This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 1, 2007

In Praise Of 21-Year-Old Freshmen

Last week’s column by Scott Weighart created some controversy with what some perceived as a negative view of 25-year-old seniors playing against 18-year-old freshmen. Some Maine fans didn’t care for what they considered to be a knock on Michel Léveillé, who as Scott noted will turn 26 three days before the Frozen Four begins.

In truth, Scott wasn’t one-sided at all. I, however, intend to be.

I disagree with those who view older players in a negative way.

I applaud those 21-year-olds who, in this age of instant gratification, are willing to pay additional dues to achieve their dreams. They love hockey, want to play it at as high a collegiate level as possible, and are willing to work at their game for an extra year or two or sometimes even three to reach that goal.

My hat is off to those kids. Their tenacity in pursuit of something that hasn’t come easily to them is a trait that will likely serve them well after hockey.

(Since I blab on and on about my son who plays for Wesleyan — and there’ll be more blabbing on that note later in the column — I’ll note here that Ryan went directly to college from his senior year in prep school. There’s no personal agenda here.)

“It’s not like these kids are sitting there twiddling their thumbs working at Dunkin’ Donuts,” Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says. “They’re usually going to community college, taking some college classes, which I believe is a terrific segue for going from a high school classroom environment to a college environment where it’s, ‘You show up or you don’t show up. Hey, here’s the material. Either you do it or you don’t.’

“So it’s a great segue and I think it prepares them well for college. Not to mention that they get some credits.”

(As someone who headed to college still shy of my 18th birthday, I’ll attest to the benefits of an extra year or so of maturity.)

For many fans, however, the objection isn’t with the individual players who have worked their way onto a collegiate squad. It’s that it isn’t fair for an 18-year old to face a 25-year old. That’s too big of an advantage.

I’d argue, however, that the older player is an important component in smoothing out disadvantages. The perennial powerhouses, and particularly those with fertile sources of talent in their backyards such as Boston University and Boston College, frequently are loaded with 18- and 19-year-olds. For the elite athlete who has designs on a professional career, that’s the age when they’re going to begin their collegiate career, one which may only last two or three years. Schools other than the powerhouses get few of those players.

BU coach Jack Parker alluded to that in last week’s column when he said, “We have the chance to [get the really good 19-year-old freshman with a big upside]. 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.”

Well, why not? Isn’t college hockey served by having the schools with an uphill climb in the recruiting battles be able to use freshmen who are perhaps two years older? It might not be good for BC and BU, but it might enhance parity.

“Kids all develop at different ages,” MacDonald says. “One of the things that helps the non-elite programs is that we can have consistency and keep our kids for four years as opposed to [kids at the elite programs] signing pro contracts after their sophomore year.

“Typically that would mean that you’d get older kids who have been overlooked for a good portion of their junior or prep school or high school career.

“When I was at Niagara the year we went to the NCAAs and beat UNH, I’d say our average age was 23 or 24. That creates some balance and allows some other teams to compete where they ordinarily couldn’t.”

That doesn’t just mean the Niagaras and Lowells of the college hockey world. Maine, home of the to-be-26 Léveillé, also depends on some older players.

“Every team is different,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “We like to grab the best players that we can grab. Sometimes they’re 21 and sometimes they’re 17 like Simon Danis-Pepin.

“Because of our location, we really need to go everywhere. We need to look at all ages and sizes and locations.

“We’ve been blessed to have a Greg Moore, a Derek Damon, and now a Matt Duffy from our own backyard, but that’s rare. We don’t have a lot of those layups coming from our own state, guys that have grown up always wanting to play here. Naturally when they do it’s fantastic and it means a lot to all of us.

“We’ll get the occasional [18-year-old] Jimmy Howard or Greg Moore from the National Team, but the more likely scenario for us is for our elite players to develop while they’re here, a la Derek Damon. That’s more of our M.O. even though we obviously love to grab those impact guys right away, too.

“For us, it’s been a mix and we’re going to continue to look for that.”

Make Or Break Time For Jekyll and Hyde

This season has been one of peaks and valleys for many teams, but arguably Maine has been the consummate Jekyll and Hyde. The Black Bears opened the season with an 8-0-1 start and have another 7-1 hot stretch to their credit. But With four losses in their last six games, they’ve now fallen to sixth place in Hockey East.

Jekyll and Hyde for sure.

“Part of it is just a mindset when you win or lose,” Whitehead says. “At the start of the year, our team had that confidence. Then when we dropped a couple, we struggled. We bounced back and recaptured that [confidence] when we went undefeated in the month of December, before and after the break when we won the [Florida College Classic]. That was very good for us.

“But even though we swept Lowell [to start January], the first night was kind of a false win for us. Bish [goaltender Ben Bishop] was really the big reason we won.

“Our inconsistency started there. It’s just been little things. There’s no one big reason. It’s just a combination of not executing the little things consistently and a few injuries. But we’ve had [injuries] all year; that should not be an excuse. When those things happen, you just have to buckle down.”

Arguably, the expectations borne out of the 8-0-1 start have proven to be a mixed blessing.

“We’re a bit of a victim of our own unexpected success early in the year,” Whitehead says. “As coaches we knew that we weren’t that good at that point. Those weren’t imposters [that we beat]; we did it. Those were legitimate big wins. Everything was clicking.

“But because of that, we really set the bar up quite high for ourselves and other people raised the bar quite a bit. Now we’ve come back to reality a bit.

“It’s been difficult for our players to deal with the reality that there’s a fine line between all teams and that we’re a good team but we’re not a great team, and as a result we’re going to have to be at our very best every night. Everybody is gunning for us, especially when they come up here to the Alfond.”

Aye, the Alfond, an arena where in past years the Black Bears might lose a game or two. This year, however, Maine is a stellar 7-2-1 on the road, but only 6-5-1 at its previously impregnable home fortress.

“We’ve had such a strong record up here each year,” Whitehead says. “Now when we have a disappointing performance here, our players are putting a lot more pressure on themselves. They don’t want to let the fans down.

“It’s a self-fullfilling cycle. We’re gripping our sticks quite tightly and getting very frustrated with each little mistake. That starts the train rolling in the wrong direction.

“We’ve been able to get back on the tracks each weekend for one of the two nights, but that’s not good enough. That’s not what we expect of ourselves and certainly not at home.

“To have a record at home like this has been very frustrating for all of us because we know it means so much to the community up here.”

At least the fans are still standing behind the team.

“The fans have stuck behind us and we obviously appreciate that very much,” Whitehead says. “I think that’s why the players are so disappointed in themselves. We’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to win and that’s not necessarily healthy sometimes.

“Some pressure is healthy, but I think our players need to take a step back and realize we need to do this as a team. The biggest problem we’ve had has been because the guys have wanted to win so badly at home that we’ve tried to do too much individually. That’s really been the source of our issues.

“Now we need to refocus on playing well as a team. On Friday, Northeastern completely carried the play from the start to finish. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to [in the overtime win] on Saturday, but we definitely made a big step. Sometimes that first step can be the toughest one.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be as far as earning back respect from our home fans and as far as getting back into the mix in Hockey East and nationally. We have a long way to go, but Saturday was a good step as far as how we played. We really did play as a team. We blocked a lot of shots, won a lot of loose pucks, and really played hard defensively. You could really see a concerted effort to stick to the game plan and do the things that were such a source of strength for us early in the year and we just got away from.”

Time, however, is running out. Maine sits in an unaccustomed spot in Hockey East — sixth place — and now faces nationally ranked league rivals in the next six games, starting with a road trip to the top team in the country, the New Hampshire Wildcats. Much like last year at this point, it’s make-or-break time.

“It’s going to take a lot of teamwork, a lot of individual effort steered toward the team’s goals,” Whitehead says. “We’re excited about the challenge. We’ve seen some flashes of what we can do when we play together as a team. We’ve also been slapped in the face a lot when we’ve tried to play as individuals. That’s not going to get us anywhere.”

Wesleyan Continues To Roll

Don’t look now, but the Wesleyan Cardinals are now 14th in the D-III PairWise. They’re 8-1-3 in their last 12 games, in second place and are hungry for more.

They opened their weekend road trip at Williams, a school they hadn’t beaten since 1982. The Cardinals were clearly the better team and won, albeit in comeback mode. They then traveled to Middlebury, a team that had defeated them 30 straight times, collecting more than a few championships in that timespan. (The goal differential in those 30 losses was 216-47.)

In perhaps the best sign of all, the boys were disappointed with a tie. Goaltender Mike Palladino had kept Middlebury off the scoreboard until a power play goal with under two minutes in regulation tied it, 1-1. Although Middlebury had held a clear territorial edge throughout regulation — only the second team to do so all year — the Cardinals rallied for all the prime chances in OT, but had to settle for a tie.

Settle for a tie at Middlebury? That would have been laughable two years ago. Not so now.

This is a special team. From the stars to the role players.

Tim Costello’s NESCAC/ECAC East column has a lot more on the Cardinals this week. Check him out.

There’s also this article from the school newspaper, not to mention the school’s hockey website.

Trivia Contest

Last week Scott described his trivia question as “potentially sadistic,” but based on the results, we may have to start calling him the Marquis de Snuggles. Readers had little problem coming up with any number of correct answers — mainly because Scott forgot that there were a ton of players who fit the bill for a couple of the questions.

This one had the title of “Vowels and Consonants.” Readers had to 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” in their last names (sorry, Eric Gryba fans, that ‘y’ is a vowel, anyways).
• Player D has no “H” in his last name.

It would have a much more difficult question if Scott had ruled out the myriad players whose names start with “McC.” Hell, BU’s current fourth line alone (McGuirk, McGoff, and McCarthy) could cover Players C and D!

In any event, the first to get this one correct was Andrew Reilly from Holderness Prep in New Hampshire. His responses:

Player A — Pat Aufiero, BU
Player B — Mike Alexiou, Merrimack
Player C — Mike Sgroi, Mass.-Lowell
Player D — Brian McConnell, BU

Andrew’s cheer: “GO CATS!!!, BEAT MAINE!!! …and side note Let’s Go BIG BLUE BULLS!!!”

We should note that the Big Blue Bull is the Holderness nickname. Asked to explain, Andrew told us that “our rink is outdoors, it has a roof and that is all. As a side note, it is called Alfond Arena, because it was donated by the Alfond family. This is some of the best ice in the world if you come during this time of year. Last week we had a game where the air temp. without windchill was -2 and with windchill was about -10. It is like the opening to Mystery, Alaska when you come out to warm up because we have to walk on wooden planks to get to the ice and when there is a rain or snow in the previous few days you can literally skate out to the bench on top of the ice covered wood. It’s a tough place to come and play with the cold. If the game is on a Friday or Saturday night, the majority of the school will be there calling out names and chanting.”

Scott attempts to redeem himself with this week’s question — one that will test readers’ hockey knowledge and [GROAN] grammar!

Name as many CURRENT Hockey East men’s players as possible whose last names appear in any American dictionary as other VERBS or ADJECTIVES (of course, you have to make the first letter of their last name lower case). Sure, there are several guys whose last names are nouns, but do we care about them? Not on your life. For example, if you could use former Hockey East players, NU backup goalie Elijah Gold would count … but not BU winger Jack Baker. Ee will make it a little easier by only counting current players … but watch out! There may be players whose names are commonly known as nouns but that also may be verbs! E-mail Scott 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…

Could there be a fate worse than being my wife?

This woman has been absolutely heroic transcribing interviews for me all this season. It’s been a real lifesaver since That Other Job has been in crisis mode for almost the entire season. (You think Scott was kidding when he led off last column with the remark about me being at work at midnight?)

Brenda was again prepared to bail me out this week. She’s as great a team player as you could imagine, especially since transcribing is the ultimate grunt work of writing a column like this.

I told her that this was a short week because some connections never got made. Just one moderate-sized interview and then one very quick one.

So she called me the other night — at work, of course — quite confused. “This second coach is going on forever.”

I frowned and then my heart sank. It couldn’t be.

I had forgotten to rewind the tape to the correct starting point. The ending point of what I had recorded just happened to be the start of an old interview so Brenda had picked up from there and soldiered on, transcribing some now-pointless interview from months past.

She wanted to kill me.

I wanted to kill me.

Believe it or not, she started all over, rewound the tape, and got me the quotes. Admittedly, the filename was not the usual “HopeThisHelps.txt” or “ILoveYou.txt.” The filename was a little more apropos of what I deserved. (And, no, I won’t tell you. Use your imagination.)

So the next time that you think your partner just might be the biggest loser in the universe, remind yourself that he or she is only in second place.

Thanks to Scott Weighart and my wife Brenda, the saint.