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'It’s been a surreal experience': Former SAC captain drafted by Coyotes, playing for Cornell

Jonathan Castagna is settling in at Cornell after being drafted by the Arizona Coyotes

It’s been a wild ride for Jonathan Castagna, over the last three years he’s gone from not having a spot on the St. Andrew’s College hockey team to captaining the squad to being selected by the Arizona Coyotes in 2023 NHL Entry Draft to enrolling at Cornell.

A lot has happened and it hasn't been easy to process for Castagna, who moved from Etobicoke to Aurora’s St. Andrew’s College in the middle of his Grade 11 year.

“It’s an unconventional story of how I got there,” he said. “I didn’t go straight there after the summer… I gave SAC a call (ahead of the school year) and asked if it was a possibility and they said no.”

After being turned down by the school due to the hockey team not having a spot for him, Castagna just continued with the route he was on.

“Then two months later I got a call from coach (David) Manning and he said there was a spot on the team for me,” Castagna said. “At first, I thought there was no way I would go because I was already settled in on my new Jr. A team, but coach Manning told me to just come look at the campus. I figured it couldn’t hurt, and when I got to the campus it was game over.”

Castagna went on to spend the rest of Grade 11 and all of Grade 12 at St. Andrew’s College, where he would captain the 2022-23 team and put up 92 points in 85 career games, including 72 in his 50-game senior year where he earned team MVP honours.

“It was some of the best times of my life,” he said. “I have absolutely no regrets taking that path.”

While playing at St. Andrew’s College, Castagna always hoped he would earn a D-I scholarship, but never knew for certain that it would come to fruition.

“You go there with the hope you’re going to receive an NCAA opportunity, but that goes with having to perform up to those standards,” he said. “I didn’t go there thinking I’d play for Cornell one day, but it was a goal to strive for and it motivates you to maximize your potential.”

Cornell isn’t just an Ivy League school, the Big Red have a history of success on the ice having reached the Frozen Four eight times and won the NCAA championship twice while helping to develop dozens of NHL players.

“They were actually the first team to ever reach out to me at the very beginning of my Grade 11 year after about two weeks,” said Castagna. “I started researching and the emphasis on culture and having a well-rounded team and well-rounded individuals was something I wanted to be a part of. Their playing style fits my style as well, so pairing all of that with getting an Ivy League education, it was definitely my No. 1 choice.”

The recruitment process to Cornell was long, said Castagna, which he now understands because of the program’s commitment to building the right kind of culture both on and off the ice.

“They want to make sure that the people they’re bringing in aren’t good people, but great people,” he said.

Castagna has now been on campus for about two weeks and says he's beginning to settle in at the school, which is located in Ithaca, New York.

“I’ve had my first few classes and honestly it’s everything I expected and more,” he said. “It’s been absolutely exciting and meeting the guys was something I was looking forward to a lot. You can feel the culture right away with the team and we’re a very tight team already. The older guys are extremely outgoing and fun to be around. We’ve had a couple of skates and I can’t wait to fully get started here.”

Now for the next four years, Castagna will be developing under Big Red head coach Mike Schafer, who has won six ECAC (Eastern College Athletic Conference) regular season titles and five ECAC tournaments in his 28 years at the helm of the program.

That bodes well for the Coyotes who took Castagna in the third-round with the 70th pick this past June despite him not taking the traditional CHL route to the NHL.

“It’s been a surreal experience,” he said. “It’s tough to explain because there’s so many emotions going through your head throughout the whole (draft) process. I’d like to say I’ve come back down to Earth (since being drafted), but I really haven’t because it’s something you work your whole life toward.”

Prior to his Grade 12 season, Castagna says he had “no idea” he would be drafted and even before the draft he said there’s “no chance” he knew he’d be selected for sure.

“It’s just one big roller-coaster of emotions that when it finally happens, all those emotions release,” he said. “It’s a difficult feeling to say out loud and it’s difficult to even remember what was happening in that moment because my head was spinning.”

The experience of being drafted is something for which Castagna said he’ll always be grateful, especially because he knows so many kids in Canada grow up dreaming of that day and for him, he realized it could be a reality at the beginning of his Grade 12 year.

“I saw the monumental steps I had taken over the summer and I had seen what had happened with two of my former teammates the year before (Matthew Morden and Luke Devlin were both selected in the 2022 NHL Draft out of St. Andrew’s College), and I thought I might have what it takes,” he said. “Then you start keeping that in mind and try to push yourself and be a contagious guy for others around you to get better.”

Now that he has been drafted, Castagna said if he could have chosen any team to pick him, it would have been the Coyotes because of the relationships he built with their front office and coaching staff pre-draft.

“They were the team talking to me the most,” he said. “I really like how the staff are as people and it’s an organization that’s really exciting to be a part of right now with all the changes they’re going to go through. Even post-draft, they’ve been incredible and they put a ton of emphasis on player development. It’s been such a positive experience.”

Castagna and the Big Red start their regular season Oct. 27 against the University of Minnesota Duluth on ESPN+.