Little Big Men

They’re the little waterbugs that drive an opposing defenseman nuts, darting elusively this way and that, always staying out of arm’s reach, posing the ultimate threat to his dignity.

You let that midget beat you?

Put a puck on their sticks and you can hear the extra buzz of anticipation in the crowd. Something exciting is about to happen.

They’re the movers and the shakers. The straws that stir the drink. The sizzle and the substance.

Five such players — Brian Gionta, Mike Omicioli, Shannon Basaraba, Billy Newson and Steve Kariya — are proof positive that you don’t have to be 6-5, 6-2 or 6-anything to make an impact in college hockey. All five rank in the top 20 of Hockey East scoring while ranging from 5-5 to 5-10. Only one weighs more than 165 pounds sopping wet.

Brian Gionta: “They’ve always said, ‘You’re not going to make it. You’re too small. The bigger guys are going to bury you.'”

He wears size-five skates, stands 5-7 and weighs 155 pounds. His sticks are so short an injured teammate might use one for a cane.

No matter. Gionta is the nation’s leading freshman scorer with 25 goals and 25 assists. Those numbers also put him 13th nationally among all players, from freshmen to seniors, and from those who are 5-5 to those who are 6-5.

Like Omicioli, Basaraba, Newson and Kariya, Gionta is no mere diminutive curiosity. His achievements are eye-catching regardless of size.

Even so, he’s heard about it since his days as Mite, when he was “a marked man” because of his skating and scoring prowess before he was even nine years old.

“At every level, everybody’s looked down on my size,” Gionta says. “You have to prove yourself, even to your teammates sometimes. That’s fine. I’ll just earn the respect of everybody. I’m just going to go out there and play my game and work with what I have.

“It’s really disappointing when somebody looks at [height and weight] numbers on a sheet and says that a kid isn’t going to be able to go too far. Size isn’t really an issue for me. I use that to drive me.

“I have no lack of confidence. I’m not going to take a back seat to anybody. Hopefully, through people watching me play, I can change some minds.”

Gionta also ranks as one of the most physical small players in recent memory. He goes into the corners with the six-foot, 200-pounders and, more often than not, comes out with the puck.

“The way I play doesn’t fit a smaller player’s game,” he says. “But that’s the game I’ve always played and that’s the game I’ll stay with.”

As Marty Reasoner, his current linemate, puts it, “He’s 5-7, but he plays like he’s 6-4.”

Gionta works this to his advantage, drawing one penalty after another from bigger players after he bests them in the physical battles that they expect to control.

“Sometimes, they’re a little surprised and they get frustrated,” he says. “That helps draw penalties. They don’t like being shown up by a smaller kid. That’s part of my game, too, getting under the opponent’s skin and helping out the team with power-play chances.”

Gionta has been instrumental in BC’s return to past glories this season, prompting coach Jerry York to say, “He’s gotten better and better as he’s gone around the league a few times. He’s a better player now than he was earlier, and he was real good early.

“He has tremendous quickness and anticipation. Just when you think you have him, he’s got that extra speed that jumps in.”

Gionta hopes that the exceptional career that he’s just begun at Boston College isn’t the final chapter.

“I think I can go on and play,” he says. “I have the confidence that I can go as far as I want to if I work hard enough and get the opportunities. But you always have to be given the chance.”

Mike Omicioli: “It doesn’t get to me. It pumps me up. I get more inspired if I hear, ‘Midget!’ and ‘You’re too small!'”

Unlike Gionta, Omicioli wasn’t an overnight sensation in his freshman year at Providence College. He’d heard all the traditional discouraging words growing up, in particular that his goal-scoring wizardry as a Mite would disappear as soon as checking hockey began at age 11 in Pee Wees. But he’d always risen above those challenges.

“I was always one of the fastest kids on my team, so I didn’t have to worry about the hits at all in Pee Wees,” Omicioli says. “In Bantams and Midgets, it got tougher, but it wasn’t tough at all compared to college hockey with all the clutching and grabbing.”

Shannon Basaraba: “I started doing off-ice training when I was nine.”

Basaraba, the lone senior in this group, almost doesn’t belong. At 5-10, he holds a one-inch advantage over his four colleagues and tips the scales at 191 pounds, a 26-pound margin over the huskiest of his brethren. And he wasn’t particularly small while growing up, either.

Even so, Basaraba squeaks in under the height ceiling and perfectly fits the profile of the speedburner whose strength belies his size.

Basaraba’s speed, however, is no mere accident or bit of genetic good luck.

“I started doing off-ice training when I was nine,” Basaraba says. “Not so much weights as a kid, but pliometrics. My Dad used Team USA’s training book. I also was in figure skating from when I was seven until I was ten and a half.

“Those two things were the best things that developed my skating and skills as a kid. That helped me develop my speed.”

Despite that dedication at such a young age, collegiate hockey almost didn’t happen for him. Freak injuries having nothing to do with hockey took him off the ice and convinced some recruiters that he wouldn’t be able to withstand the punishment of Division I hockey.

“I pinched a nerve in my back that caused one leg to go numb,” he recalls. “Then I had a problem in my hip joint that made it so that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted to.”

Eventually, though, Basaraba overcame the injuries and, in his second year in the United States Hockey League, made the all-star team, allaying doubts about his durability.

Once at UMass-Lowell, though, he found that he had to make adjustments, since size was more of a factor than it had been in high school and junior hockey.

“In college, it’s a little different,” he says. “You have to play a little smarter and use your speed to your advantage. I’ve also tried to do weights a lot so even if I go into the corners, I can handle myself.

“I have to give a lot of credit to [former UML and current Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder]. He supported me a lot when I first came here and helped push me through a lot of things.”

The end product has been a steady increase in offensive production each year and a well-rounded game. With 11 goals and 18 assists, he has accumulated the best totals of his career.

“He’s been very dependable all year,” says Lowell coach Tim Whitehead. “He’s a very steady two-way player. He’s our best defensive forward.”

As a senior, Basaraba’s professional hockey prospects are an immediate concern.

“Hopefully, I can play hockey somewhere, but I’m going to wait and see,” he says. “I don’t want to do it for pennies. Some guys play in the leagues and don’t really make anything at it.”

A criminal justice major, he’s given himself additional options in case professional hockey doesn’t work out.

“I’ve already checked into the U.S. Marshals and the Drug Enforcement Agency,” he says. “We’ll see. I’m open-minded on which way I could go.”

Billy Newson: “I love making my home crowd cheer and I love making the other people boo.”

It’s after a game and Newson has been speaking into a writer’s tape recorder for about 20 minutes, discussing his development before and after enrolling at Northeastern. The interviewer thanks him for his time and turns to leave.

“Done already, News?” asks a teammate with a grin. “What happened, did he run out of tape?”

Newson, a communications major who can communicate with the best of them, laughs and shakes his head.

Laughing didn’t come as easily last year when the Huskies went 8-25-3 and Newson had to settle for five goals and five assists as a freshman.

This year, however, as Northeastern improved to 21-15-2, so, too, did Newson. The 5-8, 165-pound catalyst scored 16 goals and 20 assists on the Huskies’ top line with Roger Holeczy and Todd Barclay.

“Playing with Rog and Todd makes the game a lot easier,” he says, while also crediting offseason weight-training. “They’re both great players. Rog has unbelievable sight and skills passing the puck and Todd is one of the best finishers in the league.

“I just try to contribute as I can. I’m just a hard worker who gets the puck to those guys and reaps some of the benefits.”

Just a hard worker? Not in a million years.

Newson not only improved to 36 points, tops on the team, he also finished with 17 in the last nine games.

“He’s learning to play with his head,” says NU coach Bruce Crowder. “He’s always been very quick. At other levels, he’s been in situations where he was able to compensate with his quickness for his mistakes. At this level, you can’t and he’s really eliminated them. He [was] fantastic the last half of the season.”

Newson’s play on the penalty kill is one such area where he stands out. Not only did he score four shorthanded goals this year, but time after time, his forechecking would single-handedly bottle up a team’s power play in its own zone.

“Shorthanded is a great opportunity to give your team a lift as well as create something,” Newson says. “The ice opens up a great deal because teams become more offensive-minded. That’s a chance for you to exploit the defense and exploit the puck being out near the blue line so much and the bad passes that might happen on the power play.

“That’s something you look for. When you get those chances, what more can you ask for? You’ve got a whole sheet of ice in front of you. To make it happen is a great thing.”

In those times, as well as five-on-five, you can hear the buzz of the crowd when Newson touches the puck.

“It’s great to play off the crowd,” he says. “When they’re having a good time, I’m having a good time. I’ve got so many of my friends out there supporting me. You want to go out there and do it for them as well as yourself and hear them roar and give you applause and praise. It’s a great feeling.”

In addition to the unusual aspect of his size, Newson is also one of the few, but increasing number of, African-American hockey players in Division I.

“I don’t look at it as a black or white thing,” he says. “I look at it that I was blessed with an opportunity to do something, just like the rest of the kids here. I’m just trying to do the best I can.

“When I’m finished doing it, I’m sure I want people to say Billy Newson was a minority who played hockey and was one of the better ones at it. Anyone would want that. But if not, I don’t mind. I’m just going to take the experience and everything that came with it and be happy.”

Steve Kariya: “When you’re a smaller player, you’re not necessarily going to be able to outmuscle guys. You have to out-quick them and out-think them.”

With 23 goals and 25 assists, Kariya lurks close behind Gionta in terms of offensive output among the five diminutive stars. Yet, such success might have been hard to predict in his earlier years.

“When I was younger — I think it was in Pee Wees — I took a year off from hockey,” Kariya says. “I thought I was going to be a soccer player. But after a year away, I really missed the game and I came back.

“There was gradual improvement there, but I don’t think I was ever really one of the top players on my hockey team until Midget hockey.”

Of course, Kariya faces constant comparisons to the ultimate little big man, his older brother Paul, who, in 1993, became the only freshman to ever win the Hobey Baker Award.

“It certainly doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I’m very proud of my brother. He’s a great player and has a great career. I try to learn from him as much as possible, just try to play my own game and do my own thing.”

Unlike the majority of players these days, Kariya did not play any hockey during the offseason as a youngster.

“My parents’ philosophy was always that hockey was for the winter and you do other things in the summer,” he says. “Kids should develop other skills, like soccer, lacrosse or swimming. That’s what I did. When it was summer, I just played other sports and enjoyed myself.

“Now, it’s a year-round thing for me. I’m always weight training, but back when I was younger, it wasn’t all year round.”

Following in his older brother’s footsteps, Kariya entered Maine in 1995. He earned a berth on the Hockey East All-Rookie team, but with only the modest scoring totals of seven goals and 15 assists.

“I was on a very veteran team,” he recalls. “I was one of only two new forwards in the lineup. It was a learning experience for me and I was really young — I was only 17 when I came in. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot stronger physically and worked on my fundamentals.”

As a result, in his sophomore season last year, he jumped to 19 goals and 31 assists. This year, he stands at 23 goals and 25 assists.

“It’s totally because of his attention to improvement,” says Maine coach Shawn Walsh. “He’s one guy who every day works on certain parts of his game after practice instead of just shooting pucks. He’s cerebral like Paul in the sense of striving to improve.”

As such, Kariya is simply the latest Black Bear who is short of stature, but long on ability.

“I still think it’s a skill game,” Walsh says. “Our system has always been few penalty minutes, very few altercations after the whistle and an emphasis on speed and skill. He fits that mold.”

And an exciting mold it is.