Cody von Rueden, not the average freshman

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

There’s a blinding flash of light before Cody von Rueden’s eyes are finally able to open.

When they do, they open wide, and he can’t help but let a toothless grin form on his face.

“Thanks,” he says, walking over to a chair after a photographer takes another photo. He’s grateful for every moment.

Cody von Rueden lives hockey.

When the nearly 21-year-old freshman scored his first collegiate hat trick this weekend during his team’s 9-2 rout over Southern Illinois, it seemed the game he loved his whole life was finally giving back.

But to say von Rueden loves the game doesn’t tell the whole truth. His choice to play five years of junior hockey instead of attending college is a testament to the game’s importance in his life.

A few years ago, von Rueden was at the top of his game, being recruited by NCAA Division-I schools and even showing up on NHL scouting boards. But the young star suffered an injury that left him with a separated shoulder. After that, the defenseman said it was tough to get his reputation back up and get back on recruiters’ radars.

But it’s not something von Rueden said he’s upset about. In fact, he’s thankful it happened.

“I wouldn’t be here without that injury,” von Rueden said. “I’m so thankful for all the failures and success I’ve had that have led me up to this point, because I couldn’t be happier to be where I am right now with this group of guys and being a part of this institution.”

With family and friends in attendance last weekend, the defenseman netted three goals and an assist — two of the goals coming within 16 seconds of each other and against both Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville goaltenders.

Von Rueden said it was the play of his teammates that ultimately led to his success last weekend, with their hard work ethic and focus while playing a Cougars team the Illini expected to beat.

“It’s tough to play in those games and to keep yourself motivated,” von Rueden said. “When I got that first one, I was feeling really good, but when I got that second one, you could see my teammates wanted it for me. It seemed like they wanted it for me more than I wanted it and when stuff like that happens, it’s unbelievable.”

The level of support from Illinois teammates for a freshman is something von Rueden finds humbling, but growing up in Chicago, he isn’t a stranger to players in the Illini locker room.

Senior winger Eddie Quagliata grew up with von Rueden, playing travel hockey with him during high school on Team Illinois. Although Quagliata said he’s excited to finally play with von Rueden again on the ice, he finds a lot of fun off the ice, teasing the 6-foot defenseman.

“It’s funny that we’re both the exact same age, and I’m a senior now and he’s a freshman,” Quagliata said. “I give him shit about that.”

Already feeling comfortable and enjoying his first year of college hockey, von Rueden could barely find words to describe what it felt like to get a hat trick Saturday night, but compared the game to a childhood dream.

“When you get that momentum building during a hat trick, the fans get louder and louder, and I felt like the whole rink was supporting me,” von Rueden said. “It felt great.”

Sitting in the lobby at the Big Pond, the place he now calls “home,” von Rueden said he hopes to continue producing the number of points he has recorded throughout his first two weeks here and will continue to pester head coach Nick Fabbrini about getting on the ice for another chance to be a difference maker.

“I want to be a guy that can turn games around,” von Rueden said. “I don’t want to be just an average player.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.