Photos by Caitlin Abrams, Shawna Schill, Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
Featured photo: Second-year pro Drake Caggiula sits in the lounge of The St. Paul Hotel an hour after the Oilers landed in Minnesota. It’s Easter Sunday and all he wants is Chipotle.
He was once the most highly touted undrafted free agent in the country. Now, the former Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player and national champion just slugged his way through his second season in the NHL. He sits down with us to reflect on the craziest four weeks of his life, why it’s hard to leave North Dakota and his advice for college players hoping for their shot at living the dream.
Drake Caggiula has a book idea. It’s not about the storybook ending of his college career, it’s the sequel.
Undrafted and overlooked by every team in the NHL in the Draft, Caggiula’s free agent status in 2016 would lead to one of the wackiest four-week stretches a professional hockey player can experience. It’s the perfect follow-up to a college experience only written in fairy tales.
For some players, it takes years of proven professional ability to become a highly sought-after free agent. For Caggiula, the craziness happened before he stepped on NHL ice.
“I promised my family and agent we’d never discuss it because one day we’re going to write a book about it,” Caggiula said with a smile inside The St. Paul Hotel during a recent road trip to play the Minnesota Wild in April.
The 2016 North Dakota national champion is two years removed from hoisting the championship trophy in Tampa, Florida. What transpired after is the stuff of legend. The Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player said he had a list of ten teams ready with a pro contract for him to sign. It was the beginning of April and the NHL season was winding down. Caggiula took his time before starting the free agent process by celebrating the championship in Grand Forks before making his decision. After the celebration of college hockey’s top prize, Caggiula went on tour.
“One day we’re going to write a book about it.” – Drake Caggiula
“That experience was unlike no other,” Caggiula said. “People treating you like you’re Wayne Gretzky, you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
Caggiula went from underdog to grand prize of the NHL offseason. And for someone who was forgotten about during the draft, Caggiula felt like the luckiest hockey player in the world.
The tour ended with Caggiula signing with the Edmonton Oilers in May. His former captain at North Dakota Dillon Simpson gave him a good pitch over the phone and on the golf course. He also got a chance to exchange messages with one of the rising stars in the League, who happened to attend the same grade school as Caggiula – Connor McDavid.
“People treating you like you’re Wayne Gretzky, you feel like you’re on top of the world.” – Drake Caggiula
“You have to do your own homework and at the same time, you can’t believe everything you hear, because at that point in time, people are trying to sway you to pick them, and you just have to keep a level head and make sure you make the best decision for yourself,” Caggiula said.
The former North Dakota star just wrapped up his second season with the Oilers. After a playoff run his rookie season that ended in Game 7 of the second round against Anaheim, Edmonton missed the playoffs this season.
The North Dakota winger logged just under 900 minutes in 65 games this season. At 23 years old, Caggiula is a restricted free agent this summer. Edmonton will have a decision to make after the draft in June whether or not Caggiula will be around to write the next chapter of his NHL career.
In the meantime, we’ll wait patiently for his New York Times best-seller about how he landed in Edmonton.
We sat down with Edmonton Oilers winger and former North Dakota hockey national champion for an exclusive interview about everything from his future to his role as mentor to current UND players.
Staying in Edmonton
Drake Caggiula signed a twoyear entry-level contract with Edmonton that started during the 2016-17 season. Edmonton has the opportunity to extend Caggiula before the NHL free agency window opens on July 1.
“Hopefully, I can get an extension with the Oilers. I obviously chose the Oilers for a reason, and I want to be with Edmonton. I’m excited. We have a great team. It wasn’t our year. There were a lot of things that weren’t going our way, and I’m excited to, hopefully, get this team back on track.”
Free Agency Over Being a Draft Pick
Caggiula was eligible for the NHL Draft but was picked over 210 times. This gave him the opportunity to sign anywhere after his college career ended.
“For free agents, you have a little bit more leeway because you have teams that have openings and stuff and sometimes when you’re drafted, you’re in Washington and Shane (Gersich) is in tough with some pretty good players there. I didn’t see his first game, but I heard he did pretty well. Hopefully, he gets more opportunity.”
Rhett Gardner’s Decision
Rhett Gardner was drafted by the Dallas Stars after his freshman season at North Dakota. He made the big decision to go back for a senior season after some professional consultation.
“He had an opportunity to sign this year and they wanted to sign him. He called me and asked about whether he should stay or should he go and I just said, ‘It’s your decision, but I think part of the reason I wanted to go back is because I wanted to finish what I started at North Dakota.’ It’s a big culture thing and pride thing. You want to stay there for as long as you can.”
North Dakota is a Hard Place to Leave
Caggiula famously said he wanted to finish what he started at North Dakota. He now explains why it’s hard for players to make the decision to leave before their senior year.
“Every guy that I have met that left early always wishes they stayed for the four years. That was one of the biggest things I told (Gardner), and then, I also said you don’t want to leave to play in the minors. A lot of guys see these contracts and get excited and think, ‘Oh, I’m going to play in the NHL right away.’ But, that’s not necessarily the case for everybody. Sometimes it looks like that, then all of a sudden you’re in the minors, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.’ Now you’re on the buses and all that stuff. When you’re at North Dakota, they treat you like you’re an NHL team. I just told him to make an educated decision, take your time, gave him my insight and now he’s going back for his last year and he’ll probably end up being the captain and he’ll do a great job with that and get the program back on track. I’m excited for him.”
North Dakota Hockey Pride
“You will always consider yourself a North Dakota hockey player. … There’s a group chat with guys I played with throughout my four years. We’re always talking about going back. I went back during AllStar break to catch a couple games with Nick Schmaltz. It’s just one of those things where you have so much pride in the program and they help you so much so now you just want to remain part of it.”
Games Played: 125
North Dakota Stats
Games Played: 162