Kevin Rooney just couldn’t stop smiling. After a great save denied his New Jersey Devils teammate Drew Stafford from a goal, the puck slid invitingly into Rooney’s path as he skated in from the right circle. He took a look up and smashed a one-timer inside the far post for the first goal of his NHL career. The former Canton High standout and star of the 2010 Div. 2 state champion team wheeled away to the far boards with a grin that stretched from ear-to-ear. Even as the teams lined up for the ensuing face-off, the smile remained.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 15, 2019
“It was one of those things that you dream about as a little kid and to finally see that puck go across the line was pretty special,” Rooney said. “It just helps with your confidence, feeling like you belong out there. I think it helped me a ton and I feel like since then I’ve played even better.”
Rooney can be forgiven for wanting to savor that moment. His path to the NHL was not preordained. He wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect coming out of high school or after two years at Berkshire Academy or even after four years at Providence College, where he was part of the program’s first national title in 2015. Making it to the top level was all about hard work.
“If you look at his track record since high school, it’s been the same, he has improved year-in and year-out,” said Canton coach Brian Shuman, who coached Rooney in high school. “He’s made the strides he needed to make it to the next level. There were things he was able to do to take advantage of those opportunities, which is something we still try to teach kids today.”
Rooney remarked, “These opportunities don’t come around too often so I want to make sure that when the end comes that I don’t have any regrets.”
It is no surprise that Rooney found his way onto the ice. His uncle Steve graduated from Canton in 1981, played at PC, and then went on to play for the Montreal Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets, and the Devils. His cousin Chris played at PC and his cousin Joe played at Boston College. His father David played at Canton and his brother Bryan was part of the 2009 Canton team that went to the state title game and then played at Stonehill College.
Canton Youth Hockey was the starting point and he also played with the South Shore Kings leading up to high school. When he got to Canton High, Rooney wasn’t an instant sensation. Shuman remembered him scoring maybe a handful of goals as a freshman for a team that went 15-5 and won the league title. Even the following year, the Bulldogs won 18 games, another league title, and reached the state championship game, but it was Bryan Rooney, not Kevin, that was the star.
It was the work that he put in between his sophomore and junior seasons that turned Rooney from a good high school player into a legit college prospect.
“He was the most improved player that I’ve ever coached from one year to the next,” said Shuman. “His speed went from above-average to exceptional and his strength and everything just improved and it wasn’t by accident. I know he worked hard that summer. He worked with a strength and conditioning coach, you’d see him running around town, constantly doing something to improve.”
Even though both Rooney and Shuman admit the 2008-09 team was probably a deeper team, it was the 2009-10 team that would bring home the trophy, avenging the previous season’s loss to Newburyport in the TD Garden. Shuman credited Rooney’s ability to make the players around him better for being a catalyst to the Bulldogs winning it all.
“It’s so hard to have people to believe this when I say it but that was the most fun hockey I’ve ever been a part of and it’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” said Rooney. “Those memories at Canton High were some of the best I have and it’s because you’re playing with kids you grew up with. Your best friends are your teammates, and just being able to play in front of your hometown every game is something special.
“I can remember almost all those games and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
During the 2009-10 season, college scouts noticed Rooney and suggested he had the potential to play at the next level but that he might need to make a move to achieve that dream. Once the season was over, Rooney sat down with Shuman to discuss his future. In the end, he had accomplished all that he could with the Bulldogs and he decided to transfer to Berkshire Academy to continue his development as a player.
“It was something that I definitely don’t regret, but it was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my hockey career,” Rooney reflected. “It was tough. I would’ve loved to say that I graduated from Canton High but it was something that was going to help my hockey career and my future.”
Once the decision to leave Canton was made, Rooney knew that he had to make it count and develop his game to play at the next level. He said, “ I don’t want to leave and then just end up going to college and not playing hockey.” His two seasons at Berkshire led to a few offers and he chose to play with his cousin at PC, coming in as part of new head coach Nate Leaman’s first recruiting class.
In 2015, Rooney returned to the TD Garden, where he won the state title for the Bulldogs, and helped PC beat Boston University in a dramatic final to win the national title. “I’ve got some pretty special memories at the Garden for sure,” he said. “First was the state title, then the national championship, and my second NHL game was there too.” That season was also the first time that Rooney started thinking about his pro prospects and he attended developments camps in Toronto and Chicago that summer.
He signed an amateur contract with Albany of the AHL following his senior season at PC. He scored 13 goals and recorded eight assists in 71 games. The Devils signed him to his first NHL contract in February 2017. Two nights later, Rooney took the ice against the Washington Capitals.
“When I got on the ice for warm-ups, did the lap and what not, and I barely even woke up after that because I was just staring at the other end with [Alexander] Ovechkin and [T.J.] Oshie and those guys,” Rooney said. “I was just kind of in shock. It was surreal.”
Since signing with the Devils, Rooney has bounced back and forth between the big club and its minor league affiliate in Binghamton. He admits that it is difficult to not have a consistent place on the roster but that he has learned from other players who have gone through the same situation and is keeping his focus on doing whatever the team needs and securing a consistent role with the Devils.
“The biggest thing for me is being more consistent and putting two, three, or four games together rather than having just one good game,” he explained. “It’s easy to be a call-up and have adrenaline for one game and play well and it’s another to do that consistently and that’s what I’m trying to show the coaches now is that I can consistently be an everyday NHL player.”
It is rare for players to come through the Hockomock League and play professionally and Shuman believes that Rooney is an inspiration not only because of where he ended up but how he got to this stage in his career.
“He can be an inspiration for any type of player,” Shuman said, “because he wasn’t a freshman that came in and set the world on fire, but the fact that he improved as much he did can be relatable to anybody. For our top players, he’s an inspiration because, even though he was good, he never settled. He always wanted to be better and I think that’s a good message.”
Rooney tried to explain his mentality. He said, “You have to continue to have those childhood dreams that you had growing up and find ways at each level to solidify a role. Every team needs role players. If you’re a scorer at Canton, you may not be that at the next level and you need to understand how to stick. Just find out what the team needs and find out what you can do to help that team in any possible way.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 8, 2019
In the first period of Thursday night’s game against the New York Islanders, Rooney raced into the attacking zone with the puck and ripped a shot high on the glove side to put New Jersey in front.
It has been a long road from the Ponkapoag Rink to the NHL, but no matter where he is playing Kevin Rooney continues to make his mark.