For the better part of an athlete’s life, the moment cannot come soon enough when he can cash in on a multi-year, lucrative deal with one of his profession’s 30 or so professional teams. Having the luxury of being able to disregard everything, to put his previous life on hold, can be this player’s ticket to freedom. For a former Badger blue liner, that moment, while monumental in its own right, though on less lucrative terms, did not mean a blatant disregard for the education he worked to receive at Wisconsin. Or the life he left behind. Joe Piskula went from college student sitting in the basement of Social Sciences for his History of Rome lecture to NHL player skating in front of thousands under the soft glow of the Staples Center’s lights in Los Angeles, from facing midterms to facing the prospect of learning to play with fresh faces at a level of hockey better than he had ever encountered. Yet even with a professional contract and the image of playing in the NHL fresh on his mind, Piskula looked back: As soon as the Los Angeles Kings’ season concluded without a playoff bid, he was once again back in that antique room listening to lectures about the Roman economy. While his time with the Kings was described by Piskula as “unbelievable” to the point that “it didn’t even seem real,” the student-turned-pro-turned-student had more important things on his mind. He was behind in his schoolwork. “It was really hard,” Piskula said in a phone interview, discussing his return to campus. “I had a month of school to catch up on in five classes.” Thankfully, Piskula’s teachers sympathized with his situation. They helped him get caught up in time to successfully complete his junior year. His life-changing decision to go pro started as a cloud at the beginning of the 2006-07 season and turned into a thunderstorm by the end; it got to the point where there was no doubt that he was going to leave college early. Piskula just didn’t know it would play out as perfectly as it did. Following the conclusion of the men’s hockey season, one in which the Badgers missed the NCAA Tournament and a chance to defend its title by one place — they finished No. 17 in the Pairwise Rankings, and the top 16 teams are invited — Piskula signed a contract with the Los Angeles Kings. The best part: He was offered a chance to play with the team — in the NHL — right away. Of course Piskula took it. “The fact that I was able to go to the NHL right away was a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that I don’t think really anybody can pass up.” That still didn’t mean the decision was emotionally easy. After all, you only live college once. “I am going to miss Wisconsin and miss my senior year,” Piskula said. “I mean I love it here, and I couldn’t have gotten a better experience with winning a national championship and all. … Our team is like a family, and it’s difficult to leave your family behind, but I would have been a 23-year-old senior, so it’s not like I’m really young. “It was tough to decide that, but again, I felt like the time was right.” “Every player’s dream,” as Piskula called it, began Mar. 23, 2007 against the Chicago Blackhawks. To better matters, the game was played in Chicago, one of two NHL cities within driving distance of his hometown of Antigo, Wis., and Madison, allowing his friends and family to see him play. A few days later, they saw him play again in St. Paul, Minn., against the Minnesota Wild. “It couldn’t have worked out any better,” Piskula said of the Kings’ fortunate schedule. In all, he appeared in five games for Los Angeles. While that brief stint won’t guarantee Piskula a roster spot this fall when the Kings begin training camp, those precious few weeks have left a lasting impression on Piskula. It didn’t hurt that his confidence was boosted in the process either. “Last year definitely helped me out getting there and getting to play a little bit, and getting a little bit of experience,” he said. “I played in five games for them last year, so they know that I’m right there and that I can play at that level.” But bigger than Piskula’s achievements on the ice is his commitment off it. Despite conceding his senior year in order to play professional hockey — be it with the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL or the Kings’ minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL — Piskula recognizes the importance of earning a degree for his life after hockey. “You don’t play hockey forever,” Piskula said. “When you’re done with hockey you need that degree to get a job, so an education is definitely important.” Plus, he doesn’t want his three years of hard work to go to waste. “I’ve put in three years of schooling and all that work,” Piskula said. “I definitely want to finish.” In order to achieve his goal Piskula will take summer courses for the next three or four years. Should he remain committed for that long he would represent one of just 75 percent of all University of Wisconsin student athletes who graduate with degrees, and an even smaller percent of professionals. In the meantime, the former Badger continues to train for the upcoming season, hoping that time will bring him to the NHL level once more. Whether it happens doesn’t matter like it would to the athletes who don’t look back, because as Piskula knows, a degree is worth something too. Kevin is senior majoring in journalism and economics. Share your thoughts or just drop a line to email@example.com.