This Week in Hockey East: Jan. 25, 2007

Dave Hendrickson is unavailable this week because he is playing the part of a corporate rendition of Cinderella, meaning that he is failing to get home before midnight and increasing his resemblance to a pumpkin.

Age-old Issues

Looking at Chris Heisenberg’s excellent college hockey recruiting website recently, I was struck by the number of 1986 and 1987 birthdates among the incoming Class of 2007. In other words, quite a number of college freshmen will be turning 20 or even 21 before they play in their first collegiate games.

I decided to run a Question of the Week on the USCHO home page and found that 35% of our readers think that there should be a more reasonable age limit, as it’s unfair to end up with a player of 25 playing against someone who is 17 or 18. Twenty percent thought that the situation was “kind of a joke” but that nothing could be done about it. About 44% of our readers thought that it wasn’t a problem and maybe even a good thing that players had more time to develop.

In Hockey East terms, the reality of this is Maine’s outstanding forward Michel Léveillé — who will turn 26 three days before the Frozen Four begins — facing off against BC’s Ben Smith, who turned 18 last July. Is that really fair? Should anything be done?

“Well, the NCAA has made a mess out of it,” Boston University coach Jack Parker said. “The truth was that if you played a game after your 21st birthday, you lost your eligibility. So it would be one thing if a kid came in at 21 and it was his first year but he was a junior now or a sophomore now … but now he’s still a freshman.”

Asked if he sees a problem having a Chris Higgins or Dan Bertram playing against a guy six or seven years older, Parker indicated that it’s something the NCAA would have to address rather than the teams. “I just think that it’s an NCAA problem,” Parker said. “The don’t know how to keep lawyers out of it. Because that’s all it is: ‘You can’t keep me from playing.’ The league has gotten older and older. BC and BU and Harvard around here have been pretty good about recruiting 19-year-old freshmen, maybe — a kid who plays an extra year after high school, maybe.

“But this idea of graduating high school and then going to play two years in the junior league … We’ve had guys like that come in — Tommi Degerman was an older guy; Matt Gilroy is an older guy. You do some of that, but we’re not going to tell Chris Higgins we want you to wait another year, and they’re not going to tell Danny Bertram, ‘Don’t accelerate — wait till you should graduate.’ ‘Hey, if you don’t want to take me, I’ll go to Michigan State then.'”

Parker made clear that he would prefer to get a younger, better player with a presumably higher upside. “Chris Heron was a 17 year-old freshman. We’re going to take the best players we can get. We’d prefer them to be around 18 or 19. I don’t need a 21-year-old freshman; I’d rather have a real good 19-year-old freshman.

“But we have the chance to do that, some other schools don’t get that chance; they don’t get the best players. They get a guy who can offset the best players because he’s played a little longer and got a little better and bloomed a little later. I don’t have any problem with that. It’s not the school’s fault; it’s the NCAA’s fault. They should not allow this to happen.”

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin points out that the recruiting age situation is a curious one on both ends of the spectrum. “What’s Léveillé?” Cronin asked. “What’s he, 25? Unbelievable. I guess I’ll give you two angles on this. One is the recruiting angle. You’ve got teams who are taking kids at such a young age that it’s ridiculous; it’s absolutely absurd.

“But if teams do that, and they have good faith that 15 year-old is going to translate into a good freshman two or three years down the road, more power to them. I’m just shocked that that goes on. I guess all the power to the teams who can take the kids that are no-brainers. The sad thing is teams that take kids who are very good at 15, and they backpedal from them two years later. That’s wrong.

Just as Parker pointed out that BU and BC and Harvard don’t engage in recruiting older players as frequently, Cronin cited “name recognition” as a factor. “Number one, recruiting has put a precedence on younger players, particularly with the schools that have great name recognition. They take the great kids, and the rest of the schools that don’t have that name recognition, that splash and that sparkle — and I don’t mind being in that position — they will wait and find out which kids emerge coming out of their second or even third year of juniors. By the time that kid emerges, [the other teams are locked in with the younger guys] and you can take that kid who emerges later.

“And hey, I don’t give a crap if a guy is 20 or 18 as a freshman. They’re all freshmen. Is an 18-year-old kid going to have a higher scale of development; is he going to get better? Is he going to improve more than the 20 year-old kid? Everybody thinks that, but I’m telling you as a former Director of Player Development in the NHL [for the New York Islanders], that a lot of the development takes place between 19 and 24. The Sidney Crosbys and the Jordan Staals of the world are few and far between. So if I’m shopping for a player, I have no problems taking a 20-year-old freshman, because just because a kid is two years younger doesn’t mean he’s going to get better.

Cronin says that there is even scientific support for his perspective. “When I was at USA Hockey, and I was a Director of Development there as well, I had the luxury of working with the U.S. Olympic Program down at Colorado Springs, and I was privy to some scientific data. A lot of the motor skills in athletes are developed — and this is an unbelievable truth — between 9 and 12. Their athleticism is developed at that point.

“The psychological and emotional development that takes place from 13 or 14 to 19 or 20, and that’s what you’re gambling on. That’s a gamble. You can see that a kid at 16 who may have the requisite athleticism that may translate to college hockey, but what’s going on between his ears and what’s going on in his heart, emotionally, that’s the guesswork that’s going on. A 19- or 20-year-old is what he is at that point, and I think you’ve got a much truer read at that point.”

So perhaps there is greater risk — both positively and negatively — with committing to a very young player. And with only 18 scholarships to use, can you afford to commit early to teenagers who may turn into superstars but might have trouble cracking the lineup?

“The other side of it is there’s a rule, and it’s been there forever,” Cronin said. “You want to take a 20-year-old? That’s your prerogative. It doesn’t matter in college. Is there a significant advantage of a 25 year-old against a 20-year-old or 18-year-old? I’m sure physiologically there is. Mentally and emotionally, I’m sure there is. But until they put a rule in that says you can’t play after your 23rd birthday, what difference does it make?”

Hyping the Huskies

Speaking of Cronin, Northeastern is evolving into a team that no one wants to play. After struggling through a 4-10-2 start to the season while facing what undoubtedly was the toughest schedule in the country, they are now an impressive 4-1-2 in their last seven games, including a win against BC and two ties against BU and Vermont.

Now they’re just coming off a weekend sweep of Massachusetts-Lowell. In doing so, they showed one hallmark of a good team: On Friday, they played well and blew open the game late to win 6-2; more significantly, though, on Saturday they didn’t play so well but still eked out a 2-1 overtime win on Jimmy Russo’s goal. Good teams find a way to win even when all the cylinders aren’t firing to full potential, and NU is starting to do that.

“Lowell is a team that’s scraping and clawing for points,” Cronin said of the sweep. “I heard nothing but great things about Lowell from Jackie Parker and Dick Umile and watching them on videotape. They can really skate, and they’re desperate. Those games caused a lot of stress because you’re concerned about your team’s preparation, and I thought on Friday night we played a good hockey game.

“I know that [Lowell head coach] Blaise [MacDonald] would have liked to have some of those goals back, and I said after the game it wasn’t a 6-2 game, it was a 4-2 game with about three minutes to go. And the next night I thought Lowell outplayed us, and we were very fortunate to come out with an overtime win.”

The Huskies could not be doing this without some quality contributions from their freshmen, given that they have seven rookies in the lineup regularly, led by goalie Brad Thiessen and forwards Chad Costello and Kyle Kraemer. Costello is tied with Mike Morris for the team lead in points, while Kraemer broke out of a bit of a scoring slump in the 6-2 win at Lowell. I asked Cronin who has emerged during this hot stretch.

“Kraemer had two goals, and Costello’s been good all year,” Cronin said. “Clearly Mike Morris is a heck of a player, and you say emerging, but he’s been out for a while. Getting him back healthy is a good thing for our team. The guy that’s been coming on a little of late is Randy Guzior. He had a goal on Friday against UVM and another goal Friday against Lowell.

“This is the time of the year where the freshmen, as you said, emerge, or they sink. I think those two guys lately have started to emerge — not only in games but in practice. We’ve got to keep the Costellos in line, keep them going. Guzior and Kraemer give us a little more of an offensive threat with those young guys, and of course Jimmy Russo is starting to come on as well. We don’t really have a dominant line; we have pretty good balance.

“At this point in the year you’ve got to maximize your personnel and go with your nine best forwards at some point in the game. The fun part is that we have some forwards that will give us some strength. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out over the next four or five weeks with our team.”

It will be very intriguing indeed when Cronin visits his old stomping grounds this weekend. The Huskies go up to Orono for a pair of against the Black Bears, for whom Cronin served under Shawn Walsh as assistant coach for several years. With Maine going just 1-3 over the last two weekends, I wondered whether Cronin would think that this is an opportune time to be visiting Alfond … or if it’s rather a concern because the Black Bears will really want to turn the tide.

“Whatever happened yesterday is over,” Cronin said. “Regardless of what Maine’s streak is, whether it’s winning or losing, I spent seven years up there, and I know the culture and the pride and passion they have for hockey. I don’t care whether they’re 1-3 in their last four or 4-0; they’re gonna come out flying. That’s one of the most unique places to play in college hockey. Obviously I’ve been on the home side of that bench in many games, and it’s a very intimidating place to play. We’re going to have our hands full, and they’re going to be ready.

“I can guarantee you that they’re looking at these two games as two games where they can really make some traction in the standings. It’s going to be a fun, competitive environment, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Let’s face it: They’re the only team in the league that’s really shellacked us this year. They beat us 7-1, and it could’ve been 10-1.”

One point in Northeastern’s favor is that this young team has played in plenty of hostile environments already this season.

“We played in Michigan; we played at Yost,” Cronin said. “We played at UVM earlier in the year, which is another difficult rink. I think any time you play in a rink that’s loud and there’s a real energy in the building, first and foremost you’ve got to respond to that in a mature way. Then you’ve got to take care of the game itself.”

Several coaches and hockey insiders have cited Northeastern as the most-improved team in the league this season. It will be fun to see who else the Huskies can knock off down the stretch.

‘Cat Nap?

Although the big story of Hockey East this year to date is UNH, the Wildcats were caught napping by Massachusetts on Saturday, losing 3-0 one night after a resounding 5-1 victory. This gave the Minutemen the season series, 2-1. In fact, the Minutemen are the only team to defeat UNH in league play thus far. I ran several questions by Wildcat coach Dick Umile, summarized as follows. Was UNH:

a) thwarted by Minuteman goalie Jon Quick standing on his head yet again?
b) getting a little complacent with a big lead in Hockey East?
c) just a team that matches up poorly with UMass for whatever reason?

Umile’s answer was basically d) none of the above. UMass played well that night, and UNH didn’t. “Obviously, I’m pleased with where our team is at, but I’m disappointed with the way we played the other night,” Umile said. “We’re not going to win every single game — you’d like to think you might sometimes — but the fact of the matter when you don’t win it’s how you play, so I was disappointed with that.

“But overall the team has played well and they’ve responded. This is an important time coming up; there are some key matchups down the stretch here the next four or five weeks, and that’s going to determine home ice. And home ice is so darn important in our league because anybody can beat anybody in our league. We all know that, and this year it’s probably as strong as ever. We’re playing for home ice, and we’ve got a little bit of an edge, maybe.”

Umile is ever humble. I don’t think any other coach in the league is about to award the regular-season championship to the Wildcats, but no one is about to suggest that they would plummet from first to fifth before the year is out. To be fair, though, UNH still has to play Maine, BC, and BU twice apiece, so the Wildcats are in for some tough sledding on the way to a possible crown.

First off, though, they host Providence this weekend. The Friars are underachievers thus far, but last weekend’s split with Maine shows that they would be dangerous to underrate. What does Umile worry about with this matchup?

“I think transition,” he said. “They’ve changed their style; they’re a very good transition team, they’re quick. They move the puck well, and if you look at the stats of their games, every weekend when I look at the box scores they usually have outshot the opposition. They might not have won the games, but they’ve played well.

“Maybe the puck hasn’t bounced for them with goals and maybe goaltending has been inconsistent, but Sims has been very good [of late]. He was Goalie of the Week or Defensive Player of the Week — I forget what it was — but he had a great weekend against Maine. You get that, and you know they’re going to be a tough team. We also have good matchups with Providence, and Timmy’s got his team playing well.”

I suggested that one of these nights some unlucky team is going to see the Friars break out with five or six goals. “Absolutely, they’re very capable of it. The Rheault kid and McDonald and Zancanaro are very good players. They’ve got size; they got speed. We respect them very much, and we’re not going into this thinking it’s going to be easy.”

UNH is still the odds-on favorite to come in first, but needs to take care of business against the teams lower in the standings — such as Providence and Merrimack in a few weeks — while holding its own against the upper echelon. Don’t bet against it.

In Search of a Silver Lining

Merrimack’s tough slog continues this season. The Warriors are now 3-18-1. They are in the midst of a five-game losing streak, and it won’t get much easier hosting Vermont twice this weekend, then visiting Northeastern, then playing a home-and-home against the first-place Wildcats. But coach Mark Dennehy found some solace in a strong road game against BU last weekend.

“They’re not going to turn around just because you played hard one night, but we’ve got some guys in there who believe we could’ve won that game tonight,” Dennehy said after the 2-1 loss. “And that’s a step in the right direction.”

One major problem has been scoring. When Merrimack scores even three goals in a game, its record this season is a robust 2-0-1. However, it’s hard to win when you’ve been shut out six times and scored one goal or less in 16 of 23 games. How are the Warriors trying to address the offensive inertia?

“Just put more pucks on the net,” Dennehy said. “As good a league as Hockey East is — and I believe it’s the best league in Division I college hockey — if you look at scoring in our league, there are only three teams averaging over 2.4 goals per game. So there are only three teams in the league scoring a lot of goals, and there are no secrets. If you’re playing baseball and you want to get some hits, you’ve got to swing the bat. So we’ve got to shoot the puck more, we’ve got to be ready to shoot. It’s something that we work on, something we talk about. You’ve got to be prepared when those opportunities arise.”

Dennehy knows that the rewards for all of the hard work this season may not be realized for years to come. “We’ve got 10 freshmen that are playing … I know that we’ve got a leadership group among the older guys who are determined to turn this around. Their legacy is in our future, and they know that. They might not reap the rewards that are going to be there, but they’ll have played probably the toughest part. They stopped the ball from rolling downhill, and now we’re getting to the point where we can play with anybody in any building. And when that success comes, it will be easy as much for Ryan Sullivan and Matty Byrnes and Jimmy Healey as it will be for the guys who receive it.”

One bright spot has been the emergence of freshman forward Matt Jones, a big, physical winger who has three goals and an assist since the break. “He was a member of the ‘Librarians’ three-on-three team over Christmas break, and they ended up winning our three-on-three tournament,” Dennehy said. “Ever since then, it’s funny because he’s a bright kid and an interesting cat. I wasn’t even sure he liked hockey until we played the three-on-three tournament. The next thing you know he’s bouncing around, he’s got a smile on his face. It’s also he’s a freshman. Even though he’s young, he’s got to get acclimated, and I think he’s found his stride.”

We’ll see if the Warriors can find their stride on the scoresheet before the season runs out.

Terrier Tear

BU rounded off two sweeps in a row by beating Merrimack last weekend, but coach Jack Parker wasn’t getting heady about the team’s success. “I think we’re 10-2-2 in our last 14, so we’re on a pretty good roll,” Parker said on Saturday night. “But it hasn’t been a dominating roll. Like tonight, we’ve had a lot of 1-0, 2-1. We’re still a long way from being a team that people take as a serious contender in the national picture, a serious contender to win the Hockey East playoffs because we haven’t established a good enough power play.

“I think we’re the third-best power play in the league, and that just tells you there’s not a lot of goalscoring going on. But still, it’s not where we need to be. But we have established who we are, and we have a much better identity individually of what our roles are, and you get confidence from that.

“We could still wind up first or wind up sixth. And with the way Northeastern’s getting themselves in the picture for home ice or certainly get themselves higher than seventh, that’s for sure. And Providence is turning it around. All of a sudden they’re getting better goaltending. So this is a tough league every night. Things change, and we want things to get better, not worse.”

Dave Just Won’t Shut Up About Wesleyan

Even though it isn’t his column this week, Dave couldn’t help submitting this segment after the Cardinals’ big weekend.

The Wesleyan Cardinals had never once beaten perennial power Norwich. No wins. No ties. In 13 games, they’d lost 13 times, often by lopsided scores.

Kiss that history good-bye, bay-bee, because this year’s Cardinals not only toppled the number nine team in the country, they did so convincingly, 4-1.

Another 4-1 win, this one over St. Michael’s, put Wesleyan into sole possesion of second place just a point behind Amherst. The Cardinals are now 7-1-2 in their last 10 with the list of key contributors a mile long.

Some of the pollsters have noticed. Wesleyan didn’t make the Top 15, but got enough consideration to finish fourth in the “Others Receiving Votes” category.

It’s a tough road trip this weekend, but I’ll repeat what I said in the last column and even add a little more for emphasis. I really, really like this team.

Trivia Contest

With last week’s question, Dave honored the boys from Wesleyan and their huge overtime win over Trinity. Readers were asked to identify the date, score, and opponent of Wesleyan’s last win in OT.

To find the correct answer for this one, you’d have to go back to when Dave was svelte and still in his fifties, and I had something closer to a full head of hair. Wesleyan defeated Iona 4-3 in OT on Feb. 3, 1995.

The first to answer correctly was Jacques Joubert’s cousin J.P. Joubert. His cheer already came half-true as of this writing:


This week’s trivia question is another of my potentially sadistic ones. It has the deceptively simple title of “Vowels and Consonants.” For this one, you must name a total of FOUR current or former Hockey East men’s players:

• Player A and B have last names that begin and end with vowels… and each player’s last name has each vowel (A, E, I, O, U — no Y in this case) exactly ONCE.
• Player B’s last name also ends with three consecutive vowels.
• Player C and D both have three consecutive consonants starting their last name… without any “Y” i their last names (sorry, Eric Gryba fans, that ‘y’ is a vowel, anyways).
• Player D has no “H” in his last name.

I have four players in mind, but if you can come up with others who fit the bill as described above, that’s fair enough.

E-mail me with your answer. The winner will be notified by Monday night; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.

As always, you can also submit suggested trivia questions to the same e-mail address and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include something like “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.

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

• Congratulations to the BU women’s hockey team for beating BC for the first time in their young history. How sweet will it be for them when they win their first Beanpot? I wrote a feature story on the BU women recently and was really impressed with everyone I met. After their win against NU last weekend, I brought my kids downstairs for some autographs. While my daughter and her friend got shirts and posters signed, my son didn’t quite know what to do. Defenseman Sophie Thornton picked up on it and immediately engaged Timmy in conversation and even played a little foosball with him in the team lounge. On another occasion, defenseman Sarah Appleton gave Hannah and her best friend some skating pointers at great length during the team’s holiday skate. I’m always impressed at the quality people I get to meet through being associated with college hockey.

• I have to admit that I was one of about five people in New England rooting for the San Diego Chargers against the Pats a few weekends back. No, I didn’t grow up in San Diego… I think it goes back to liking their uniforms when I was about five. I always like underdogs, and rooting for the Chargers for over three decades tests one’s faith considerably. I like the Pats, but they’ve won it repeatedly … so it was bitterly disappointing to see the Bolts lose an extremely winnable game due to undisciplined play, basically. Hopefully a Charger championship will happen in my lifetime… In the meantime, who really cares whether the Colts or Bears win? I could muster up enthusiasm for the Saints — especially with former Charger Drew Brees at the helm — but I feel about as emotionally invested in this one as a Beanpot consolation game.

• Kudos this week to Allison Weinberger, a sportswriter for The Daily Free Press, the student newspaper at Boston University. With the regularly scheduled national anthem singer unable to perform, Allie was tapped to take over shortly before the game and did a terrific job, pleasantly startling Jack Parker, who raved about it at the press conference. If Dave and I were to attempt that, we’d probably do about as well as track star Carl Lewis.