school like Rensselaer.

At the beginning of this season he achieved what he believes is the single greatest moment of his life - becoming a captain for the Engineers. "It's such an honor to represent the university as rich in tradition as RPI is," he reflected. "Putting on the jersey and seeing the 'C' - it's an overwhelming feeling of pride." He tries his hardest to be the best captain he can be on and off the ice. "If the guys need anything, I want to be there for them... They voted for me as the guy they trust to lead them. It's also great to have Brad [Farynuk] as a co-captain... he's one of the hardest workers I've ever played with."

When growing up, it was current Philadelphia Flyer forward Jeremy Roenick who was the inspiration of his play on the ice. "I've always tried to model myself after Jeremy Roenick, who I always thought was an absolutely gifted goal scorer but he also scored ugly goals. He always was skating at 100% out there and giving up his body for the team. I think that's inspiring play to others. I'm not the guy who's going to go out there and kill people with my checks or dangle around the other team and score goals. I think I can do a lot of different things - you know, maybe not everything as well as some of the other guys on the team, but I figure I have a good collection of the skills I bring. I try to play with a lot of passion and lot of energy out there like Jeremy Roenick used to."

Off the ice, Economakos, without hesitation, cited his family as the source of his values, morals, and practices in conducting himself. His father's care for the family, his mother's compassion for anyone, whether family or a stranger, his sister's (Jill) passion for dance, and his other sister's (Anne) determination are what Economakos strives to emulate in school, hockey, and his relationships with others.

With the ever prevalent academic workload and rigorous hockey schedule, one wonders if an Engineer ever has spare time. Don't worry, they do. Economakos' spare time is split between his time here in Troy as well as Chicago. "While I'm at school I spend most of my time hanging out with the guys on the team. Most specifically, Vic Pereira and Matt McNeely. C.J. Hanafin comes around every now and then. Talk about Matt and Vic. We've really become the best of friends. We just talk about life. That's probably what I do here most often - talking to Vic and Matt about what's going on in our lives and what we plan on doing in the future. Planning our end of the year trip, which we always go on... I can't picture life without those two as friends. We'll definitely work out some arrangement where we can be working in the same city or something like that," he said with a laugh.

"When I'm back in Chicago my spare time is a little different. It seems I'm a little more on the go. It's usually the off season which means I have to be working out. Usually I'm playing hockey or down at the beach playing volleyball. I love eating at restaurants in the city and people watching." People watching? "Like you'll be sitting at the edge of a restaurant enjoying a drink or having some dinner and you just watch people walk by. The city is just inundated with people that'll walk by a window while you're eating - people from all walks of life. It's just so interesting to lay back and observe people who are not really cognizant that you're watching them. That's one of my favorite activities."

Adhering to what many athletes spanning many sports do, Economakos has his own set of pre-game rituals. "I'm not as crazy as a goalie," he joked. After the pre-game stretch he'll go to Section 1 of the Houston Field House and tape his sticks and sit there thinking about the game. He is currently taking a Buddhism course and has been working on "breathing mindfully". He waits for the scoreboard clock to hit 60 minutes, he takes a stroll around Section 1 - seeing the same people every time - and walks back to the dressing room.

Surprisingly, Economakos does not have a favorite RPI hockey moment - yet. "My favorite hockey moment is yet to come. I really plan on having that some time in March. I really believe we have a chance to win." Some highlights, though, that brought back fond memories were during his freshman year when the team traveled to Lake Placid and played in the semi-finals of the ECAC Championships. "Having to play on the Lake Placid ice... it probably doesn't mean a lot to the Canadian guys, but I swell with American pride. Anytime I think about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, it's tough to hold back the tears sometimes. Americans are kind of a minority in the sport of ice hockey," he said. "You don't normally have as many great moments as other countries." Defeating Clarkson, one of Rensselaer's greatest rivals, that same year on the Lake Placid ice was also a defining moment for him.

With the thought of his last few months in Troy on his mind, Economakos describes it as a bittersweet feeling. However, he is motivated to accomplish one great task before he departs the campus - his EMAC capstone project. The capstone project is a summation of a student's talents throughout their time at Rensselaer in the form of a final, yearlong project. Economakos is currently in the midst of filming a documentary profiling his life as a student-athlete. His goals for the project are twofold. First, he believes the project is like a diary of his senior year and something he would be able to share with his teammates and family. Secondly, he hopes to shed some more light on what the hockey program at Rensselaer is really like. He said, "I think the RPI hockey community, or players I should say, are misunderstood by the general population. Sometimes there's this notion that guys on the team are arrogant, or treat people badly or something, or have a reputation with women or something like that. That's from people who don't know us. It's like it's passed down from senior students to freshmen [every year]."

"It's kind of weird as an RPI hockey player coming in. You're prejudged by so many people whether it's positive or negative. People seem to automatically love you and you don't even know them and they don't know you. Or they automatically dislike you. It was hard coming in freshman year being judged all the time. Hopefully the documentary will shed a little light on what we're like. We have a lot of feelings and emotions and go through difficult things, too. Get a chance to know us a little better. So many times people wouldn't talk to me as a freshman and by chance you meet them senior year and they're like 'Oh I didn't know you were like this', and so on."

Beyond college, Economakos hopes to continue playing hockey, and if the time comes to finally settle away from it, his ambitions are in law school or pursuing a career in public relations or marketing. With his exemplary signs of leadership and determination both on and off the ice, it is not doubtful he will be successful in whichever path he chooses.