Featured Column, Men's Hockey, Column

Reflecting on a Year of Covering BC Men’s Hockey

TAMPA, Fla. — The final buzzer on the 2015-16 season for Boston College men’s hockey had just sounded.

I ran over to the crowded mess that was the Amalie Arena’s only media elevator. They tell you it’s a 10-minute cooldown period for the press conferences, but when the team that loses does it in a heartbreaker, it usually comes quicker. For some reason, the elevator had to stop at every one of the seven floors. Less patient members of the media corps screamed at the employee who had corralled us in at the top, as if he could help.

As soon as it arrived, and the wrought-iron cage from hell opened on the bottom floor, I dashed to get a front row seat. I had faced Jerry York in joy and misery 19 times that season entering the game—and had imagined what he would’ve said in a press conference while watching the game on television or listening on the radio in the remaining 21.

When York, Teddy Doherty, and Steve Santini approached the podium, they didn’t try to hide their emotion. Ever the stoic leader, York appeared more somber than usual. Santini looked all-business, appearing in a strong leadership role as Doherty’s heir apparent as captain of the Eagles, just like Doherty had done last year in BC’s first-round NCAA loss to Denver. Doherty, justifiably so, made no attempt to try and cover up how he felt, yet was remarkable in how he answered questions on behalf of BC for the final time.

Seeing three men I had respected and followed from October to April broken by a crushing defeat was difficult. But that wasn’t the hardest part. It was watching them all walk by me.

As I had settled into my seat, poring over my notes and the box score to come up with the right way to talk about BC’s 3-2 loss to Quinnipiac in the Frozen Four, I saw each one pass me on the way back to the hotel. Some had their heads down all the way through. Others, the ones who appeared to know they’d have another shot at it next year, were laughing and talking with any one of their 23 closest friends. The select few that I had developed somewhat of a relationship with over the year from my constant interviews—guys like Doherty, Austin Cangelosi, Alex Tuch, and Zach Sanford—exchanged a knowing head nod with me. And I chatted with one in particular, senior Travis Jeke, who sat next to me and Heights A1 Editor Tom DeVoto in Mark Gelfand’s American Journalism and Democracy class during the fall semester. His sentiments were about the same as any of theirs: “it just sucks.”

But despite the disappointing ending, this was a team that fought through the most difficult circumstances to reach Tampa, in a season that should go down as one of the more memorable in BC history. And it’s a team that should be ready to be a force in college hockey immediately come October.

The Eagles were faced with unseemly preseason expectations. York’s crew came in as a probably undeserving preseason No. 1 that seemed solely determined by the future talent that the Eagles had instead of the current one. There are plenty of names on BC’s roster that you’ll be seeing in the NHL in the future.

But it entered the year as the youngest team in the nation, with an average age of 20 years, 11 months. That’s a full six months younger than Michigan, the second-youngest in the country. Entering the season, they simply weren’t ready to play as a team that could compete in college hockey. It doesn’t mean that it should’ve been counted out, but to open up the year as the team to beat wasn’t a fair expectation.

It didn’t make it easier that BC had a poor opening-season schedule. BC only played one team that made the NCAA Tournament (Denver) during a hot 11-game winning streak in October and November. A three-game slide against Notre Dame, lowly Ohio State, and Providence in December cast doubts as the gut of Hockey East play loomed. Yet the forwards produced, big time. Led by the emergence of Colin White and Miles Wood, a breakout campaign by Ryan Fitzgerald, and steady production from the guys that BC knew it had in Tuch, Sanford, Cangelosi, and Adam Gilmour, BC lost only one game, the season’s final regular-season game at UMass Lowell, before getting to the playoffs.

Of course, no one was concerned about those forwards. It was the men behind the blue line that would be the big worry. How could the Eagles recover from losing two of the best defensemen in the country, Noah Hanifin and Mike Matheson? Again, it wasn’t for a lack of talent. Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini were high draft picks, and Scott Savage was a solid three-year starter. It was just a matter of that depth, with Josh Couturier, Casey Fitzgerald, and, later, Michael Kim all coming in undersized and young. But as I’ve written (ad nauseum, I might add), the Eagles overcame and created a strong defensive unit in front of the goaltender.

Not that they needed to.

The best part about covering this team was knowing the narrative from start to finish. Members of The Heights’  editorial board are in their positions for a full calendar year. That means one spring and one fall semester. It may work for other sections, but it makes things a little confusing for sports. You have the full football season, but you go into spring practice without knowing the team’s intricacies. You dive right into hockey and basketball in the middle of the season, often the stories already written for the year to come. It made taking the beat as sports editor for 2015 difficult, especially as a freshman who didn’t understand why a program built on the reputation of its offensive production had such a problem scoring.

This year, my second term as sports editor, I got the full package—getting to decide what went in the preview, who deserved to be featured, starting the season from the beginning and going through the end. And the story of 2015-16 was Thatcher Demko.

Without question, Demko was the most talented and NHL-ready player in college hockey this season. Brock Boeser, Kyle Connor, Matt Grzelyck, Zach Werenski, Drake Caggiula, and Jimmy Vesey can make an argument, but I dare any to go mano-y-mano with Demko. It was just a matter of Demko holding up from his double-hip labrum surgery in the offseason.

27-8-4 record. 1.88 goals against average. .935 save percentage. That unbelievable performance in the Beanpot. All worthy of the Mike Richter Award. I’d say Demko did just fine this year.

Brace yourself, because here’s where the story takes its unfortunate turn.

Wood and Santini are gone. The New Jersey Devils have snatched them up to stave off a Vesey-esque departure after free agency would release them next year. Doherty is gone as well, ready to start a career as an undrafted free agent for the New York Islanders that will be an absolute steal by the time he hits the big-league club.

Tuch and Sanford are flight risks, as are Chris Calnan, Gilmour, Fitzgerald, and McCoshen. White is almost certainly out the door. The Canucks general manager was in Tampa to talk to Demko and his family the day after the loss to convince him that, despite Vancouver’s failures with countless goaltenders in the past—ones that Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, and Ryan Miller all know very well—British Columbia is still for him. It’s a hard discussion to have with a 20-something. Do you leave college early and get paid now, guaranteeing that you’ll earn something without risk of injury (or poor performance) while playing for nothing? (Ask Marcus Lattimore what he thinks about that.) Or do you get your college degree for life after hockey and become a free agent to get a luxury most young players in sports don’t get: choosing your team? Kevin Hayes worked the system to perfection, as did Vesey.

So when the dust settles, BC’s worst-case scenario is losing its starting goaltender, two top defensemen, and five of the top six point-scorers. If all of the players who could leave do leave—including Jeke and Doherty—that’s 309 of BC’s 438 points. That’ll hurt any team.

But when is a team coached by Jerry York just “any team?”

BC has dealt with massive attrition in the past. After 2012-13, the Eagles lost Parker Milner—the goaltender who almost single-handedly won the 2012 National Championship—as well as Pat Mullane, Brooks Dyroff, and Steven Whitney. In 2013-14, the team’s most recent Frozen Four trip before this year, York lost 2014 Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau, Hayes, Bill Arnold, Isaac MacLeod, and Patrick Brown. Those five players alone combined for 239 of BC’s 461 points in 2014.   

The Eagles are guaranteed to keep Matthew Gaudreau, who had a blazing start to the season before tapering off toward the end. They’ll also have Cangelosi, one of the most dangerous centers in the country off the draw and as a goal scorer. My hunch is, despite their draft status, Gilmour and Calnan are likely to stay. Calnan is poised to be next year’s captain and make the patented “senior jump” that we’ve seen from York’s guys in the past, and Gilmour’s growth makes me think he’ll jump solidly into the top 50 in scoring. Minnesota and Chicago will try to take them away, but I don’t think those two will take the bait. (Editor’s note: Gilmour is rumored to have signed with the Wild on Monday afternoon, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. In related news, Sully will stop making predictions.)

Christopher Brown and J.D. Dudek, both of whom showed flashes of brilliance (albeit small ones), will see more playing time next season. Chris Shero will also see some playing time and should be a good factor in the team. If Tuch and Sanford stay, they’ll create a bruising duo that could be in the top-10 in scoring in the country. If Ryan Fitzgerald stays, put him on Hobey Watch. From behind the blue line, Casey Fitzgerald, Couturier, and Kim will have to anchor the team, along with Savage.

As he always does, York has another talented recruiting class coming to Chestnut Hill. BC has a top-10 recruit in 6-foot-2, 200-pound forward David Cotton, a sixth-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. BC will also toss in a young and speedy forward in Graham McPhee, son of George McPhee, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 1982 when York coached at Bowling Green. Several defensemen will also join the Eagles, including Finnish native Jesper Mattila, Connor Moore, Michael Campoli, and Luke McInnis, son of assistant coach Marty McInnis. Between the pipes, BC will add Joseph Woll, a 6-foot-2 backstop who is highly touted after coming out of the United States National Team Development Program. Should Demko depart, he’ll likely have to fight off Chris Birdsall and Ian Milosz for the starting spot in goal next year. This class isn’t as strong as last year’s, but it’s certainly one that will keep the Eagles more than competitive in Hockey East (and beyond).

It’s not a rebuild, but merely a reload for the Eagles. I can’t say what the identity of next year’s team will be just yet, not until the decisions of so many important players are finalized.

What is a guarantee is that the Eagles will be back in the hunt for another title, as long as Mr. 1,000 is behind the bench. Even as the Demko era apparently reaches its end, the future looks brighter than ever. For the second time in three seasons, the Eagles made the Frozen Four as the youngest team in the country. There’s no reason we can’t expect them in Chicago next year.

And when I write that story in April of 2017, I hope the players will pass me by with a happier walk.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

April 10, 2016