Scholar Stories: 'A Classic Role Model for Student-Athletes'

March 15, 2017

Every Wednesday during the 2016-17 academic year, will highlight a different student-athlete and their academic path. These are our Scholar Stories.

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Sam Piazza is the complete package. The University of Michigan ice hockey defenseman is exactly what coach Red Berenson hopes every recruit becomes on and off the ice.

"Sam is a classic role model for student-athletes," said Berenson. "He's in the engineering school, and he's a bright kid, hard-working, responsible, and he gives us a level of maturity that I think really helps our younger players.

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"And then on the ice, he gives us poise and a solid work ethic with a skill level that everyone admires. But down the road, he knows that he's going to have a profession outside of hockey, and good for him. That's really what this is all about. Hockey might give you a couple opportunities, but it only takes you so far. What he's doing in school is going to give him something more lasting."

Piazza is Michigan's top offensive defenseman. He's notched six goals and 14 points heading into Thursday night's (March 16) Big Ten Tournament opener with Penn State at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and he has shown enough to have the Chicago Blackhawks invite him to their summer camp for amateur prospects.

He also sports the team's top grade-point average as a mechanical engineering major and is considering a career in financial trading. Piazza was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection and one of six conference players to receive the Sportsmanship Award for distinguishing himself with "sportsmanship" and "ethical behavior" while also excelling in citizenship and academics.

Math is at the root of both his selection of a major and career path.

"I applied to the engineering school because I thought I would like it," said Piazza, "and I picked mechanical engineering because it's centered on math and physics.

"Right now I'm in the process of possibly getting a job in financial trading, which isn't a mechanical engineering discipline but has a lot of engineers and physics and math majors going into it because the mathematical and computer skills transfer into it."

Piazza consults with Steve Racine, the starting goalie for Michigan's 2016 Big Ten Tournament championship team, on financial trading because Racine participated in J.P. Morgan's Cash Equities Sales Trading Intern Program on Wall Street.

"Steve's always tried to help me, and I appreciate that," said Piazza.

He's especially enjoyed three lab classes -- particularly one in which his group was assigned to make a product.

"The idea is to design and manufacture it as a team," said Piazza. "My sophomore year we built a remote control car that lifted up and pushed blocks. So, you take it from the computer stage through completion. We took the hunks of metal, machined them and put them all together. We made it up on North Campus."

Piazza noted a connection between academics and athletics.

"I associate school and hockey through the preparation," said Piazza, saying the disciplines learned from Berenson in hockey are something he's transferred into school work, particularly in studying for exams.

He said Berenson's had the biggest impact on him at Michigan.

"Coach Berenson is a straight-shooter," said Piazza. "I had to work my way into the lineup, and he and the rest of our staff noticed I was sticking with it and working hard. Now, I'm playing a lot and getting to wear assistant captain on my sweater, and that's quite an honor."

Piazza, a junior from Darien, Illinois, has made a significant jump in playing time this season, and Berenson called upon him at Joe Louis Arena in an overtime shootout with Michigan State that Piazza decided with a goal.

"I liked that goal," Berenson said. "Sam's been our best scoring defenseman all year, and we felt good about putting him out there. He's got a lot of patience and skill, and fortunately scored."

Piazza said, "Growing up, I was very offensive. It's always been a part of my game, and it came naturally. I was bigger and stronger as a kid and had good puck skills."

He also had a two-goal game this season against Wisconsin and scored the game-winner at Ferris State. Still, it was scoring a goal in the season opener with Union that sticks with him the most.

"That was pretty exciting," said Piazza. "Coming into the season, I didn't even know if I would be in the lineup to start. So, to come out and bury one at the start was pretty sweet.

"And the shootout goal was something I hadn't done in college. I hadn't even attempted one since playing in junior (leagues). And doing it at 'The Joe' was special."

Piazza made the Great Lakes Invitational all-tournament team as a sophomore in December 2015 and said that was where he caught the eye of the Blackhawks, who issued him an invitation to take part in their 2016 summer camp.

"I got invited after the GLI," said Piazza, "and I was very surprised. It didn't sink in. I didn't even think it was serious at first. But it was awesome getting to wear an NHL team's crest, and I just happen to be a Hawks fan as well. I had a lot of fun there."

Piazza said his father, Tom, who played baseball at Illinois State, shared Blackhawks season tickets when they won the 2010 Stanley Cup, and Sam got to attend some playoff games and the downtown parade celebration. His favorite player is Chicago's alternate captain.

"I like Duncan Keith," said Piazza. "He's a good defenseman and good with the puck. That's what I try to be as an offensive defenseman. I really like guys who are skilled defensemen."

Piazza said playing with and competing against Wolverines teammates who have moved on to the NHL has paid dividends.

"My biggest improvement came last year -- even though I wasn't playing as much," said Piazza. "I felt faster and got more confident, and you're taking rushes from JT (Compher) and all those boys on the CCM Line."

Compher was joined by Hobey Baker Award finalist Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte to form the highest-scoring line in college hockey. They all signed with their NHL Draft teams after the season, which ended one victory away from the Frozen Four. Defensemen Zach Werenski, currently playing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Michael Downing also went pro.

"We lost all of those boys," said Piazza, "and I had an opportunity for a bigger role."

Motte has played for the Blackhawks this season, and Piazza got to see him during the summer. While Motte was practicing with the professionals in camp, Piazza got a chance to play there with Wolverines freshman James Sanchez, who will be eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft.

"That was pretty cool," said Piazza.

He started playing on a summer roller hockey team along with his sister, Cara Piazza, and they were coached by their father. She's a forward who has played on back-to-back national championship teams at the University of Minnesota.

"We also played on the ice together," said Piazza, "and she's awesome. As we've gotten older, we've gotten closer, too. We'll work out together in the summers and skate. We'll go against each other in drills and games, and I don't let her win or anything.

"I try to help her out when I can, but she's a good player on her own."

Family, hockey and education each plays a big role in Sam's life, and his proper sense of priorities has rubbed off on teammates. That's why Berenson has taken such a liking to Piazza and what he brings in every way.

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