You just might think that with a roster that includes players from Sweden, Finland, Canada, Croatia, Russia and the U.S., the constant chatter on the bench, ice, and in the locker room would be multi-lingual. That’s just not the case for coach Tom Carroll and his New England College Pilgrims, who plain and simple speak hockey.
“We have a very diverse roster in both culture and personality,” said Carroll. “I am sure there are little stories and inside jokes that are discussed among certain players maybe in a native language, but for the most part everything gets done in English with the team and it’s all about hockey. Having the different cultures is a great thing, and a lot of the players are here to take advantage of the experience in the U.S., including mastery of English as part of that overall educational and hockey experience. I like the fact that the team is a melting pot. We are very happy to find good hockey players everywhere and help create a good experience for them to learn and better their game at NEC. So when you look at the roster, it’s diverse, but the focus is all about becoming better hockey players, and all of the players clearly speak hockey.”
Case in point would be the brother duo of Niko and Aki Uola from Finland. Niko, the forward, and Aki, the defenseman, were starters as freshmen for the Pilgrims, and now as seniors have not only upped their overall level of play, but are contributing as leaders for a team that skates upwards of 15 sophomores or freshmen a night.
“Both guys have really worked hard to become better players in their time here,” noted Carroll. “I think Niko may have scored a couple of goals as a freshman, but continued to work hard and last year finished with 18 goals. He is our leading scorer this year and definitely has earned his status in the league from our opponents. This year he has learned how to deflect that attention to make everyone around him better, and through hard work, make every shift a productive one for the team. The brothers, along with three other seniors, have provided great leadership on a team that only has two juniors, so it has been important to help the younger players get comfortable with the level of play.”
Overall, there are eight seniors on the roster, and four are among the leaders in point production this season for the Pilgrims, who are in the midst of a battle for home-ice in the playoffs during the final four weeks of the regular season. That is a very short timeline for players who will see their collegiate careers come to an end over the next six weeks or so.
“This group is very hungry,” said Carroll. “Last season was very disappointing in terms of meeting expectations, so there definitely is a more keen sense of focus right now from these guys, and they are showing that leadership to the rest of the team. With the two-game format this season in the league, it has definitely been tighter hockey in the second half, and everyone has fine-tuned their game a bit from the first go around. They really are four-point games the second time around, and you need to take your fair share of points to stay in the hunt. We were just three points back of Castleton and Norwich going into last weekend and managed only one point in the two games, and now we are behind by six points. It can change quickly and badly if you are not playing well or working toward your best hockey at this time of the year.”
So what do the Pilgrims need to focus on to be playing their best hockey down the stretch? Like everyone else, NEC is looking for goals and to be more effective on special teams.
“Five of our last eight games have gone to overtime,” stated Carroll. “Obviously, a couple more well-timed goals would have changed outcomes and meant more points, so offensively we would like to be better. If we can get the power play up to 25-30 percent from where we are at 22 percent today, that would help us a lot. We only had three chances the entire weekend with the man advantage, which was unusual, so when we get our chances we need to take advantage of them for sure. Of course, improving the penalty kill to better than 80 percent would also take some pressure off, so there are definitely some things we can do to better and need to do better during the final phase of the season.”
The remaining schedule for the Pilgrims finds road games at Castleton, Skidmore and Curry upcoming before home games with St. Michael’s and Norwich. Then a schedule oddity appears on February 10 and 11, where a home-and-home series takes place with travel partner St. Anselm.
“We always play very close games with Ed’s [Seney] team,” said Carroll. “This will probably play out like a six period game at different rinks. With the split in the two conferences coming so late, it was difficult to put together the schedule and have everything align just right on the nonconference games. I think we might like to move one of the travel partner games back into December next year, but we’ll see what shapes up overall. This year’s schedule has been really strange in that we played six of our first eight games on the road. Then we played our next eight games at home, which seems like a really long stretch because of the semester break and where the holidays fell on the calendar this year. Now we finish with six of our remaining nine games on the road, so moving one of the St. A’s games might help balance things out a little bit for next season.”
So what are the expectations for this weekend in the second go-round with Castleton and Skidmore?
“Well first, we need to get off to a better start against Castleton,” stated Carroll. “We went down 2-0 in the first 10 minutes of the game in the first meeting, so we can’t dig ourselves a hole to climb out of against anybody in this league. The Skidmore game we got off to a strong start and great second period that had us up 5-1. We let them back into the game in the third period, so the key for both games will be to play our game for a full 60 minutes, take advantage of our opportunities, and hopefully grab some points to keep us moving up and not down in the standings.”
I think that is pretty clear hockey talk in any language, but as they say in Finland — pudota kiekko!