Not just brawn, but brains too

Robin Short
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Greening has parlayed a focus on education into an NHL career with Ottawa Senators

Colin Greening didn’t have grand illusions of a National Hockey League career.

He fantasized about it as a child, to be certain, not unlike any other Canadian hockey-playing youngster. But as he grew older, Greening came to realize the chances of playing pro were slim.

And so the strapping St. John’s lad opted to turn his attention — no doubt at the urging of his parents — to school, while at the same time enjoying a skate when he wasn’t cracking the books.

Education was the priority, and if he could somehow parlay hockey into a college scholarship, hey, all the better.

And so it was that Greening, who enjoyed a pretty decent stint with Rick Babstock’s St. John’s Maple Leafs midget team — he was part of the 2003 squad, along with Teddy Purcell of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which won a bronze medal at the Air Canada Cup nationals — would take hockey’s unconventional route following his minor hockey days.

While many of his midget teammates would go on to play junior hockey (most of the Tier II variety, but some at the major junior level), Greening was off to tony Upper Canada College, a Toronto institution known more for producing academics than athletes.

“When you look back at why we went there — I say ‘we’ as in my family and I decided to go there — we didn’t really think the NHL was a viable option,” says Greening inside the Ottawa Senators locker room.

“We just wanted to open doors for myself so that potentially I could parlay hockey into perhaps a college career. At that point, if I had gotten a college scholarship, we would have been extremely happy.

“When we went to Upper Canada, I knew I was getting a good hockey base and a good education base. Even if nothing happened afterwards, it would have prepared me for life afterwards in a lot of different ways.”

By now, we all know where we’re going with this story. Greening not only made the pros, but won an American Hockey League championship, and for the past three and half years has been a robust winger for the Senators.

It wasn’t planned.

Greening must have impressed somebody during his time at Upper Canada College. But even after he was drafted by the Senators in 2005 — 204th overall, 26 spots from the bottom of the pack — he still had his sights set on landing a college scholarship some place in the U.S.

“It was nice to be drafted, but I had to be realistic,” he recalls. “I was the last pick in the seventh round. It’s the old saying, many are called, but few are chosen.

“I knew I had to improve quite a bit before I played professionally.”

Truth is, Greening was more excited when Cornell University — an Ivy League school, no less — offered him a scholarship in his senior season at UCC.

It was what he’d been planning and hoping for going back to his bantam and midget days in St. John’s, but he would have to wait.

That’s because the Cornell coaching staff informed him there were a number of recruits coming in for the 2005-06 season, and suggested Greening might be better off waiting for the following year when he was bigger, stronger and generally in a better position to come in and have more of an impact.

And so he headed out west, to Nanaimo, B.C., and the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. The Clippers had supplied a few players to Cornell and both the junior team’s coaches and the Cornell coaches were familiar with each other.

Greening also considered teams in the United States Hockey League as well, going so far as to fly to Lincoln, Neb., to check out the Stars junior team where, interestingly enough, future Ottawa teammate Eric Condra was skating.

“In the end, I just decided Nanaimo was a better fit for me,” he said. “I wanted to stay in Canada one more year before I headed to the United States.”

Greening eventually landed at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., becoming a leader on the Big Red, both on and off the ice, in the next four years. He would make the ECAC conference all-star team on three occasions, would wear the “C” on the Cornell jersey, was amongst the team’s top scorers and would immerse himself in off-ice activities, namely helping organize Cornell’s Homecoming Parade and arranging for the hockey team’s visits to school and hospitals. He was also involved in Special Olympics.

All the while maintaining a near-perfect 3.95 grade point average.

It was also during his time in the NCAA that Greening started thinking about the NHL.

“I can’t pinpoint the exact moment or time, but throughout my years, I felt like I was improving and getting better every year in different aspects of my game, and by the time I came to my senior year, I felt I was ready to play pro,” he says.

Today, Greening, at 27, is firmly ensconced as a third-line winger on the Senators in a defensive role, a self-described “meat and potatoes” kind of guy, a big, strong, power forward who is heavy on the foreshock and solid on both ends of the ice.

Soon, however, he will be all about steak and lobster.

After making $700,000 and $800,000 the past two seasons, and 950 grand this year, Greening is set to pocket some big cash beginning next season when his new three-year contract kicks in. It calls for $2 million in 2014-15, $2.75 million in 2015-16 and $3.2 million in 2016-17.

As luck would have it, Greening is having a bit of a tough season in Ottawa just before the contract kicks in, with only five goals and eight assists through 59 games. Earlier this year, he found himself on the Sens’ fourth line.

“But I think in the last 30 games, especially, I’m skating better, playing more physical and making better plays with the puck,” he said. “Based on that, I hope my best hockey is yet to come.”

As for the slow start, could it have been the fact Greening was the feeling the pressure of the pending new deal, as much as $8 million can cause pressure?

“I think probably at the beginning I was a little cognizant of it,” he said. “But I came to realize that the contract I signed, I can’t change that right now. That was something that came from play in the past so I cannot focus on the contract itself.

“If we’re always trying to live up to what we sign or what we do, we’re always going to have that in the back of our minds. Instead, the most important thing is to go out and play the way I know how to play, to play for the here and now.

“It’s tough enough as it is to play at this level, but when you have that in the back of your mind, it can be a deterrent to you.”

Say one thing for Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray, he knew he was getting a player who will play when he signed Greening.

That’s because Greening has missed only one game in the past three seasons, and that was last year in the lockout-shortened season.

Part of the reason for his longevity is a simple case of being lucky. More so, however, is that Greening takes care of himself, big time.

He not only has brains, but brawn, too. He’s a beast in the gym — witness his ripped upper body. He’s sometimes been called “Cyborg” by teammates because of his exploits in the gym.

“There are two sides to it,” says the ever-analytical Greening of his games played streak.

“You have to play well enough so you are not a healthy scratch, and that’s what happened last year. The coach has to have confidence in you and you have to be ready to play.

“The other side of it is physical conditioning, which I take very seriously. I think it is so important that you take care of your body. This is a career I have chosen for myself and you want to ensure you give yourself the best opportunity to succeed at it. I think it’s good for me where I had that mentality that I like to go in the gym, I like to learn about the best foods to eat. That’s an interest of mine.

“Sometimes you do have to play banged up, but I think you give yourself the ability to do that if you’re strong overall.”



Organizations: Upper Canada College, NHL, Ottawa Senators Maple Leafs Tampa Bay Lightning Air Canada American Hockey League Cornell University Ivy League British Columbia Junior Hockey League United States Hockey League Special Olympics NCAA

Geographic location: Canada, United States, Toronto Ottawa Nanaimo Lincoln, Neb. Ithaca, N.Y.

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Recent comments

  • Peter Quinlan
    February 22, 2014 - 18:21

    Good story by Robin Short. Personally I didn't learn anything that I didn't already know but hopefully many of the younger readers will learn that getting to the 'Big Leagues' takes a lot of work & commitment, and Colin is an excellent example. Also he was very wise to go the NCAA route, especially at Cornell ( one of the most prestigious schools in the world). Congrats to Colin & Best of Luck in your journey.