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This Week in Hockey East

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This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 1, 2007

In Praise Of 21-Year-Old Freshmen

Last week’s column by Scott Weighart created some controversy with what some perceived as a negative view of 25-year-old seniors playing against 18-year-old freshmen. Some Maine fans didn’t care for what they considered to be a knock on Michel Lveill, who as Scott noted will turn 26 three days before the Frozen Four begins.

In truth, Scott wasn’t one-sided at all. I, however, intend to be.

I disagree with those who view older players in a negative way.

I applaud those 21-year-olds who, in this age of instant gratification, are willing to pay additional dues to achieve their dreams. They love hockey, want to play it at as high a collegiate level as possible, and are willing to work at their game for an extra year or two or sometimes even three to reach that goal.

My hat is off to those kids. Their tenacity in pursuit of something that hasn’t come easily to them is a trait that will likely serve them well after hockey.

(Since I blab on and on about my son who plays for Wesleyan — and there’ll be more blabbing on that note later in the column — I’ll note here that Ryan went directly to college from his senior year in prep school. There’s no personal agenda here.)

“It’s not like these kids are sitting there twiddling their thumbs working at Dunkin’ Donuts,” Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says. “They’re usually going to community college, taking some college classes, which I believe is a terrific segue for going from a high school classroom environment to a college environment where it’s, ‘You show up or you don’t show up. Hey, here’s the material. Either you do it or you don’t.’

“So it’s a great segue and I think it prepares them well for college. Not to mention that they get some credits.”

(As someone who headed to college still shy of my 18th birthday, I’ll attest to the benefits of an extra year or so of maturity.)

For many fans, however, the objection isn’t with the individual players who have worked their way onto a collegiate squad. It’s that it isn’t fair for an 18-year old to face a 25-year old. That’s too big of an advantage.

I’d argue, however, that the older player is an important component in smoothing out disadvantages. The perennial powerhouses, and particularly those with fertile sources of talent in their backyards such as Boston University and Boston College, frequently are loaded with 18- and 19-year-olds. For the elite athlete who has designs on a professional career, that’s the age when they’re going to begin their collegiate career, one which may only last two or three years. Schools other than the powerhouses get few of those players.

BU coach Jack Parker alluded to that in last week’s column when he said, “We have the chance to [get the really good 19-year-old freshman with a big upside]. Some other schools don’t get that chance; they don’t get the best players. They get a guy who can offset the best players because he’s played a little longer and got a little better and bloomed a little later. I don’t have any problem with that. It’s not the school’s fault; it’s the NCAA’s fault. They should not allow this to happen.”

Well, why not? Isn’t college hockey served by having the schools with an uphill climb in the recruiting battles be able to use freshmen who are perhaps two years older? It might not be good for BC and BU, but it might enhance parity.

“Kids all develop at different ages,” MacDonald says. “One of the things that helps the non-elite programs is that we can have consistency and keep our kids for four years as opposed to [kids at the elite programs] signing pro contracts after their sophomore year.

“Typically that would mean that you’d get older kids who have been overlooked for a good portion of their junior or prep school or high school career.

“When I was at Niagara the year we went to the NCAAs and beat UNH, I’d say our average age was 23 or 24. That creates some balance and allows some other teams to compete where they ordinarily couldn’t.”

That doesn’t just mean the Niagaras and Lowells of the college hockey world. Maine, home of the to-be-26 Lveill, also depends on some older players.

“Every team is different,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “We like to grab the best players that we can grab. Sometimes they’re 21 and sometimes they’re 17 like Simon Danis-Pepin.

“Because of our location, we really need to go everywhere. We need to look at all ages and sizes and locations.

“We’ve been blessed to have a Greg Moore, a Derek Damon, and now a Matt Duffy from our own backyard, but that’s rare. We don’t have a lot of those layups coming from our own state, guys that have grown up always wanting to play here. Naturally when they do it’s fantastic and it means a lot to all of us.

“We’ll get the occasional [18-year-old] Jimmy Howard or Greg Moore from the National Team, but the more likely scenario for us is for our elite players to develop while they’re here, a la Derek Damon. That’s more of our M.O. even though we obviously love to grab those impact guys right away, too.

“For us, it’s been a mix and we’re going to continue to look for that.”

Make Or Break Time For Jekyll and Hyde

This season has been one of peaks and valleys for many teams, but arguably Maine has been the consummate Jekyll and Hyde. The Black Bears opened the season with an 8-0-1 start and have another 7-1 hot stretch to their credit. But With four losses in their last six games, they’ve now fallen to sixth place in Hockey East.

Jekyll and Hyde for sure.

“Part of it is just a mindset when you win or lose,” Whitehead says. “At the start of the year, our team had that confidence. Then when we dropped a couple, we struggled. We bounced back and recaptured that [confidence] when we went undefeated in the month of December, before and after the break when we won the [Florida College Classic]. That was very good for us.

“But even though we swept Lowell [to start January], the first night was kind of a false win for us. Bish [goaltender Ben Bishop] was really the big reason we won.

“Our inconsistency started there. It’s just been little things. There’s no one big reason. It’s just a combination of not executing the little things consistently and a few injuries. But we’ve had [injuries] all year; that should not be an excuse. When those things happen, you just have to buckle down.”

Arguably, the expectations borne out of the 8-0-1 start have proven to be a mixed blessing.

“We’re a bit of a victim of our own unexpected success early in the year,” Whitehead says. “As coaches we knew that we weren’t that good at that point. Those weren’t imposters [that we beat]; we did it. Those were legitimate big wins. Everything was clicking.

“But because of that, we really set the bar up quite high for ourselves and other people raised the bar quite a bit. Now we’ve come back to reality a bit.

“It’s been difficult for our players to deal with the reality that there’s a fine line between all teams and that we’re a good team but we’re not a great team, and as a result we’re going to have to be at our very best every night. Everybody is gunning for us, especially when they come up here to the Alfond.”

Aye, the Alfond, an arena where in past years the Black Bears might lose a game or two. This year, however, Maine is a stellar 7-2-1 on the road, but only 6-5-1 at its previously impregnable home fortress.

“We’ve had such a strong record up here each year,” Whitehead says. “Now when we have a disappointing performance here, our players are putting a lot more pressure on themselves. They don’t want to let the fans down.

“It’s a self-fullfilling cycle. We’re gripping our sticks quite tightly and getting very frustrated with each little mistake. That starts the train rolling in the wrong direction.

“We’ve been able to get back on the tracks each weekend for one of the two nights, but that’s not good enough. That’s not what we expect of ourselves and certainly not at home.

“To have a record at home like this has been very frustrating for all of us b

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