A flying mass of preseason energy cloaked in maroon and gold bursts into fourth gear and meets a promised pass with the blade of his stick—the clatter of frozen rubber stinging composite echoes around an empty Conte Forum. Head up, legs pumping, he rockets toward the goal as two teammates join the color-coordinated assault on the lonely goaltender. The shot’s on—stick back, eyes locked, he fires away and snaps a ripper at the net. The puck strays wide and slams into the boards with a cacophonous boom, skirting away harmlessly.
Another skater breaks the blue line and guns for the net—the drill loops on again, and again, and again. All the while, Boston College men’s hockey coach Jerry York watches quietly, observing every miss, save, and goal. Sporting skates, a black BC jacket, a maroon ball cap, and athletic glasses, York eyes his team, surveying his latest challenge, his newest project. Finally, he stops the drill—and for a moment, peace descends on Kelley Rink.
It’s early October, and BC is working through its eighth practice of the preseason. Thatcher Demko glides around aimlessly near the blue line, goalie mask resting on top of his head, taking pot shots at Brad Barone. York calls his team over to the area in front of BC’s bench and pulls out a whiteboard—the shot stopper-turned-sniper and his teammates heed their coach’s call. In eight days, BC opens against UMass Lowell, and with the way BC ended the River Hawks’ season in Worcester, Lowell will be out for revenge. And maybe Ryan Fitzgerald’s head on a platter—BC will find no peace at the Tsongas Center.
Of the many sports writing cliches that have been mercilessly ridden to death, thoughtlessly resurrected, re-saddled, and driven into the grave time and time again, the trope “reloading not rebuilding” rears its hacky head around season preview time like poinsettia-filled flower pots around Christmas. If the 2014 edition of BC men’s hockey fell into either of these alleged ultimatums, it would be tempting to cast the Eagles into Yin or Yang, and be done with the matter.
That’s not the case, though. Appreciating the effects of a dominant stretch of recruiting, York’s team hasn’t really had to rebuild in years. But for the first time in multiple seasons, the Eagles aren’t exactly rich in offensive ammunition. Captain Michael Matheson, a defenseman, enters the season as BC’s leading scorer. BC is led by an enviable defense and goaltender, a stable of still-developing, young forwards, and a senior class, which, sans Johnny Gaudreau, chronically underperformed for three seasons.
Success breeds success, but it also fuels exponential expectations. For BC, reaching those ridiculously lofty expectations means that nothing short of a trip to the Frozen Four and a run at the National Championship will suffice. The nation’s top two point scorers, Gaudreau, and Kevin Hayes, are gone, as is BC’s rock at center, Bill Arnold, who finished last season tied for fifth in points, nationally. York heads into his 21st season in Chestnut Hill with a team in transition, but the degree of struggle wrought by the ongoing transformation has yet to be determined. So, before BC embarks on another go at a sixth star, The Heights sat down with York for an in-depth look at BC in the post-Super Line era.
First of all, personnel wise, how close are you to getting the lines set?
I think they’re always fluid, the lines, especially over the course of the season, but we’re set for the exhibition game with our lineup.
Are any pairs jumping out at you?
I think the senior line, of Sit, Straight, and Smith has been terrific. They’re gonna have to carry a lot of us early, because at the forward positions we lost four key forwards for us. So, I think that line right now has impressed me. It’s our 10th practice—or our eighth practice today—so it’s a small sample size, but they’ve meshed pretty well together, I like that. The three “S”s.
For the most part they had a quieter role last year, how much are you expecting them to step up in their last season?
I think that it would be terrific to see that. They’ve kind of paid their dues over the four years, and for them to step forward and be leaders for us—we expect it, and it would be a terrific boost for our team.
Last year you had Ryan [Fitzgerald] and Austin [Cangelosi] on the same line together, are you going to try and keep them together this year?
We’re going to start off that way for sure. Like I said, it’s a little bit fluid, so as we get game situations, we’ll look at that. But I think those two, they’ve had some chemistry, so it would be kind of neat.
Are you keeping Ryan on the wing? Or moving him to the middle?
No, moving him to center. Austin on the right, and right now we have a freshman, Zach Sanford, on that left side.
As far as the defense goes, are you doing what you did last year, you know like Matheson with Scott [Savage]?
We’ll be mixing and matching a lot early in the season. We’ve got five veterans back, and we’ve got Travis Jeke trying to get into the lineup with Peter McMullen, and we have a freshman, Noah Hanifin, who will certainly play an awful lot for us this year.
Obviously there’s been a ton of hype on Noah, how game ready would you say he is?
Still with the context that he’s 17 years old. That’s crazy. It’s really unusual, he might be the youngest freshman in the school, he turns 18 in I think January. But I think he’s really shown the qualities we expected. He skates very well, he’s got good size, he anticipated the plays very well. But it’s still going to be a learning process given his age and the jump year. He’ll probably play in the first exhibition game—and Lowell too—some 25-year-old players. That’s gonna be a heck of an environment, I think they’ll be out looking for revenge. They’ll be eight years older, some of those guys.
The narrative going around now is you know, last year, best offense in the country, this year—obviously you gotta play the games—but poised to be one of the best defenses in the country. Do you see that happening, or what kind of balance are you expecting?
As we look at it, we think we’re going to be very solid there. Last year, we benefited from a terrific offense because we had the puck an awful lot. It’s easier to play defense for 15 seconds a shift rather than 45 seconds a shift because we’d have the puck down in the other end. But I think—they’re not veterans cause Santini, McCoshen, and Savage are still young kids, sophomores, but I think that they have a whole year under their belt, so we’re expecting them to be pretty solid this year. So, our depth is certainly on defense.
But on the flip side, are you concerned about offensive depth at all?
We feel that we have the potential to become a better offensive team as the year goes on, but we’re going to have certainly different roles for our players. All of a sudden, they’re going to step into power plays, they’re going to step into 4-on-4s that maybe Johnny, Kevin, and Billy Arnold, and Patrick Brown had last year. So, it will be a learning curve for those group of forwards, but if we can ever get production from Sit’s line, that would really help us.
Speaking of Gaudreau, how much are you expecting to see from Matt this year?
I think he showed flashes last year that he can play at this level. He’s right in our top four lines now. But, I want to save him from any comparisons to the brother, that’s not fair to anybody.
Yeah, no, that’s tough. As of now, what would you say you think your biggest strength is heading into the season?
Talking to the captains, terrific team—(Asst. Coach Greg Brown declares that it’s “coaching,” from the other side of the room)—there’s been terrific team unity early in the season, so I think that’s gotta be a strength for us. But I think that blue line back is right now our strength, and we’ll build on that. Most of us talk—coaches in all sports—it’s the Celtics or Bruins or Patriots, good defense is going to propel you a very long way. I think defensively we feel very, very solid—now we’ve got to find some offense.
Yeah, and I guess kind of transitioning to special teams a little bit if you want to talk about that, do you see Noah hopping right in on maybe that second power play?
He’ll have power play time for sure. Greg Brown runs our power play units, so he’ll watch. Right now he’s looking at a lot of different combinations, because who really knows what it’s going to be like in November or January. But right now, we’re looking to get some cohesiveness and hopefully get two units right now.
On the first one, you think Matheson on point?
Right now, we’ve got two pretty good units. We haven’t gone to our five best players and put them on one unit. Right now, Noah’s playing with Mike Matheson, and we’ve got Teddy Doherty with McCoshen. But, Scott Savage could get in that group also. From those five will probably come the four defenseman.
And we saw back in Philly, Santini can rip one from pretty far out.
Yes, he can, yeah.
I remember that shot.
(Chuckles) Yeah, that was a good shot.
You’ve got three freshmen this year, but a lot of sophomores. So, that balance is toward the younger part of the team. And, with a senior class that, aside from Johnny, was a pretty quiet senior class, how much do you think you need them to step up as leaders this year?
Oh, I think we depend on that upper core of guys. We have seven seniors, and whether it’s Barone or Billett, from goaltenders to forwards, we need them to really be key guys for us. Nine sophomores, that’s a big class.
I remember last year it was the most freshmen in the country, but they grow up. And how important is it for you guys that Matheson decided to stay this year?
Well, it’s a big plus for us. He analyzed it and made I think the correct decision as far as getting his academics in order, and also his hockey in order. So, I think he made a really good, well-educated decision. You can never leave too late. You can leave too early, but not too late.
And then on the flip side, you can leave real early, like Sonny [Milano]. That caught you guys pretty late. That’s late August when he decommits, how bad does that hurt you guys?
Well, you know, it surprised us because we thought he was committed to our program. But that’s water over the dam, and we proceed. It was gonna be a small class anyway, whether it’s three or four, it was still going to be a small class.
Did you try to accelerate any other forwards at that point?
No, I thought it was too late to do that. Looking at that senior class, you know, Danny Linell—those guys can step forward a little bit for us.
I won’t hold you too much longer, can I just grab one more question—just two more questions, I promise. Any injury concerns as of now?
We’re getting ready for New Brunswick—like Bill Belichick said, we’re getting ready for Cincinnati. Did you hear his press conference? Oh, you gotta hear it, every question was, “Oh, we’re getting ready for Cincinnati.”
Didn’t he answer Cincinnati like five times?
Yeah. But what was your question?
Any injury concerns as of now?
Right now, just Brendan Silk has a concussion, so we’re waiting to see if he can be eligible or not.
Last question, who and what are you most excited to see out there?
I think what’s exciting me the most is just the enthusiasm of our players. They’re actually running down to the rink to practice. They want to chase trophies, and that’s terrific for all of us.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor
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