For a quiet and understated, go-about-your-business two-way defenseman, U.S. NDTP Under-18 Team captain and Boston University recruit Brian Strait is making a lot of noise leading up to the NHL Draft in Vancouver.
The Waltham, Mass., native is the 22nd-ranked skater in all of North American amateur hockey, according to the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, a perch that will likely make him the highest 2006 draft pick expected to play in Hockey East next season.
The skilled blueliner will be in attendance with his parents for the event, and will likely be the highest 2006 NHL draft pick skating in any Hockey East games next season.
It’s been a fleeting but fun ride for the budding hockey prospect, who grew up a large Boston Bruins fan during the Cam Neely/Ray Bourque/Adam Oates era in Beantown and played high school hockey at the Northfield Mt. Hermon School in Gill (Mass.) before graduating to the prestigious Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program as a then-16-year-old.
“I remember the Bruins back when they had all those great players, and I was definitely the biggest fan of that team as a kid,” said Strait. “Nowadays, though, I don’t really have any preference for an NHL team to draft me. I’m really just honored to be one of the players considered by the NHL, and that day will be a nice little thrill for both my family and me. From talking to other guys that have been drafted, we’ll sit around and wait at General Motors Place and wait to hopefully hear my name called, and then go up and have my picture taken in the jersey.
“Then I guess each of the team’s have an after-party following the draft, but, to be honest, I don’t even know what goes on at something like that,” added Strait. “I don’t really have any preconceived ideas about how it’s going to be … I’m just going to head up there and really enjoy myself. It’s something that every kid playing hockey dreams will happen to them. It’s definitely a dream come true.”
Strait scored two goals and totaled 12 assists in 55 games for the Under-18 squad this past season while battling an early-season ankle injury, and has pro scouts eyeing him for several factors along with his uncanny knack for being in the right position, his eagerness to mix it up and become a factor in the physical game and an expected bump in his offensive game during his maturation.
Several months into his time with the U.S. team, his teammates voted Strait the captain of the squad — an honor that speaks volumes about how his gifted teammates felt about the teenager after a limited time together and something that further cultivated Strait’s already budding leadership skills.
“Being captain was a little bit of a challenge for Brian, because when he first came here I think he really wanted to be liked by everyone,” said Under-18 Head Coach John Hynes. “I think as time went by, he realized it wasn’t going to be possible to be a team leader and always be popular with his teammates at the same time. He would step forward and address things when they needed to be addressed, and I guarantee he was the most well respected member of that locker room by the end of his time with us.
“He grew quite a bit as a person and as a player during his two years here, and you have quite a player when you combine the on-ice skills, the intelligence and the leadership qualities that Brian possesses,” added Hynes, a member of the 1995 Boston University National Championship Team. “I also think there’s still going to be some improvement in his offensive game — something we might start to see more of at the collegiate level.”
In 2004-05, Strait totaled five goals and 15 assists for the Under-17 squad, giving him a two-year total of seven goals and 27 assists during his time with the Team USA program — a two-year stint that put him on full display for college coaches and pro scouting departments.
Strait plays good positional hockey for a defenseman, doesn’t shy away from the physical aspect demanded by the position, and is also skilled enough to chip in on the offensive ledger when needed.
“I like to refer to a guy like Brian as a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of defenseman,” said Under-18 Assistant Coach and former UNH skater Pat Foley, who worked with Strait and the rest of the blueline corps on the U.S. Under-18 team. “He isn’t really the flashiest guy around, but he always makes the smart play and his head is always in the game. He’ll make the simple pass up the boards and will make the correct decisions about when to jump into the offensive play, and he’s also a very sound defensive player — he knows how to play positional hockey and he also takes the body very well.
“The one thing that I think really impressed me — and probably impressed a lot of the pro scouts — was the fact that Brian made the biggest gains of anyone as a player during his time with us,” added Foley. “He showed a real commitment to the training and workout programs while he was with us, and he worked extremely hard to improve himself as a player. I think when a pro team sees that, they understandably think that the player is going to continue to improve and get better as a player; that actual on-ice improvement and commitment to improving yourself is something that NHL teams are always on the lookout for.”
Foley likened Strait’s role on the team to that of an offensive lineman in football — the uncelebrated grunt that avoids the glory and valor associated with scoring and statistics, and instead does whatever necessary to get the all-important “W”.
“A defenseman like Brian is definitely like a lineman in football,” said Foley. “In many ways linemen, like a defensemen, are the biggest difference between a winning and a losing team, but they’re not always going to show up on the stat sheet and won’t be an obvious factor in a game if you weren’t watching closely.
“But, at the end of the day, Brian Strait is a guy that’s going to help you win hockey games,” added Foley, who twice advanced to the Frozen Four as a member of the New Hampshire Wildcats.
Strait says that he never modeled himself after an NHL defenseman while growing up and lovingly watching the pro game, but the 6-foot-1, 200-pound rugged blueliner likes the way Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brett Hedican plays the game.
“He’s a guy that really quietly goes out there and plays such a solid game as a defenseman,” said Strait, who NHL scouts see developing a hard-hitting, team-leader type. “He knows when to stay back on defense and when to jump into the offensive zone, and he’s also a guy that uses his skating ability to his advantage.
“A lot of my game hinges on my ability to skate, and the ankle injury I had in the first part of last season really took a lot of my best skills away from me,” added Strait. “I went out and played on it because I didn’t want to let my team down, but then a lot of people were wondering why my offensive numbers weren’t higher — people that maybe didn’t know that I was playing hurt.”
Playing through injuries and lowering the boom on opposing forwards are just a couple of the attributes that make the 18-year-old a hockey leader in the making as well.
“He’s really not one of those vocal type of guys; sometimes you’ll get players who are really vocal but maybe don’t back it up out there on the ice or don’t have the leadership skills that Brian does,” said Foley. “Brian was a kid who was a real leader by example-type, and if he spoke up it was because there was something that clearly needed to be said.
“The Development Team can be a bit of a grind for these kids: they’re always thinking about, playing or practicing hockey and the schedule can be tough on them at times,” added Foley. “Brian was a kid who would organize things and take guys out to dinner or a movie to get them away from the game for a little bit. You need players like Brian when you’re playing a 55 schedule.”
In addition to growing up a Bruins fan, Strait also worshipped the Scarlet and White jersey of the Boston University Terriers as a kid growing up right outside of Boston — an interest that made his college pick of BU hockey a natural one.
“I’ve been going to BU hockey games with my dad since I was seven years-old, so this is something I’ve always wanted,” said Strait, who served as Captain of the Team USA entry that won the Gold Medal at the 2006 International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-18 Championship this past April. “The US Under-18 head coach is John Hynes (who played for three years under Jack Parker at BU and also was a Terriers assistant coach for a season) who played at BU for Coach Parker, so he gave me a little insight on what it’s going to be like.
“The one thing he told me, and I kind of already knew this going in, was that Parker will give you a pat on the back when you deserve it, but he’s also going to get after you when he needs to as well,” added Strait. “I’m just really looking forward to going to college in Boston, putting on that uniform and getting started in the fall. It’ll be a pretty good year if I get drafted and then start skating for BU in the fall.”
With former Terriers like Hynes as NDTP head coach and John Lilley as an assistant coach of the Under-17 squad, as well as BU Associate Head Coach Dave Quinn, who served as the NDTP Under-17 head coach for a pair of seasons, there would seem to be a strong bond between the national program and the Terriers’ hockey program — a kinship that has led players like Strait, Luke Popko and goaltender Brett Bennett to don the Scarlet and White jersey next season and kept a budding offensive superstar like Under-18 phenom Patrick Kane within BU’s recruiting sights.
While Hynes likely wouldn’t deny there is a “Once a Terrier, always a Terrier” mindset to playing hockey at BU, many of the NDTP players have made up their college hockey minds long before they set foot in Michigan.
“A guy like Brian had already had his mind set on going to BU, and in all honesty I think any program with a strength and conditioning coach like Mike Boyle and a hockey coach like Jack Parker sells itself,” said Hynes. “Between the state-of-the-art workout facility, Agganis Arena, the tradition of the program and the quality of the school, BU really sells itself.”
The shock in going from Prep School or junior hockey to Hockey East can take a bit of getting used to for many first year players, but Strait’s coaches believe he’ll be able to fit right in after excelling in 55 games with the Under-18 squad — a spate of games that included tilts with many of the Hockey East teams he’ll be regularly skating against this coming season.
“It’s a huge advantage for guys on the Development Team that they’ve already played a lot of the teams in Hockey East and the ECACHL, and they’re familiar with the competition,” said Foley. “They’ve already gotten a feel for the speed of the game and the physical part of Division I hockey, which is something that most players will tell you takes the longest to adjust to.”
With the loss of blueliners Dan Spang and Jekabs Redlihs to graduation, Parker will likely be looking for another swift-skating, well-rounded skater to slot into his blueline corps — a spot seemingly destined for the physical and hard-hitting Strait from the get-go. A spot that will fit him into the fold nicely with solid returning senior blueliner Sean Sullivan and surprising sophomore defenseman Matt Gilroy.
“Brian is a great skater,” said Boston University Head Coach Jack Parker. “He’s a real solid defenseman who also has offensive capabilities — he is going to give us a physical presence on the blue line that we lack.”
Though he’s tried to block it out, Strait admits that the mock draft and draft reports have caught his attention in recent weeks. The teenager has heard from the myriad of reports that he could be anywhere from a surefire first round pick to a second or third-round choice — a situation that adds mystery to the proceedings but isn’t going to provoke any undue stress in Strait’s world.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t pay any attention to that stuff; I’ve heard I could be a first-round pick and I’ve heard I could be a third-round pick,” said Strait. “But they asked me to come up there [to the draft] so I imagine they think I’ll be going in the first two rounds, and either way it’s going to be a happy day for me.
“An NHL team will be showing a lot of interest in me and it’ll be the start of a new stage in my hockey career,” added Strait.
A stage that the young skater hopes will take him from the Bright Lights of Hockey East to a Big City NHL team in his puck future.