To earn a degree from Princeton, students usually have to write a senior thesis or work on an independent project.
Oklahoma City Barons defenseman Taylor Fedun, a mechanical engineering major, constructed a hovercraft capable of going on land, water or ice.
A rookie whose professional hockey career was delayed one year when his right femur was shattered in an NHL preseason game, Fedun and two classmates spent several months of trial and error working on 1-foot by 1 1/2-foot hovercrafts.
“I can't even start to tell you how many hours we spent in the machine shop to build all the individual parts, then assembling and troubleshooting the entire thing,” Fedun said. “The ultimate goal was to scale it up even further so you could actually ride on it similar to an ATV.”
The 12th model of the wood-base, air-cushioned transport vehicle was successful. The trio spent three more months working on the final version, a 4-foot by 21/2-foot hovercraft with foam interior.
What made their hovercraft unique was that previous models used two fans, one on the bottom for lift, another in the back for thrust. Their version used a single fan with a duct system.
“I remember as a freshman hearing about this big senior project you have to do,” Fedun said. “It's something that kind of terrified me, kind of loomed over your head. When we finally finished it was so rewarding.”
The tedious hovercraft project is something he could draw from when he faced a year-long rehabilitation following a gruesome injury.
Growing up in Edmonton, his dream was to play for the Oilers. Fedun actually was thankful he wasn't drafted. It allowed him to sign with the hometown team he rooted for as a kid.
In his first training camp, the relatively unknown defenseman turned heads. He was playing so well he appeared in every preseason game. If Fedun didn't jump straight to the NHL out of Princeton, he would be one of the Oilers' top blueline prospects at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Things changed on Sept. 30, 2010. In the Oilers' final preseason game, Fedun suffered the type of injury that can derail a career.
Fedun raced Minnesota's Eric Nystrom to the end line. Fedun reached the puck first to force icing, but Nystrom's stick was between Fedun's skates. Fedun slammed into the end boards.
“My leg kind of exploded into a bunch of different pieces,” Fedun said. “The top third of the bone was in a bunch of different fragments.”
Orthopedic surgeons placed a titanium rod and four screws in the femur, largest bone in the body.
“If anyone saw an X-ray of his leg, with all the hardware in there, it's pretty amazing,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “He's like the bionic man. His leg basically has been rebuilt. For him to come back is truly remarkable. It's a tribute to him for all the hard work he put in.”
The long rehabilitation process started with Fedun returning home to live with his parents. The Oilers provided a special bed placed in the living room.
By Christmas, Fedun ditched a wheelchair for crutches. Six months after the injury, he skated with his father at a public rink.
Veteran NHL forward Darcy Hordichuk, recently assigned to Oklahoma City, was on the ice when Fedun suffered the shattered leg.
“Not a lot of guys would come back from that type of injury,” Hordichuk said. “It's a great story. Not only has he come back, he's battling through things where most people might pack it in. He's worked really hard. Hopefully, some day we'll see him up in the NHL.”
In 45 games with the Barons, Fedun has compiled 15 points. His size (6-foot, 195 pounds) isn't ideal, but he's a puck-mover and might develop into a shutdown blue-liner. Fedun remains a viable prospect even though his right leg will never be the same.
“I can't say it's completely back to normal,” Fedun said. “Normal is a little different for me than it was before. I don't think it's the rod. It's the muscles around it from the initial trauma. You need a little extra TLC, stretch it out every day. I don't think it will hold me back at all or limit me.”
At age 24, Fedun isn't your typical NHL prospect. Most elite players play major junior hockey. Some are drafted when they're 17 or 18.
As a teenager, Fedun wasn't selected in the bantam draft. Years later, he wasn't selected in the NHL Draft.
“It allowed me to mature a lot more,” Fedun said. “I'm much more ready than if I had played major junior. I think I opened some people's eyes in that first training camp. That's why I'm getting an opportunity. I'm excited about what lies ahead.”
Fedun wanted to go to college, experience campus life.
Not any college.
He earned an Ivy League degree and played hockey in one of the nation's oldest sports venues, a 2,200-seat arena built in 1921.
“I have something to fall back on when hockey is all said and done,” Fedun said. “That's extremely valuable. Growing up, I always enjoyed school. To have an opportunity to play hockey and go to an institution like Princeton was a no-brainer for me.”
If Fedun wasn't a pro hockey player he most likely would be working for a company like Devon or Chesapeake in Edmonton, a city with oil and gas roots similar to Oklahoma City.
“I'm in no rush to join that part of the world,” Fedun said. “I might as well have some fun. It's always been a dream of mine my entire life to play in the NHL. Not many people get a chance to live out their childhood dreams.”