Merrimack senior captain Anthony Aquino has decided not to return to the Hockey East school this season.
Instead, he will attend the training camp of the Dallas Stars, who drafted him in the third round in 2001. Aquino will attend the camp without a contract and look to either make the club or play with Oshawa of the OHL this year.
“All I’m guaranteed is a couple of weeks in camp,” Aquino told the Eagle-Tribune. “The best way to put it is the better I play, the longer I stay.”
Aquino was considered one of the top forwards returning in Hockey East and Division I, and was chosen, along with senior goaltender Joe Exter, one of the team’s two captains this season.
At the end of August, a U.S. federal court judge granted a preliminary injunction allowing Aquino to play in the OHL this season as a 20-year old overager. Aquino had recently joined a federal lawsuit filed in March of 2001 by the NHL Players’ Association against the OHL, alleging antitrust violations in the form of a rule preventing its teams from signing U.S. college players who wish to play in the OHL as an overage player.
The rule was enacted in 2000 by the OHL in response to pressure from the NHL, which had seen several U.S. collegians bolt to the OHL as overagers, taking advantage of a loophole in NHL rules which would enable them to become free agents if the club that drafted them did not sign them within one year.
Aquino was the sole player named in the NHLPA lawsuit, and his addition to the case enabled the NHLPA to seek immediate relief in the form of an injunction allowing him to play in the OHL now.
— Merrimack senior Anthony Aquino
The injunction was granted, but the OHL appealed, forcing Aquino to make a decision between returning to Merrimack or playing in the OHL. School began at Merrimack on Sept. 4, but, although Aquino was registered, he had remained home in Mississauga, Ont., and had not yet attended classes while sorting out his options.
Then Aquino received an invitation from the Stars to participate in both the team’s rookie development camp and full-squad training camp on a tryout basis, and he decided to accept.
“It was a tough decision,” Aquino told the Eagle-Tribune. “I don’t know, I just think I’m naïve enough to think I can turn heads with Dallas. I’m still not 100-percent sure about my decision. I’m just trying to maximize my options, which is the main reason I’m doing this.
“The way I look at it, I’m just accelerating the process by 12 months,” Aquino explained. “Next year at this time, I can be in the same position, not guaranteed anything. This way, I can probably go back to the OHL and play if they don’t want to sign me and become a free agent after one year.”
Earlier, Aquino said he believed he would have a better chance to make it to the NHL with another team, partly because of all of the free agents Dallas had signed recently.
Last year, Aquino was named to the New England Division I All Star Team after scoring 24 goals and adding 20 assists for 44 points in 36 games to lead Merrimack. He was also named to the All Hockey East Second Team as a sophomore in 2001. He leaves the school with career statistics of 56 goals and 59 assists for 115 points in 110 career games.
For Merrimack coach Chris Serino, returning to the bench this season after receiving a clean bill of health in his fight with cancer, the news was not unexpected but still disappointing.
“We’re disappointed to lose him,” Serino told the Eagle-Tribune, “but we’re all behind him 100 percent and wish him well.
“He’s doing what he wants to do. Obviously, we’re sad to see him go because he’s a big part of our team. But at the same time, we support him completely. When you recruit these kids, you want them to realize their dreams, and for these kids it’s to play in the NHL. That’s what Anthony is trying to do.”
“I can honestly say my three years at Merrimack was the best three years of my life,” Aquino said. “I owe a lot to Chris Serino, my teammates and the school. On the ice and off the ice, it was a great experience.”