Yale forward Chris Higgins said he expects to decide “pretty soon” whether or not to forgo his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility and sign with the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in the first round (14th overall) in last June’s NHL Entry Draft.
“They’re pretty much done [working on the offer], and I’d say we’re probably going to make a decision in the next week or so, or the next two weeks,” said Higgins, reached by phone at his Smithtown, N.Y., home on Tuesday morning. “I’m just talking to my parents, and people I respect in the hockey world — weighing it out between coming closer to getting a degree and pursuing something I’ve always wanted.”
Canadiens spokesman Dominick Saillant said Wednesday that he did not know what the status of the Higgins’ situation was, since much of the organization’s hockey personnel were attending the Memorial Cup (CHL finals) in Quebec City. However, a decision appears near. Yale coach Tim Taylor said it could possibly come by the end of the week.
Asked what his main considerations have been, Higgins said, “If I stayed one more year, at least, that would mean I was that much closer to my degree, and it would give me a chance to work out that much more, and be ready for an 82-game season.
“If I left, it would be to do something I’ve always wanted to do. The pro game is 82 games, and I’ve got to get used to that, but I also think I’m developing great in college. I had a great year last year, so I don’t think that conditioning is going to be much of a factor in my decision.”
And neither will money, Higgins said.
“It’s more the opportunity itself,” said Higgins, a Hobey Baker finalist, All-American, and ECAC Co-Player of the Year last season. “I mean, money’s very nice, but I think it’s the feeling of getting to play hockey at that level that would be the important thing, more than the money.”
While the decision, of course, rests with Higgins and his parents (his father is a New York City firefighter), he has also sought counsel from Taylor, a former US Olympic coach who has over 300 career wins at Yale and universal respect in the college hockey community.
“I’ve talked to him a bunch about it, because I want to see his side of the issue — the Yale side of it — and how much more they have to offer for me next year and what I would get out of staying in school,” said Higgins, who led the Elis in all major offensive categories as a freshman (14 goals, 17 assists, 4 power-play goals) and sophomore (20 goals, 21 assists, 6 power-play goals). “He’s been really helpful with that, really open. He’s said that if I stay, I’ll be more of a leader on the team — more than this year — and that I’d gain that much more maturity, and just improve every part of my game and give me more time to practice.
“I have all the respect in the world for Coach Taylor. All he’s asked through this whole process is that I keep him in the loop. I feel like I’ve done that, and I hope he feels the same way.”
“We made a mutual agreement that we’d try to be as communicative as possible on this thing, and he and his family have been great with me that way,” Taylor said. “I’ve just been trying to guide him through it. This is not an easy decision. There are so many good aspects of staying, and a lot of reasons to sign as first-round draft pick and move forward with his professional career.”
In Taylor’s mind, there are only two conditions under which Higgins should leave Yale: with a degree, or in order to move directly to the NHL level.
“That’s a simplistic view, but my advice to him was that, if you’re going to be playing in the minor leagues for one or two years, you’re better off for those two years of your life playing in college hockey and getting your degree,” Taylor said. “Hockey’s going to potentially be a terrific meal ticket for him, but he’s also got to realize that, at a relatively young water mark in his full life, that he’s going to be through with hockey. He’s going to want to do other things — and that’s where the Yale degree comes in.
“I think in the big scope and shape of a person’s life, the opportunity to forever have a Yale degree as a part of that, to me is very important,” continued Taylor, himself a Harvard alumnus. “I don’t think that can be looked over lightly. We’re talking about a pretty powerful and valuable lever in terms of opening doors and getting access to job opportunities and career opportunities. I told Chris that, and he knows that.”
Montreal has to make a decision, as well. In making an offer to Higgins, the Habs have to weigh the benefit of having him develop at Yale, where he would have a much higher practice-to-game ratio than in Hamilton, the team’s AHL affiliate, or in Montreal — and at no expense to the organization — against bringing him into the system, where he can more easily acclimate himself to the rigors and travel of the professional game.
If recent history is any indication, the Canadiens will make a very strong pitch. Montreal has twice drafted US college players in the first round and signed them after two seasons: in the summer of 2001 with Massachusetts-Lowell defenseman Ron Hainsey, their top pick in 2000, and again last July when they signed 2001 first-rounder Mike Komisarek of Michigan. Those moves have been somewhat successful from the Habs’ standpoint, as Hainsey and Komisarek each played 21 games with the Canadiens this season, in addition to spending considerable time with Hamilton.
Komisarek’s case is interesting to examine in reference to Higgins. The two are friends who grew up near each other on Long Island and still skate together during the off-season. When Komisarek made the decision to leave Michigan last July, Higgins was at home training with him.
“I guess that kind of made me experience this process already,” said Higgins, the first-ever Yale player to go in the first round. “I’ve talked to [Komisarek] a few times about this. He’s in the playoffs now with Hamilton, but once he finishes up with that, I can talk to him about it more.”
If Higgins makes his decision within the next week, however, he may not have to have the chance to chat with Komisarek about it. Hamilton leads Binghamton, 3-1, in the AHL Eastern Conference finals, with Game 5 Thursday night.
And so Higgins will rely on his advisor, his family — which he described as “big into education” — and one of amateur hockey’s great figures, in Taylor.
“I respect the way they’ve gone about making the decision, and I know that whatever decision they make is going to be the right decision for them at this time,” Taylor said. “We’re very proud of the fact that Chris Higgins is a Yale hockey player. I’m proud that he finds himself in this dilemma, but I also feel sorry for him.
“He’s a 19-year-old kid, and he should be doing what 19-year-old kids do … but it’s a sign of the times that these kids have to decide between an education and a million dollars.”