PITTSBURGH - There was a time when the path to the NHL was clear for North American players:
They played Canadian junior hockey to catch the attention of NHL scouts.
These days, players are just as likely to come from colleges as they are to emerge from junior programs.
The caliber of competition at the collegiate level has improved enough to make that a viable option for players.
The players who take that course not only get exposure for a possible spot in the NHL, they usually come away with a degree that helps in their post-hockey life.
Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy, 27, was drafted by the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when he was 16 and attending high school in Deerfield, Mass.
"They made a big push and made great financial offers," Lovejoy said. "For me, at the time, as a 16-year-old, I wanted to go to college."
He signed on at Boston College, made the All East team as a freshman, then left school.
"I went as an 18-year-old and just wasn't ready at the time," he said. "My parents told me I could transfer but if I was going to leave, I had to go to an Ivy League school. They weren't going to let me transfer somewhere just to play hockey."
So he went to Dartmouth, with his parents picking up the tab. Lovejoy spent the rest of his college days there, spurning the Montreal Canadiens, who offered him a contract in his third year of college.
He stayed in school, graduated in 2007 and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Penguins after briefly playing minor league hockey.
"It was great for me," Lovejoy said. "Everyone is different. Some guys are ready to be NHL superstars at 18, others take a lot longer to develop. I felt like I was able to develop as a person, academically, socially. I wouldn't have been ready to be a pro hockey player at 20 or 21."
So he has the degree from Dartmouth, and he currently has a job that pays him $525,000.
"At [minor league] Wilkes Barre, we used to talk about guys who went to college versus guys who played junior hockey," Lovejoy said. "You don't find any guys who went to college who are mad at themselves for doing that. You have something to fall back on."
That's also the case for checking line forward Craig Adams.
In high school, he had to weigh junior hockey against college. Eventually, there was a scholarship offer from Harvard.
It seems like that would be an easy choice, especially coming from a home where academics were emphasized.
"It was a tough choice," Adams said. "When I was 16, I had a chance to play in the Western Hockey League, and it was a really tough choice at that age. When you're 16, the WHL is the big time for you. I was on the fence, for sure. My parents left the decision up to me, but they definitely told me what they thought."
Now, at 34, Adams has enjoyed a full NHL career and he has a degree in history from Harvard.
"I'm glad I made the decision that I did," he said. "I wouldn't change it for anything, but it's a tough decision."
Defenseman Paul Martin, 30, always knew he was headed for college. He wasn't certain what role hockey would play in his life beyond high school. He was just playing for fun.
When the University of Minnesota offered a scholarship, that made the choice automatic.
"You try to get an education first," Martin said. "It just happened that I was able to get a scholarship."
He spent three years at Minnesota before turning pro. He's still a few credits shy of a degree and plans to make those up when he's finished with hockey.
With a $5 million salary from the Penguins, there's no doubt he'll be able to afford that last semester or two.
"It's been great," Martin said. "It worked out. I was fortunate. You dream about being in this position."
Oh, by the way.
Draft day is a pivotal moment in an NHL player's career.
Most of the top prospects attend the draft so they can pose for photos with team officials while wearing a new jersey and a cap.
As the draft proceeds, most of the contact is done by telephone.
In the case of Penguins winger Craig Adams, there wasn't even that communication.
Adams was the Hartford Whalers' ninth-round pick in 1997, the 223rd player taken in the draft.
He didn't know about his selection until the next day.
"I read it in the newspaper," he said.
He had no clue that he'd been chosen by the Whalers until he saw his name in the paper.
Shouldn't someone from the Whalers picked up a phone and at least offered congratulations and a welcome to the organization?
"You'd think so," Adams said.
Here he is, more than 700 NHL games and two Stanley Cups later, and able to laugh at his draft day slight.
"Oh well, that was a long time ago," Adams said.
The Penguins put enforcer Steve MacIntyre on waivers and sent him to minor league Wilkes Barre after they couldn't find much use for him.
McIntyre didn't have a fight in his three months with the Penguins. He played sparingly and only had two penalty minutes in his 10 games.
It wasn't his fault. McIntyre couldn't find anyone willing to fight.
When the Penguins fell behind 3-1 in a home game against New Jersey last Saturday, coach Dan Bylsma sent MacIntyre out to get something started.
But opponents aren't going to accept a fight challenge with a two-goal lead and let a sleeping opponent draw energy from that.
MacIntyre tried to goad tough guy Eric Boulton into dropping the gloves, but Boulton rejected the advances.
With the Penguins' injury issues, it's no longer practical to keep a player whose primary role is to fight.
Defenseman Deryk Engelland had 13 fights last season, 10 of them before January. His success in those battles has caused other players to avoid fighting him.
Engelland has had just four fights in 38 games this season.
He stays, though, because he can play a regular shift on defense rather than serving exclusively as an enforcer.