The town of Niwot, Colo., boasts a population of over 4,000 — not too big or too small.
Perhaps one of the bigger things to come out of Niwot in the last few years now resides in central New Jersey, in the form of 6-foot-4 Princeton junior defenseman Michael Sdao. The Niwot native and Ottawa Senators draft choice also is one of the top scorers in ECAC Hockey.
Sdao (pronounced suh-DAY-oh) is tied for 11th in ECAC play with four goals and eight assists for 12 points, figures that have him tied for second among conference defensemen. He had posted six goals and 15 points in 20 outings overall, and was also pacing Princeton with 59 penalty minutes.
Sdao has set personal scoring highs this season after collecting eight goals and 19 points and 113 penalty minutes in his first two collegiate campaigns. Despite growing up in a state with three NCAA Division I hockey schools, he chose to go east to Princeton after skating with the Lincoln Stars, with whom he racked up 340 penalty minutes in his two years in the USHL.
“I came out for a visit and loved it,” Sdao said. “The seniors were unbelievable, and it just felt right.”
The 230-pound Sdao set a career high with two goals in an 8-1 win against Connecticut as a freshman. More recently, he set personal bests with two assists and three points in a 3-2 overtime victory at Brown on Jan. 14.
Sdao, 22, set up both Princeton goals in regulation that night on his signature blasts from the blue line. He then potted the winner in sudden death when he took a pass inside the Brown defensive zone, skated into the slot, and whipped a backhander home to end it.
Not that he’d been working on that move or anything.
“The backhand is definitely not my style,” he laughed.
He admitted he’s improved his shot while at Princeton, mainly by shooting as many pucks as possible. It has paid off — he has 14 career goals and 20 assists to go along with 172 penalty minutes in 77 appearances.
The sole junior defenseman and the lone NHL-drafted player on the Tigers roster, he’s also Princeton’s first draftee since 2001. He has also kept Ottawa, which drafted him in the seventh round in 2009, apprised of his status on a regular basis.
“I send them weekly updates,” said Sdao, who’s also an assistant captain at Princeton this season. “That’s the way their system works.”
He also receives feedback from the Senators, and attended a summer prospects camp with Ottawa a month after he was drafted. He also took part in a rookie camp with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild in 2008.
Besides strength, skating ability and an overpowering slapper, Sdao’s game is based on physical play and eliminating opposing forwards. In a recent win over Colgate, he was often matched up against senior sniper Austin Smith, who managed to score twice despite constant checking and harassment from a certain Colorado-born blueliner.
“It’s a challenge playing against the top players,” said Sdao. “He had two goals, so give him credit.”
Sdao is still working on improving his game in his own end, in addition to elevating his offensive prowess. His point-producing capability hasn’t come at the expense of being responsible defensively, though.
“I think you can always have a tighter gap,” he said of handling opposing puck-carriers. “You can always play better defense.”
Like his Tigers teammates, Sdao has also been getting adjusted to a new head coach this season in Bob Prier. The former St. Lawrence skater and assistant coach took over the Princeton job after Guy Gadowsky departed for Penn State last spring.
“It’s been great,” Sdao said of the transition. “There’s been some changes in our system, and it took a while to get used to. [Now that we’re used to it] I think we’ll have a great last 15 to 20 games.”
The Tigers are 2-1-3 in their last six outings since returning to action at the Mariucci Classic in Minnesota on Dec. 30-31, with the lone blemish a 6-2 loss at Yale on Jan. 7.
Sdao comes from an athletic family. His father, Tony, played football at North Dakota, while his younger brother, Jonathan, skates in the Eastern Junior Hockey League and is looking at colleges.
Despite his father’s football background, Sdao said he gravitated more toward hockey and golf. He lettered in golf in high school, at Culver Academy in Indiana — but the rink ultimately won out over the links.
“My dad introduced me to it, and I just loved the game,” he said.
Though a hockey fan, Sdao’s father was not enamored of the recent decision by UND to put the Fighting Sioux nickname to rest.
“I don’t think there’s many Sioux people happy,” said Sdao. “There’s a lot of pride in that school.”
Sdao now has pride in his own school, including the myriad of educational and social opportunities that an Ivy League institution like Princeton can offer.
“I wrote my junior paper on the Cold War, and the impact that the Miracle [on Ice] had on President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympic Summer Games,” said Sdao, a history major. “It was a lot of fun to study and write about. Academically, it’s a great school.”
Having the ability to unwind at Hobey Baker Rink away from the classroom has also been a plus, as has been getting to know his teammates, who hail from Canada, New England, the Dakotas and even the deep South.
“The guys in the [locker] room are first class, and I’ve made so many friends here,” said Sdao.
He hopes to have a shot at playing pro hockey, but right now is focused on academics and helping Princeton ascend the ECAC ladder.
“I’m trying to take it day by day, and graduate,” Sdao said.
His new head coach is squarely in Sdao’s corner, especially as far as playing professionally is concerned.
“More than anyone else I’ve coached, he wants to play at the next level,” said Prier, himself a former Boston Bruins draft choice.
He added that Sdao has an incredible work ethic, and that his toughness and his shot could also take him a long way.
“He’s definitely got the will, and an absolute bomb from the point,” said Prier. “He’s also a great person, and his intangibles are terrific. … He’s an NHL prospect, and a good prospect.”
The Senators should like hearing that — along with a few thousand people in Colorado.