Cliff Loya, a Pittsburgh native, played for the University of Maine from 1999-2003, where he was considered the top defensive defenseman in the NCAA. He is currently in the Penguins organization with the Wheeling Nailers, and will be writing a Day-in-the-Life style blog right here on Faceoff-Factor during this upcoming season. Today, he sat down with me for an interview so we could get to know his background a little bit better.

Eric Politowski: How did you first become interested in hockey?

Cliff Loya: When we moved to Mt. Lebanon, our house was about a 2 minute walk from the ice rink. My Dad took me for skating lessons when I was 5 and it took off from there.

EP: Being born in Pittsburgh, did you idolize any certain player(s) growing up as a kid?

CL: Mario for sure. I think that any kid playing hockey in Pittsburgh at that time idolized him. I also liked Ulf Samuelsson because of his physical play. Paul Coffey was also a favorite because he could skate like the wind. He was like a 4th forward out there. There were tons of great players during the Cup runs in the early 1990’s. It was a great time to watch hockey in Pittsburgh.

EP: The Chicago Blackhawks selected you in the 7th round (207th overall) during the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Describe your initial reaction when you heard you were chosen.

CL: I was excited for sure. It was a great honor to get selected in draft, especially for a kid from Pittsburgh. I don’t think there were too many guys from the area selected at that time. Now there are more and more. I think that with the recent success of the Pens there will be a lot more in the near future.

EP: In the 2004-05 season you joined the Penguins organization via playing for the Wheeling Nailers of the East Coast Hockey League. Was it a different or difficult step moving up to the professional ranks?

CL: There was a bit of an adjustment period. I was coming out of college and had to get used to the pro style of play, which is more controlled. Also I had to get used to the grind of a 72 game regular season. In college you only play 40 games max. The players in pro are smarter and stronger, as well.

EP: From 2006-2008 you played in Italy for Asiago HC. Different atmosphere or style of play over there?

CL: My time in Italy was definitely an experience. The style of play was less physical and more run and gun than in North America. As a defenseman, you had to play more positional, because of the Olympic ice surface. The games had a European soccer atmosphere. The fans were chanting the whole game. The skill level of the league was pretty high. Most of the North Americans had many years of AHL experience. I personally like the North American style better and that is why I came back.

EP: Last season, you returned to the Wheeling Nailers club and you’re solid play earned you a nine game AHL try-out with the Portland Pirates. How was that experience?

CL: Getting called up to the AHL was awesome. It had always been a goal of mine to get up there. I was in a good situation in Portland, because they had a lot of Dmen hurt. This allowed me to take a regular shift. I think that I played pretty well, since I was up their for a month. Unfortunately, I broke my leg in Portland and that ended my year. I am hoping that my time up there will equal into another call up to the AHL this year.

EP: Most recently, you re-signed with Wheeling and were invited to the Philadelphia Phantoms camp. How did the camp go for you?

CL: My camp with the Phantoms was short. They had a bunch of Dmen on NHL contract already down there, so it was a tough line up to crack.

EP: What is your most memorable hockey moment?

CL: The 2002 NCAA National Championship Game. We were playing the University of Minnesota in the XCEL Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was basically a road game. There were 20,000 Minnesota fans against us. Every time they scored it was deafening. They had Jordan Leopold, Keith Ballard, Jeff Taffe, John Pohl, Paul Martin and some other great pros. We ended up losing 4-3 in OT.

EP: Do you have any specific goals you would like to accomplish during this upcoming season?

CL: My main goal is to get back to the AHL. I felt that I can play at that level. I also want to have a winning season in Wheeling. I think that we will have a great team that could make a deep playoff run. I want to enjoy everyday at the rink. Since I am getting older, I do not know how many seasons I have left.

EP: You have a reputation around the league for dropping the gloves on more than one occasion. Do you believe fighting is a necessary element in today’s game?

CL: I think fighting should be a part of the game. Playing in Europe, where there is no fighting, players can play dirty and not fear the consequences. Fighting holds player accountable for their actions. I do feel that we could get rid of the “staged” fights, but I do not know how you could determine if one took place.

Thank you very much for the interview, and good luck to you this upcoming season. Looking forward to reading your blog right here on FF!