Dec. 31, 2013
Notre Dame, Ind. – By Victor Diaz
If you find yourself in the Compton Family Ice Arena during “A Hockey Night in South Bend,” chances are you’ll be seeing the number 21 – a lot.
Bryan Rust, the owner of the 21 sweater, is a senior alternate captain for this year’s Fighting Irish squad and seems to always be on the ice. He is the definition of a utility player, earning heavy minutes during five-on-five play on the top line, filling in on the power play and being one of Notre Dame’s top penalty killers.
But it wasn’t always that way for Rust, whose journey from highly touted recruit to senior alternate captain wasn’t without its speed bumps.
“As a freshman, we had a huge freshman class and we didn’t really know what to expect,” says Rust who had a productive freshman campaign in which he played in all but four of Notre Dame’s outings, tallied 19 points and skated to an impressive +14.
“We didn’t have very big expectations, but we came out and had a great year, led by an unbelievable senior class.”
As a sophomore, Rust saw his production dip during an 11-point, -2 sophomore campaign.
“We had tremendous expectations that we kind of let down,” Rust says.
“And me, personally, I wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted to be. Coach Jackson and I kind of battled back and forth and had our disagreements.”
While the disappointment of the 2011-12 season lingered for sometime, Rust refused to allow one season to define his career and made some personal changes in his approach to the game. The results were nothing but positive.
“That summer between sophomore and junior year, I got my act together. I had a big, heated meeting with Coach at the end of that year telling me that I had to get myself together.”
Rust’s patience and maturity paid off, as he bounced back in a big way for his junior campaign during which he had a 34-point season, finding the back of the net 15 times, and skating to an extraordinary +25.
“I worked really hard, and then last year, my junior year, I came back in the best shape of my life and had a great year,” he says.
“Coach saw that my attitude totally changed, and the team totally saw that too.”
Indeed they did, as Rust would be named one of Notre Dame’s three alternate captains following his breakout junior campaign.
“Coach and the other guys who were leaders wanted me to become an assistant captain,” Rust says.
“That was obviously huge coming from where I was – kind of being down in the dumps, and kind of being in the dog house. And now being one of the assistant captains and one of the most trusted guys on the team, I showed that I had matured mentally and physically over my four years here.”
Although getting there was tough, earning the “A” may have been the easy part compared to what comes with wearing it. Being asked to kill penalties on top of being expected to be one of the team’s top producers and locker room leaders is no easy task.
However, while all the hats that he has to wear as an alternate captain may seem daunting, Rust is no stranger to the big ice and has had years of experience at a high level of play to prepare him for the job. Before beginning his NCAA career, Rust skated with the United States National Team Program for two years.
“That was obviously an unbelievable experience,” says Rust, recalling what it was like being a high school kid on the big world stage.
“Being able to travel to places like Switzerland, Slovakia, Finland, and Belarus when we won the gold medal and being able to wear the U.S.A. jersey. It’s a special feeling because not many people get to do it.”
Not only did the U.S. National Program give Rust the international exposure he needed to become one of the nation’s top prospects, it also gave him the opportunity to refine his game to prepare him for the next level.
“My second year there we played against some college teams, and it helped to be able to play some games against the bigger, older guys, and play the college game a little bit before I got here. That made my transition as a freshman here pretty smooth and easy.”
Rust’s statistics show that this has certainly been the case, as he jumped right into the lineup during his freshman year and has continued to be one of ND’s top producers ever since.
Although much attention has been focused on Rust’s production, the defining feature of his play style and importance to his team is something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“The key part of my game is hockey sense,” he explains.
“To be able to think the game, be able to know situations, and how to read and react. That really helps me have a step up.”
This “hockey sense” has helped Rust find his niche as one of the smaller players on the ice. Standing at a modest 5-11 and weighing in at 198 pounds, Bryan Rust doesn’t let his size get in the way of his gritty play. It is this sense that has made him one of Notre Dame’s top penalty killers and one of the most trusted forwards on Jackson’s squad.
“I see my role on the team as a responsible forward and a two-way forward,” Rust says.
“I’m going to try to make the play, finding the guy back door, scoring goals, but I’m more known for my responsible play. Not really turning the puck over, blocking shots, getting the puck out of the zone, not really turning the puck over. The type of thing that really helps me out defensively, because I’m able to be in the shot lane to block shots and get my stick on the puck when guys are trying to shoot.”
While the casual fan may not notice Rust’s “hockey sense” during his tilts at Compton, others certainly have. One of those people is Ray Shero, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who drafted Rust in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Rust expected to go in the later rounds, but the Penguins saw something in him that made them take him in the third round with the 80th overall pick.
“Now my foot is in the door, and now I just have to do the work to get all the way through,” says Rust about being an NHL prospect.
Having already gone through his share of trials during his brief career, Rust should be no stranger to the amount of work and effort he’ll have to put in to succeed at the next level after his senior year.
But senior year hasn’t concluded yet, so Rust is currently just trying to stay focused on the present rather than worrying about the future. However, it’s hard to keep the idea that you may one day be skating next to the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin too far out of mind.
“If I had the chance to play with them that would obviously be a life-changing moment, and I would just try to learn as much as I could.”
With 12 points so far this year, Rust is fourth on the team in scoring while playing every game for the Irish. While the beginning of his professional career is just a few months away, his well-earned status as alternate captain is keeping him grounded with Notre Dame in its first season in Hockey East. Before the next stage of his career, look for him to help bring the Irish to a strong second half of the season in the hopes of another NCAA tournament appearance.