It might have been the best party Jayson Megna has attended. Certainly, it set a career path for him.
Not that he realized that at the time. After all, he was only 7 years old.
He never had been on ice skates, but he was game to try at a friend’s birthday party at a rink in suburban Chicago.
“I hung onto the wall a little bit, then did my best to shuffle around the ice,” Megna, now a rookie forward with the Penguins, recalled Thursday after practice at Southpointe.
“I loved it.”
He asked his parents to sign him up for a hockey team. Sixteen years later, despite being what he called “a late bloomer” who wasn’t drafted, Megna not only is playing in the NHL, but also has been skating alongside Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, two of the top centers in the world.
A call-up who has stuck around in part because of a series of injuries to Penguins forwards, Megna has two goals and an assist in his first six NHL games — with Crosby assisting on his first goal and Malkin assisting on his second.
He called playing with those two “a little bit scary initially. You don’t want to get in anybody’s way. These guys are some of the best at what they do. But it’s real exciting to get a chance to play with them, players who have the kind of skill you’ve never played with before.
“It’s a little bit eye-opening when you see some of the things they do. At the same time, you just work hard to try and get them the puck, and, when they have the puck, get open for them.”
Megna, 23 and a second-year pro, could remain in the lineup when the Penguins play Saturday at St. Louis. He had been playing right wing on Malkin’s line, but Beau Bennett practiced there Thursday and is expected to return from injury Saturday.
Megna moved to the right side on Crosby’s line for practice. That’s usually Pascal Dupuis’ spot, but Dupuis missed practice, and his status for Saturday is unclear.
Megna realizes at some point, depending on other forwards’ health, he could end up back in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he opened the season with three goals, five points in six American Hockey League games.
“You have to take everything as a learning experience,” Megna said. “I’m fighting every day to stay up [in the NHL] and, regardless of the numbers game, at least make it a tough decision.”
Coach Dan Bylsma said Megna has some grit and a lot of speed — aspects that induced the Penguins to invite him to their summer development camps the past two years and sign him as a free agent after the first in August 2012.
“That speed’s going to be a factor whether he’s playing with [Crosby, Malkin] or with other centermen, other linemates,” Bylsma said.
It might have been a factor for Megna in a different sport. He was born in Florida because his father, Jay, played for the Miami Dolphins. Jay Megna also played for New Orleans in the NFL. Had the family remained there, Megna figures he would have been drawn to baseball or football.
But they moved to Northbrook, Ill., when Jayson was 3, and he developed a circle of friends that got him invited to birthday parties.
Megna spent his final two years of high school playing for Tabor Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, but he did not get drafted.
“I don’t know if it discouraged me,” Megna said. “I think it motivated me. I knew I was a late bloomer.”
He played two seasons at Cedar Rapids in the junior United States Hockey League, then became an overage freshman at Nebraska-Omaha, where his younger brother, Jaycob, played. He was third on the team with 31 points and a Western Collegiate Hockey Association All-Star in 2011-12.
That summer, he left school and joined the Penguins organization.
“I just felt that, at that moment in time, it was the best thing for my career to turn pro,” Megna said. “A couple of teams were interested, but, at the end of the day, I made my decision based on who I was most comfortable with.”
Little did he know that, after one season plus a handful of AHL games this season, he would be learning to get comfortable alongside Malkin and Crosby in what otherwise would have been his junior season in college.
“I’m just happy to be in the lineup,” he said.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.