BOSTON — One year ago, the deaths of Maine coach Shawn Walsh to cancer and former Boston University player Mark Bavis in the September 11th tragedy, along with the announcement that Merrimack coach Chris Serino had been diagnosed with cancer, cast a pall over Hockey East’s annual Media Day luncheon at Boston’s FleetCenter.
This year, the mood was decidedly different, enabling BU coach Jack Parker to joke as he reflected on the difference a year makes.
“Everybody was pretty solemn and concerned about where the country was going, re-evaluating how they lived their lives, and I think people are still doing that,” Parker said.
“But, I don’t see quite as many American flags being flown around in cars, and I don’t see people being quite as polite as they were last September and October to each other,” he added with a grin.
“But I’m certain that was something we’ll never forget and hope it never happens again. As far as the tenor of this season, this country has a different tenor, so this hockey season has a different tenor too.”
For Parker and his Terriers, it’s a season that will begin with a huge bullseye planted firmly on their chests, as the league coaches tabbed BU the preseason favorite to capture the 19th Hockey East Championship.
But that honor may be a dubious one, according to the dean of Hockey East coaches.
“I think it’s nice that people think that we’ve got a good hockey team,” Parker deadpanned. “We’re ranked number two in the nation in the national poll, and I also know that means nothing. Ask Providence, they were picked number one last year and had some injuries and other problems and wound up seventh.”
BU received six of a possible eight first place votes. In a change from last season, coaches were asked to only rank the other eight teams in the league, leaving out their own.
The Terriers were the top choice despite the graduation of defensemen Pat Aufiero and All-American Chris Dyment and top two scorers Mike Pandolfo and Jack Baker. But the presence of 13 NHL draft picks, including Ryan Whitney (4-17–21), the first college player selected in 2002, was enough to sway the rest of the league.
Only five points separated the second through fourth teams in the poll.
— BU coach Jack Parker
Defending regular season and tournament champion New Hampshire, which also finished third in the NCAA tournament, came in second in the balloting and garnered two votes for first. The Wildcats return All-American Colin Hemingway (33-33–66), Rookie of the Year Sean Collins (20-25–45) and All Hockey East goaltender Michael Ayers (14-3-1, 2.44, .915), but lost All-American Darren Haydar and were recently stung by the news that senior defenseman Garrett Stafford (5-22–27) is ineligible for the first semester.
A reloading Boston College was ranked third, led by All-American Ben Eaves (13-26–39), who missed 15 games due to injury, All-Hockey East choice Tony Voce (26-22–48), and defenseman J.D. Forrest (8-19–27).
NCAA runner-up Maine finished fourth with the other first-place vote after the departures of goaltenders Matt Yeats and All Hockey East selection Mike Morrison, defensemen Michael Schutte and All-American Peter Metcalf, and All-American forward and leading scorer Niko Dimitrakos. The Black Bears do return their next eight leading scoring forwards, including Colin Shields (29-17–46) and Martin Kariya (16-28–44).
As far as Parker is concerned, Maine is not only the top sleeper team this season, they’re the team to beat.
“I couldn’t believe they wound up fourth. I was the one who voted Maine number one,” he said. “If Maine wins this championship, people will say, wow, they were picked fourth. And they were an NCAA finalist last year and they have almost everybody back. How could you not pick them to be the number one team in the league?
“What it really does is it points out the balance in the league. I think this is the best year we’ve ever had as far as who could win this league, it’s the closest we’ve ever had. We’ve got five, maybe six teams that absolutely could win this regular season championship and nobody would be surprised.”
Maine coach Tim Whitehead, who received the Spencer T. Penrose Memorial Award as National Coach of the Year after his team’s surprise run to within a goal of the NCAA Championship, took the fourth place selection in stride.
“We lost a lot of difference makers in key positions, both our goalies, our top two defensemen, and our leading scorer at forward, so that’s a pretty big hit,” said Whitehead, who was named interim coach last September after the passing of Walsh and in April was given the job for good. “So we don’t feel slighted at all. Plus, the league is so competitive, and I don’t think it’s a cliche.
“We think we can surprise some people at the end,” Whitehead added with a smile.
Providence and Northeastern came in fifth and sixth,prompting Mass.-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald to name them as his teams to watch.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Providence or Northeastern finish in the top four,” said MacDonald. “Providence was picked number one last year and they have virtually everybody back from last year’s team. Northeastern had four tremendous freshman defensemen, and Keni Gibson could be the best goalie in the league.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if whoever finishes fourth in Hockey East in the regular season won the national championship. That’s how good I think the top four or five teams are.”
MacDonald’s River Hawks finished seventh in the poll.
“That’s probably where we should be,” he said. “We lost 11 players from a pretty good team last year, and this year we have 14 new faces. But more telling than that is that two of them are goaltenders. In this league, if you don’t have consistent, dependable goaltending, it doesn’t matter how good you are in the front five. That’s an unknown for us.”
Massachusetts and Merrimack rounded out the poll, with the Warriors a unanimous choice to finish last.
Yet the upbeat mood at Merrimack reflects that of the rest of the league. That’s because Serino, who was absent from the luncheon last year as he began his cancer treatments which would force him to step away from the team two weeks into the season, recently received a clean bill of health from his doctors and is back at the helm this year.
“I remember last year we were driving home and he wasn’t even at this, we called him just to let him know how it went here,” senior captain Joe Exter said. “And that was just the beginning of it. No one knew how bad it really was or what was going to happen to him.
“So a year later for him to be standing here, it’s just great to see him here.”
“I’m really looking forward to the season,” Serino said. “Last year helped me put things in perspective, not just about hockey but about life.”
A sentiment that’s echoed around the rest of Hockey East as well.