Top Of Their Game

Fernando Pisani’s heroics in this season’s NHL playoffs have been a huge key to the Edmonton Oilers’ success. He’s one of many NCAA alumni who have made major contributions to their teams in this year’s run to the first “new NHL” era Stanley Cup.

Pisani was playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with fellow current NHLer Steve Reinprecht when he was discovered by current Dartmouth assistant coach Dave Peters, who at the time was an assistant with Paul Pooley at Providence. Pooley went out to Edmonton to see Pisani play on Labor Day weekend of 1995, offered him a scholarship opportunity at PC, and Pisani was on board with the Friars.

“We saw smarts; he had a great hockey IQ,” said Pooley, currently the associate head coach at Notre Dame with head coach Jeff Jackson. “He did everything well, and he did it at any of the forward positions.”

It is never easy to project the potential of any player, but in Pisani the Friars saw a student-athlete committed to improvement.

“I give him credit, he was always doing things in practice with the intent of improving himself as a player,” said Pooley, who had chatted with Pisani the morning after his huge overtime goal to extend the Stanley Cup finals.

While his exploits shorthanded will long be remembered after Game 5, especially if the Oilers win the Cup, the power play is where he attracted a lot of attention from NHL scouts.

“I think he led the NCAA in power-play goals one season, or at the very least was right at the top,” said Pooley. “I’m really happy for him, and proud of him. He did everything a student-athlete should do to improve on and off the ice. And the mark of a great player is that they get better every level they get to, and he’s done that.”

The pro landscape has been littered with former collegians. Dustin Penner of Maine became a household name in Southern California after his efforts with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The former linemate of Mike Hamilton and Jon Jankus in Orono, he has developed into a budding star in the NHL.

How about Ryan Miller of Buffalo? Beaten by a third period power-play goal by fellow Michigan State alum Rod Brind’Amour in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Miller was en route to the same storybook ending that former Massachusetts-Lowell goalie Dwayne Roloson was writing until his season-ending injury in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.

A pair of former Boston University Terriers in Mike Grier and Chris Drury were pretty vital in Buffalo’s run, and Matt Carle, the well-deserving Hobey Baker winner from Denver, was impressive in his NHL playoff debut just a month after his NCAA season concluded with the Pioneers in the WCHA playoffs. A former Oiler and now a Mighty Duck, Clarkson alum Todd Marchant had a solid playoff with 13 points in 16 games.

This year’s Stanley Cup finals have been pretty entertaining and those who are glued to the games been have been treated to an awesome series, with no shortage of those who toiled on the college rinks of the United States.

Starting with the Carolina Hurricanes …

Rod Brind’Amour (Michigan State), Doug Weight (Lake Superior State), Mike Commodore (North Dakota), Kevyn Adams (Miami), Eric Cole (Clarkson), Craig Adams (Harvard), Aaron Ward (Michigan), Brett Hedican (St. Cloud State), and Andrew Hutchinson (Michigan State). And, oh yeah, coach Peter Laviolette, who played at Westfield State before his international and NHL career.

Turning to Edmonton …

Shawn Horcoff (Michigan State), Rem Murray (Michigan State), Matt Greene (North Dakota), Brad Winchester (Wisconsin), Fernando Pisani (Providence), and assistant coach Craig Simpson, who in his two seasons at Michigan State led the team in scoring both years.

The most compelling story here might be Brind’Amour.

Coming to MSU after a great career with the Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan, Brind’Amour put up impressive numbers in his only campaign at Munn Ice Arena. In East Lansing after being made the ninth overall pick by the Blues in the 1888 draft, Brind’Amour racked up 27 goals and 59 points. Playing alongside future NHLers Kip Miller, Bobby Reynolds, Jason Wooley, Danton Cole, Jim Cummins, Jason Muzzatti and Rem Murray’s older brother Pat, the Ottawa native realized he was NHL-ready after one season.

“I look at college hockey now, and wonder where the next Rod Brind’Amour is,” said Ron Mason, who coached Brind’Amour at MSU. “He went from one season in the NCAA to a 60-point season as an NHL rookie. That was pretty damn impressive. We’ve had some others like Mike York, Bryan Smolinski and Kelly Miller who have done that, went right to the NHL, but not after only one season in college hockey.”

Brind’Amour reminded Mason of longtime NHLer Kelly Miller in that he was so good away from the rink. Stories of his extra conditioning work are legendary both in college and in the NHL. His nickname, “Roddy the Body,” was in place even prior to stepping onto the ice at Munn.

“He was a man before he got here,” said Mason. “He played one season here after he got drafted, and I was all for him going to the NHL. It was obvious that he needed to move on as a player and be challenged at that level.”

Following Brind’Amour was Murray. A talented centerman, Murray arrived on the scene and cranked out 51 points in his freshman year of 1991-92, and it only went up from there. He finished with 218 points, with his career intertwining with future stars such as Steve Guolla, Anson Carter, and Bryan Smolinski. He caught the tail end of Woolley’s brilliant career.

“He was a very good player, one of the best I saw in the college game,” said Ohio State coach John Markell of Murray. “He could skate, shoot, pass, and was pretty responsible defensively. Michigan State counted on him to be a steady player for them, and he was.”

Murray, who overcame a well documented and career threatening neurological problem in his neck, is in his second go-round with the Oilers, with whom he started his career. He originally was drafted by Los Angeles in the sixth round in 1992.

“Rem was among the smartest players I ever coached,” said Mason. “No matter what line he played on, it got better. No matter what position he played up front, he excelled and made his linemates better. If he played on the power play or killed penalties, those units were successful because he was on them.”

Horcoff debuted with the Green and White in 1996-97 on a team that was led by current Islander Mike York.

“He battled with York every practice and it made him better because York was a great player. He learned from him, and he learned about getting better by playing against him every day,” said Mason. “The one thing about him was his physical capacity. He was among the top players we ever had here in terms of VO2 max tests and anaerobic recovery. He was always playing at such an intense level because he recovered so quickly.”

During his career with the Spartans, teammates such as Adam Hall and John-Michael Liles helped Horcoff rack up impressive numbers, finishing with 152 points. Along the way, he became a top penalty-killer, and excelled on faceoffs.

“He was similar to Murray, but he had a little more flair,” said Markell. “He was the type of player that was counted on to score, and when games were tight and on the line, he seemed to wake up and really rise to the challenge. The one thing you could see in each of those two guys, Horcoff and Murray, was that they were preparing to move to the NHL. They consistently played at such a high level.”

Craig Simpson was a star the minute he arrived. He was a highly-touted junior player in his hometown of London, Ont., but his family expressed a desire that he shouldn’t go too far from home. (Being that he was a 16-year-old freshman, that seemed reasonable.) Michigan and Michigan State were the main suitors, and due to the relationship they had with Ron Mason, the Simpsons picked Michigan State.

Following his draft-eligible season (his sophomore year), the Maple Leafs had expressed strong interest in drafting him No. 1 overall, but as the story goes, because the Leafs were being run so poorly under Harold Ballard, the family asked the Leafs not to take him. They took Wendel Clark, and the Penguins took Simpson with the second pick. He later won the Cup as a player with Edmonton.

“I remember Craig scored in his first shot in college hockey, then didn’t score again until after Christmas,” Mason remembered. “The he scored about 20.”

Now, however, belongs to Pisani. While Brind’Amour stands on the precipice of winning his first Stanley Cup since entering the league in 1988-89 (the year between the Oilers’ fourth and fifth championships), Pisani drove a major wedge in the party plans in Raleigh. His goal sent the series back to Edmonton for game six, back to his hometown from which he took a hiatus to play for Pooley at Providence.

153 points later, after a four-year career in Hockey East, Pisani embarked on his pro career that started in Hamilton of the AHL. An Edmonton draftee, Pisani spent parts of three seasons in the “A” before establishing himself in the Edmonton lineup.

“He was a really good two way player in college, and always battled for the puck,” said Pooley. “If it was in open ice or on a wall, he was on it.”

He was the other night, with two goals, one of which will be remembered in Edmonton and Raleigh for a long time.