This Week in Hockey East: Dec. 1, 2005

One week after proudly announcing his daughter’s engagement, Dave Hendrickson is taking the week off. After researching the cost of weddings these days, Dave is now being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. We wish him a speedy — and inexpensive — recovery.

Catamount Climbers

The big story in Hockey East right now has to be the fact that the Vermont Catamounts are now the league’s top-ranked team in the Networks poll, at No. 5 in the country after a startling road win up at Maine last weekend. Boston University coach Jack Parker predicted that the Catamounts would be the surprise team in the league, but his view was a minority opinion: Vermont was picked sixth in the league. In other words, most anticipated that Boston College, New Hampshire, Massachusetts-Lowell, Maine, and BU would all be doing better than Vermont by now.

“You don’t set out to have a goal of being ranked really at any point in the season; it just kind of happens,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “I’ve been asked the question a lot of whether I’m shocked by it, and I’m really not. I really believe in our team; I believe we have the ability to do some great things this year. I certainly don’t know what that means at the end of the season, but I thought coming in here that we had the right mentality as a team. Obviously my job as a coach is to keep them focused and working toward improving all the time.”

One intriguing subplot of the road win at Maine was the fantastic play of senior netminder Travis Russell. Overshadowed last year by Joe Fallon’s stellar freshman season, not many would have expected Russell to play in such a big game last weekend. He had only played in one game this season thus far.

When I told Sneddon that Russell made him look awfully smart, he chuckled. “Well, he did all the work,” Sneddon said. “It was actually a really easy decision: He’d been working so hard in his practice. He’s had a couple of nagging injuries early on in the year; he wasn’t even a factor in making decisions for starting goaltender. And obviously Joe Fallon’s been a very, very strong goaltender for us and continues to be a strong goaltender for us, but we just felt like after the UMass loss we needed to shake things up a little bit.

“It was perfect timing: Travis had an unbelievable week in practice; he looked really good in there. We just said, ‘He’s earned it; let’s give him the opportunity.’ Going up to Maine as you said is probably one of the toughest tasks you face as a team: It’s such a strong, traditional program, and getting points up there is very difficult. We just played a very intelligent road hockey game in that we just kept things simple and played really good defense.”

Russell’s play was just the latest in a series of pleasant surprises for Vermont, starting with freshman Peter Lenes leading the team with eight goals in 13 games, with rookie linemate Dean Strong chipping in 4-6-10 totals in the same number of games. “We’re so pleased starting with the freshman class with the success that the three forwards have had, and we’ve also had really good play out of Kyle Kuk the defensemen,” Sneddon said. “Of the six, four have had an immediate impact, and one is unfortunately injured. So we feel really good about the class.

“You never know. We set out to find some speed and some skill and some scoring, but you just don’t know how long it’s going to take for freshmen to get their confidence and contribute. But [in terms of upperclassmen] we’ve had Jeff Corey — really stepped up last year when Brady Leisenring got hurt and filled in for him on the top line — really pleased to see even more progress this year. He’s playing with the two freshmen and really enjoying it, playing with that line.”

Sneddon does anticipate that the second half will require some adjustments in mentality. “I think it’s going to be completely different in the second half when we’re playing two-game series each weekend against the same team,” he said. “I think that’s going to be different for us; we’re not used to that. Every weekend’s going to be like a playoff series; we’re not used to that. In our previous leagues, we always flip-flopped with our travel partner system, so that will be a unique challenge for us.

“But hockey’s hockey, all I can say is that from what we’ve seen so far, the league is extremely talented from top to bottom. The teams that are currently resting in the bottom half of the league are certainly capable of knocking off anybody in the top half, and I think that makes everybody better.”

Who knows how long Vermont can hang in with the nation’s elite, but its newfound tenacity on defense — especially in shutting down opposing power plays — could make them a dangerous team all season. “We have a culture where we’ve really focused on team defense, and if you look at the improvement in our penalty kill, it’s second in the country [63 of 67 penalties killed for a 94.0 percent success rate] just behind Maine,” Sneddon said. “And that really boils down to our captain and our leadership in Jaime Sifers, who’s really the heart and soul of their hockey team. I think a team takes on a coach’s personality at times, and I’m a very fiery, competitive guy, and I think Jaime’s very much the same way. Our team has really taken on the personality of him.”

Once, Twice, Three Times A Travesty

In case you missed my Boston University-Colorado College recap last weekend, there was a particularly bizarre officiating incident in the game. In the third period, referee Conrad Hache called an elbowing penalty on Terrier Sean Sullivan. BU assistant coach Mike Bavis caught the official’s eye and proceeded to smile at him and clap his hands. He got called for a bench minor.

“I said ‘You gave him a bench minor for that?'” Jack Parker revealed after the game. “And he said, ‘Yes: That’s a travesty.’ Well, he’s correct: It was a travesty out there, but he didn’t get the right one.” Parker went on to say that Hache repeated the word ‘travesty’ three times in reference to the actions of Bavis.

From my perspective, it was the low point of what had not been the best of nights for Hache. Jeff Bunyon called the previous night’s game of BU versus Denver and did a terrific job. Bunyon called five penalties on BU and just two on Denver, but I would have to say that the disparity was right on: Denver played with discipline reflecting a two-time national champion and didn’t do anything foolish. There weren’t many penalties to call either way, and he didn’t try to force that to happen.

In contrast, Hache called a few penalties each way that were total head-scratchers to me. I had to conclude that it would be difficult to play in that game, not knowing if a shoulder-to-shoulder hit would be called a penalty or not. So I thought I would ask Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna to weigh in on the consistency issue after seeing such a disparity between two games in two nights. Given that our conversation happened on Monday morning, he was quick to point out that he had not had an opportunity to discuss the situation with Parker or Hache at that time.

“Not having been at that game, I can’t comment on those games — comparing one to the other,” Bertagna said. “In general, I feel pretty good about our officials. The two things you hear most about officials — and I’ve heard a lot over 20 years — is attitude and consistency. Very rarely do we talk about mechanics or conditioning or knowledge of the rulebook. It’s the consistency within a game and the consistency from ref to ref.

“I’ve talked to a few people who were at the game Saturday who thought [Hache] did a good job. So it’s in the eye of the beholder. People with a rooting interest are going to have difficulty being objective versus those who aren’t involved with either team. So I don’t know what you’re looking for from me, but in general at this time of the year we’re satisfied with the consistency of our officiating.”

What about the so-called “travesty” of an assistant coach clapping and smiling at the referee in a sarcastic response toward a bad call?

“I’ve been in this league for nine years, and I’m repeating it here, and that’s that we’re trying to establish a climate of respect for the officials.” Bertagna said. “Not only because the current officials deserve but also because we want to establish a climate conducive to growing the number of individuals who want to officiate college hockey — not only in our league but nationally. I think if somebody is standing on the bench and mock-applauds, that by definition to be is showing a lack of respect in front of the official.

“Now just as there are different standards as to what a penalty is and what isn’t, a referee has different ways they can go. One person might say ‘Hey, knock it off,’ or say to the head coach ‘Hey, get control of your bench,’ and not make a call, whereas somebody else might say, ‘Hey, he’s showing me up, and he’s doing it in front of the rest of the team, and the crowd can see it. I’m not going to take it; that’s a penalty.’ I’m not going to come down on an official who makes a call like that. For the record, I’m still looking at it. It happened Saturday night and it’s not even noontime Monday, but on the surface of the information I have, I would support the official for making that call because I don’t think it’s the role of the assistant coach or anyone on the bench to show up an official.”

If anything, Bertagna feels that many officials tolerate more than they should. The commissioner noted that he has been able to lip-read bad language on TV and that he’s heard it at arenas with his children in attendance. He has confronted officials afterwards as to why they didn’t take action, and some responded by saying “I’ve heard worse” or “I have big shoulders.” Bertagna wouldn’t mind seeing officials take a stand in those situations.

“At some point, you’re not doing your job by letting it go,” Bertagna said. “There are a lot of ways that you can show up an official. Now if we had ten referees in that situation, maybe eight have them would have just warned the bench, given that there was a minor assessed. But they all have their individual style, and I would not be critical of the official at this point. But I have not spoken to Jack or anyone yet.”

I agree with Bertagna to a point — no doubt referees tolerate some very bad behavior that they shouldn’t. But if clapping and smiling deserves a bench minor, then the logical conclusion is that bench minors may be justifiable when a player slams the penalty box door, smashes his stick on the boards, throws his arms in the air in disbelief, and so forth. To me this is one official that should be not only black and white but red all over — in embarrassment over a call that blew a minor gesture out of proportion and definitely altered the outcome of an exciting game.

Northeastern: At The Bottom But Looking Up

Northeastern currently has the worst overall record of any Hockey East team at just 1-8-2. However, there are signs that this extremely young team may be verge of improving that record very soon. In its last four games, NU has beaten UMass 2-0, lost in overtime to surprisingly strong Providence, lost 5-3 at BC in a game that was close up till the last two minutes of play, and — just on Sunday — tied UNH 3-3 at the Whitt, never an easy feat. It seems as if the youthful Huskies are starting to believe that they really can compete with anyone.

“I think so,” first-year coach Greg Cronin agreed. “I’ve actually done some soul-searching; I’ve tried to think back on some of the programs I was involved in rebuilding, namely UMaine back in the late eighties and Colorado [College] in the early nineties and with the U.S. program and with the Islanders. In all four venues, we took a beating in the early years and then were able to fight our way through the adversity and get some traction.

“I think back to when Shawn [Walsh] was trying to turn Maine into a college hockey power, and they were just getting shellacked: I mean they lost games 8-1, 9-1, 5-0. When I was at CC the first year, I don’t remember the record, but we got blasted some games. So one thing I think is that college hockey is not as deep and talented as it used to be, and the other side of it is that we’re competitive and we have good enough players that we can compete every night. The first game against North Dakota was an ugly mess: We lost 6-0, and it could’ve been 14-0. But I think every since that night we’ve played with a degree of belief that we can win games, and I think the scores reflect that.”

Cronin admittedly knew little about his troops going into the season. So what’s his assessment at this stage?

“Obviously I guess it’s a strength and a weakness depending on what your timeframe is in building a team,” Cronin said. “Some people go from one college job to another, so they’re really comfortable with the environment coaching, and I’ve come from the pro game to here so it’s been a big adjustment for me: Number one, getting readjusted to college hockey; number two, trying to get acquainted with our personnel.

“Part of that personnel is the number of young kids that we have, and that sometimes can be viewed as a weakness but in the long run it’s a strength because you’re able to touch/coach a lot of guys, a large volume of young players immediately. We’ve had anywhere from nine to 12 freshmen and sophomores in the lineup every game, and I think when you have that youth it gives you some visibility as a program going forward as you start to build a program. And that’s a strength.”

One nice story has been sophomore Jimmy Russo. I first heard of the former Thayer Academy player from Steve Greeley Sr., father of former BU player Steve Greeley Jr. The elder Greeley had seen Russo play at Thayer and predicted he would be a big-time college hockey player. Although Russo managed just eight points in 30 games played as a freshman, the prediction is starting to come true. Just last Sunday against UNH, Russo surpassed his freshmen numbers and now leads the team with nine points in 11 games.

“Jimmy’s a really talented player; he’s got great skill,” Cronin said. “I didn’t see him play as a youngster, but I know he was at Thayer and Cushing and he was a proven point producer. He’s been asked to carry a lot of responsibility this year. I don’t know if you know, but we’ve switched him to the middle of the ice; he was playing wing most of his career and a couple of games ago we switched him to the middle.

“I do know that I want to build a team that’s strong down the middle of the ice, and with [Ray] Ortiz out and [Mike] Morris out we’ve lost a few good players down the middle. So I was scrambling to find a centerman who can play as a second-line center with [freshman] Joe Vitale as our first-line guy. We asked him to move there before the BC game, and I was pleasantly surprised; he did a nice job. So I think it’s going to make him a better player.

“He can build off the natural talent and skill that he has. He’s going to have to learn to be a little more of a second-effort guy and a guy that’s willing to take a hit to make a play. He does that sporadically now, and I think that as he gets more comfortable in that center position I think you’re going to see more and more of it.”

Cronin’s next challenge is in selling the Northeastern story to recruits who will help the program replicate what Cronin assisted in building at Maine and Colorado College. I asked him what his recruiting message is for prospective players. “It’s funny that you should bring that up. We just had a staff meeting, and we were talking about that. It’s been tough: We’re 1-8-2. As I’ve always said, I’m not into moral victories — ‘Oh, you played hard’ — I hate that crap. But the good thing is that there’s a great buzz about Northeastern; you’d have to be deaf and mute not to hear it, particularly at this regional level out east. The campus has evolved into a really terrific place: the new buildings, the academic resurrection from really a safety school with a commuter mentality to a real oasis-like campus in the city. It’s incredibly attractive.

“Before I came here, I didn’t want to leave pro hockey. But when I got here, I said, ‘Holy Smokes! You can win here; there’s no question.’ It’s funny how things turn around. When I was at CC, nobody wanted to go there… We had an outdoor practice rink with no walls. The WCHA was at the peak of its dominance in college hockey, and here was this small liberal arts school, and everyone was saying ‘Who the hell is going to want to go there?’

“And we were able to change that dynamic from a small school that can’t compete to a unique small school that has a very rich academic history, a rich hockey history, a great climate, a great academic profile with a block plan that’s attractive to kids. Northeastern’s got more natural resources to offer in 2005 than CC had back in 1990. It’s all a matter of how you’re looking at that: Is that glass half-full or half-empty?”

It’s no understatement to say that Cronin has been blown away by the atmosphere in Matthews Arena during a big game. “Were you at the BC game?” he asked. “Oh my God. I’ve been in Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum for Islander-Ranger games where the fans were blowing the roof off. But this is one building where you can show a picture of a full house, and you can feel it even though you’re not there. You show a picture of Matthews Arena full, and it’s just ‘Holy Smokes!’ It’s just got an intimacy to it, a feel to it that’s really contagious. I think that game proves that if you win here, people will show up.”

No doubt: If he builds it, they will come to the Rink of Dreams.


BU has had a particularly strange season thus far. The Terriers are currently 4-5-2. Many teams that hover around .500 are characterized by a few things: most notably, an inability to beat really good teams and a tendency to be great on some nights and weak on others.

Yet neither of these statements characterizes the Terriers to date. Even with the deflating OT loss to No. 3 Colorado College, BU has 4-2-1 record against ranked teams and a 2-0-2 record against teams higher in the Hockey East standings. And instead of having good nights and bad nights, almost every game BU has played this season conjures up visions of Charles Dickens’ classic opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” With the exception of about three solid 60-minute games — including the 1-0 win over Denver last Friday — the Terriers have looked awful AND fantastic in just about every game.

The first period has been the biggest issue. Friday’s game against Denver marked just the second time all season the Terriers had led after one period. In one recent stretch, BU surrendered at least 18 shots in the first period of three out of four games, including one against offensively-challenged Massachusetts. The Terriers have been outscored 11-3 in the first period.

Yet just when it appears that it’s going to be a long, long night for the scarlet and white, they transform and play like world-beaters–a team that could be in the mix for the Frozen Four. After looking horrific in falling behind 3-0 against CC, they rallied and scored two extra-attacker goals to tie the Tigers 5-5 before losing in overtime. After Harvard went ahead 2-0 and thoroughly dominated BU, the Terriers rallied to tie the game 2-2.

“The first period was pathetic on our part,” Parker said after the loss to Colorado College. “We’ve looked bad in first periods before, but this was as bad as I’ve seen. It was bizarre to me that we could come out and play like we did. Granted, that’s a hell of a hockey team, and they can skate like hell. But we didn’t skate.

“Coming back the way we did was pretty good competitiveness — some guys — a lot of guys still didn’t have much tonight, but a few guys played hard. I thought our goaltender [John Curry] played great — they could’ve had six or seven in the first. We left him out to dry, and he played very, very well. That was the whole game. We were so bad that we might’ve fooled Colorado College into thinking ‘Oh, they’re this bad; we don’t have to try anymore.’ We wound up outshooting them which is amazing given what was going on in the first period.”

It will be very interesting to see how BU responds this weekend. Archrival BC may be just the what the doctor ordered in terms of getting the team to focus for a whole 60 minutes. Right now, though, one would have to say that BU could end up as a serious contender to win at least a game or two in the postseason … or the Terriers could end up on the road in the Hockey East quarterfinals and struggle to get to the TD Banknorth Garden. It will be a gut check for the team to bear down and figure out the first-period problem.

Sterling Effort

Colorado College’s Brett Sterling certainly is the real deal. Two of his three goals against BU were real jaw-droppers — what a sniper. BU fans, consider this: I took my daughter and her friend to the BU women’s hockey game on Sunday, and one BU insider told me that Sterling reportedly only went on two visits: one to CC, and one to BU. How would you like to have him in the lineup right now?

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question looked ahead to the Rensselaer Holiday Tournament and asked which team, other than the Engineers, had won the tournament the most times. The correct answer was Providence, a five-time winner.

The question was submitted by Tom Reale, who earned the right to give a cheer:

“RPI was RPI when Clarkson was a pup, and RPI will be RPI when Clarkson’s all grown up!

The first to respond correctly was Chris Sayles. His cheer is:


This week’s question is entitled “The Equipment Manager’s Nightmare.” Readers seem to like the sadistic challenges that I pose in this segment, so here’s another one: Your challenge is to come up with a full lineup of Hockey East players — one goalie, three forwards, and two defensemen — who have the longest last names in the history of Hockey East MEN’S hockey, the names that were the hardest to fit on the back of a uniform. The winner will be the one who comes up with the most combined letters in the last names of those six players.

Given that there are always those who look for loopholes, bear in mind that they must be players who played for their programs during the history of Hockey East (not the ECACHL). They must be men. You must give me their first and last names as well as their school. I will not accept any responses after noon on Monday.

So will the Zancanaro twins have a long enough last name to qualify? If so, that would give you two of the three forwards that you need for starters. I kind of doubt it, though: Off the top of my head, I can think of one forward with an 11-letter last name and another with a ten-letter last name.

Knock yourselves out, Hockey East masochists!

Because this will be tedious trivia contest to judge, we will spare Dave from this burden. E-mail me with your answer. The winner will be notified by Monday afternoon; if you haven’t heard by then you can figure that someone else topped you.

Submit suggested trivia questions to Dave’s trivia e-mail account and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.

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

So Dave’s daughter got engaged. My daughter, Hannah, just turned nine and told me the other night that her best friend pointed out the juicy part of the most recent Harry Potter novel — some pretty serious kissing. “What did you think?” I asked her. “Dis-gusting,” she said. “You might change your mind about that some day,” I said. “Yeah, I know people like kissing when they’re older — when they get married,” she said. “Maybe even a little sooner than that,” I told her.