Coming Back For More

Boston College senior winger Joe Rooney, as he watched the seconds tick down to zero on the Bradley Center ice during last season’s NCAA Frozen Four championship loss to Wisconsin, knew without question that he would be back at the Heights this season.

The 21-year-old, after a mostly-quiet first three seasons at BC, had started to emerge as a difference-maker for the Eagles late last season — but Rooney was much more curious about what a couple of his more celebrated teammates had in mind for this winter. NHL first-round draft picks Brian Boyle (2003, Los Angeles Kings, 26th overall) and Cory Schneider (2004, Vancouver Canucks, 26th overall) were both expected to answer the siren song of professional hockey from their respective teams’ GMs this offseason.

But a funny thing happened to a pair of players whom NHL scouts have touted as unmistakable hockey talents destined for success in pro hockey: both opted to stick with Boston College this season when nearly every other top college hockey program seemed to be losing their top underclassmen to the pro ranks.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, as the Kings’ management attempted to woo the 6-foot-7 inch, 260-pound Boyle on three different occasions once last season ended for the Eagles.

Schneider, the red-headed goaltender entering his junior season for BC, on the other hand watched the Canucks swing a deal for accomplished goaltender Roberto Luongo — a development at the NHL level that perhaps cooled the Canucks’ immediate need for Schneider to accelerate his development by going pro.

“I’m pretty close to Brian and we talked just about every day this summer,” said Rooney, who has skated with Boyle at BC for the last three seasons. “I know that holding to their commitments and finishing their education were pretty important to both Brian and Cory, so I had a pretty good idea that both of them would be back.

“Once the Canucks traded for Luongo, you thought that Cory would definitely be back — but I also knew from talking to Brian that the Kings were pretty interested in signing him [this summer],” added Rooney. “From a purely selfish standpoint, I’m glad they’re both back because both guys are absolute studs at their positions. The only guy as big as Brian, size-wise, in the entire league is Simon Danis-Pepin up in Maine, and Cory proved just how good he was last year.”

Boyle finished with 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists), piled up a +31 for the Eagles last season and finished ninth in Division I in scoring last season — sandwiched between Denver defenseman Matt Carle, Denver forward Paul Stastny (53 points) and Minnesota forward Phil Kessel (51 points).

The aforementioned trio are all talented players who skated in college hockey last season, and are also all players that bolted school early for the professional ranks this season — a group that literally surrounded Boyle in talent and production, but clearly didn’t affect his decision-making process.

Boyle watched all of this, listened to everything that LA Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi and Director of Pro Scouting Mike O’Connell pitched to the forward and his family (which includes 13 brothers and sisters), reported to the Kings development camp over the summer, during which he skated at both forward and defenseman for the NHL coaches, and then made the only decision that seemed like the right one to the hockey giant: Boyle couldn’t let down a group of teammates who had been so close to an elusive national championship.

“I thought about everything that we’ve built here at BC over the last three years and I thought about the bitter taste of losing that title game to Wisconsin last season … I knew I had to come back,” said Boyle. “Coach York and his staff run such a great program here, and these are the best bunch of guys I’ve ever played hockey with. Of course playing in the NHL is a dream, but playing at this school with this group of guys, living on this campus, wearing this uniform … that’s a dream come true too.”

One teammate, in particular, seemed to play a major part in Boyle’s decision to make one more run at a Boston College national championship, as Boyle made certain that Schneider (24-13-2, 2.11 goals against average, .929 save percentage) was also back in the BC fold before spurning the pro offers.

As a sophomore, Schneider led all of Division I goaltenders with 2,361:08 minutes played, led the nation with eight shutouts last season and took his netminding game to a new level after participating in the IIHF World Junior Championships last season. The 20-year-old goalie knew minutes after losing to Wisconsin that he too would be back for another run at the Heights this season — a move that, when coupled with Boyle’s decision — makes Boston College the odds-on favorite to capture the Hockey East crown and again return to the Frozen Four this season.

“With the forwards we have coming back, a real talented group of experienced and young defensemen and the group of incoming freshmen, there’s a lot of excitement at BC this upcoming season,” said Schneider. “We absolutely feel like there’s some unfinished business after coming up short to Wisconsin in that final game, and Brian Boyle is going to be a monster this season. He’s just too big, too strong, and too skilled for a lot of other players to handle down in close to the net, and I’m pretty excited to see what he’s capable of this season.”

“I’ve had a great experience at Boston College the last two seasons, and I still feel like there’s a great deal of room for me to improve going into this season,” added Schneider.

Pro teams like the Kings and the Canucks will continue to woo their underclassman draft picks and coax them to leave the college ranks — a direct result of a change in last season’s NHL CBA that leaves only a three-month negotiating window between club and player following a college senior’s graduation date.

“In Brian’s case, you know, you can encourage them and guide them. If your goal is to be a professional hockey player, if that’s your goal, we can provide advice in that area,” said Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi, who watched Boyle skate during the Frozen Four finals and felt the BC forward was ready to make the jump to the pros. “We also have an obligation to them as men because I think that’s a big thing that gets lost in this. What’s the best thing in the development of them as a person?”

“Both those issues can have different answers for junior or college ranks. I don’t think we favor anyone. I believe in junior hockey for some players and I believe in college hockey for some players,” added Lombardi. “But I also believe there is a time when four years of college hockey for a certain player is not the best thing for them to become professional hockey players. But if there is other things on what they want to do, then that’s up to them. Brian Leetch, Derian Hatcher. Look at all those great players that come out of the U.S., Keith Tkachuk, right down the line. Some of them went junior; some went college; some went for one year; some went for two; some went for four.

“To each his own. It’s hard to come up with a boilerplate answer for every player. I don’t think it’s possible.”

In an era of college hockey where the “boilerplate” has become wave after wave of underclassmen signing on the NHL dotted line before their four years of eligibility are used up, Boyle and Schneider have stayed loyal to Boston College.

It remains to be seen whether that shining example of loyalty translates into an NCAA championship, but it’s an ideal place to start.