This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 2, 2003

The Case For Ed McGrane

One could argue that there’s not a better player in Hockey East than Ed McGrane, but you wouldn’t know it from the accolades. Or lack thereof.

He’s tied for the league lead in goals scored and is a terrific defensive forward, but he has yet to win a league award this year. Not a single Hockey East Player of the Week. Not a single Player of the Month (although he was a runner-up in October). This legitimate Player of the Year candidate fails to show up anywhere on the league’s list of ITECH Three Star leaders. Check out the 13 names and they’re all good players, but there are many that even their mothers would trade even-up for McGrane.

The lack of attention given the Massachusetts-Lowell captain stems almost certainly from two factors. The first is his consistency. Unlike players who pile up big points one week and gain a lot of notoriety only to fizzle the next, McGrane has maintained a remarkably steady pace. He’s recorded points in all but three of the River Hawks’ 16 games. He’s scored goals in 11-of-16. The River Hawks know they can count on him game in and game out, but it tends to be hat tricks and five-point nights that grab the attention.

“A true test of an athlete is his consistency and Eddie certainly brings that,” says UML coach Blaise MacDonald.

Just don’t equate consistency with a plodding grinder. McGrane can bring members of Lowell’s Blue Fan Group to their feet.

“Eddie is such a dynamic player because he has great instincts and he just has such incredible internal drive,” says MacDonald. “He just works so hard all the time, every shift. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. So he’s so consistent. That comes from how he approaches every day at practice, too.”

McGrane has been matched in goals so far this season only by Maine’s Colin Shields and Northeastern’s Mike Ryan. He’s been topped in points only by New Hampshire’s Lanny Gare, Providence’s Peter Fregoe and Jon DiSalvatore and Maine’s Martin Kariya. All those players are terrific performers. In fairness, though, Kariya and Shields play on the same line; Ryan plays with one of the league’s top playmakers in Jason Guerriero; Gare plays with the country’s top returning scorer, Colin Hemingway; and Fregoe and DiSalvatore play together, along with Devin Rask, a former 51-point producer.

McGrane, on the other hand, plays with Peter Hay and freshman Danny O’Brien. No disrespect is intended toward either one, but neither is a Kariya, Hemingway, Guerriero or Fregoe.

“You look at those players [ahead of McGrane in points] and they’re playing with guys who have really arrived in Hockey East as good players,” says MacDonald. “Eddie has guys on his line who are working towards being that type of player. That’s the difference.

“He’s clearly our go-to offensive guy, so he gets a lot of attention. I almost think he thrives on that because it makes him a better player.”

McGrane is also the antithesis of a cherry-picking stat hound. If you watch him in the defensive zone, you really gain an appreciation for how well-rounded his game is.

“He’s a driving force in our defensive play down low,” says MacDonald. “He can really separate people from pucks. He plays gritty. And then he’s able to quickly transition out of that defensive zone coverage. He creates a lot of his offense from 200 feet from the net. It may be easier for a lot of players to create offense when they’re 70 feet from the opponent’s net, but Eddie creates a lot of it from 200 feet.”

Without question, McGrane’s biggest problem in gaining recognition has been the team’s lack of success this year. The River Hawks may be 7-2-0 outside the league, but they’re still last in the standings, waiting for their first Hockey East win. When your team isn’t winning, the individual awards tend to evaporate. Nonetheless, the losses have had a lot to do with goaltending (an 80.7 save percentage in league games), something McGrane doesn’t have control over. All he can do is perform at his highest level and then as a leader hold the team together.

“He’s played a lot of big hockey games for us,” says MacDonald. “The fact that we have Ed McGrane is the reason why we’ve been close in a lot of our games. He’s a leader by example. He’s vocal when he needs to be. [If you’re a player,] you see how hard he works and he embarrasses you not to work as hard as he does. It’s that big of a gap.”

First Semester Coach of the Year

A slam dunk. Hands down selection. Unanimous pick.

Whatever the term used, Massachusetts’ Don “Toot” Cahoon is the clear choice for Coach of the Year at the halfway mark. No team in the league has exceeded expectations as dramatically as UMass has. Since joining Hockey East in 1994-95, the Minutemen had entered the holiday break with a winning record only once and that was seven years ago. Until this season, they had recorded a cumulative first-half mark of 37-76-8. With only five juniors and seniors combined, the team would have had every excuse to stumble out of the gate.

Instead, the young squad has foregone excuses and won far more than its originally expected share of games. Going into the Everblades College Classic last week, UMass had a 10-6-0 record and in this writer’s estimation deserved a Top 15 vote. That’s a terrific coaching performance.

Kudos also are due runners-up Chris Serino (Merrimack) and Tim Whitehead (Maine). Serino’s Warriors have similarly defied expectations almost to the level of UMass. Most years, he’d be the hands-down winner. Maine, on the other hand, was expected to be very good. Whitehead has gotten the Black Bears to be exceptional, arguably the top team in the country.

Home of the Championship Game

Hockey East did itself proud over the holidays with all eight teams participating in tournaments reaching the championship game. Maine, Boston University, Merrimack and Northeastern took their respective title games while Boston College, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Massachusetts-Lowell all finished second. In a sense, the UMass loss can’t count against the league since the Minutemen lost to a Hockey East foe, Maine.

In case you’re keeping score, that runs the league’s nonconference record to 52-16-9. (That excludes Northeastern’s two wins on the weekend since they were against Canadian teams and treated as exhibitions.)

Trivia Contest

Last column’s trivia question asked what Hockey East’s collective record was last year in the Christmas and New Year’s tournaments and also which league teams won the tourneys. The answer was 9-5-0 with UNH and BC winning the Bank One Badger Showdown and Silverado Shootout, respectively.

(This was an extremely easy question to research. For example, you could have clicked on “Hockey East” on the left sidebar and then “Composite Sked” and then just clicked on “2001-2002” under Schedule Archives. Or you could have gone to the nine individual team schedules and then clicked on last year on the left sidebar. Or clicked on Archives at the top of any page…. You are using the archives, aren’t you?)

In any case, the first with the correct answer was Ankur Patel, who had won the previous week. Ankur joins Todd Cioffi as a two-time winner this year. Anyone with four wins in a year gains entry into the Trivia Hall of Fame and is retired for the year to give mere mortals a chance. Ankur’s cheer is:

“Go Cats. Time to take care of business in Hockey East.”

This week’s question asks what Hockey East team other than Boston College currently has three players on its roster with family connections to BC? Name the team and the players. Email my trivia account with your responses. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.

Calling All Illiterates

Last week’s passage set the standard in the sixties for how to open a popular novel:

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

This was from Darker Than Amber, one of about 20 books in John D. MacDonald’s magnificent Travis McGee series. These books have aged very nicely. There may be dated references to a “girl” instead of a “woman,” but there’s no question that McGee’s heart is in the right place and that MacDonald, sadly deceased, could write popular fiction with anyone. This is a series that really grows on you.

I was extremely pleased to see how many “John D.” fans replied to this question. (More than to the hockey trivia question!) The one to answer first was Mike Cullen.

This week’s challenge involves an award-winning science fiction novel that opens as follows:

“I’ve watched through his eyes. I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said that you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Email me with the author and title and get your opportunity to state your own favorite next week.

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

A week ago I attended the wake of a woman in her thirties. She had died of a heroin overdose. Over the years, her four sons had been taken away from her. A fifth child, a seven-year-old daughter who now lived with her estranged husband, attended the wake. If that girl crying didn’t rip your heart out, nothing would.

As if all that weren’t brutal enough, the deceased woman’s brother had died just five months earlier, also from a heroin overdose. How any parent can still function after losing two children, especially that way, is something I can’t comprehend.

A few days earlier the Boston Globe had run a front-page story on how heroin has become astonishingly cheap. A small bag now costs anywhere from $5 to $20. Heroin for less than a six-pack of beer.

All of which begs the question: was it better for society when heroin was insanely expensive or is it better now? When it was expensive, the reasoning went that a junkie had to steal (or commit other crimes) more often to finance the habit. This point was used as an argument for legalization or decriminalization. Now that the drug is so cheap, however, its use has skyrocketed, as have the accompanying deaths. Is this progress?

It makes you wonder if this is one of those problems that is insolvable in a free society. I don’t know. I really don’t.

I guess it just makes you step back and be thankful if those who you love aren’t afflicted with this scourge. And say a prayer (or whatever comparable works for you) for a father who has seen heroin kill two of his children in five months. Then say another for a seven-year-old girl whose mother will never return.