Frozen Four shows geographic shift of talent

Posted: April 03, 2014

JERRY YORK has been a head coach in college hockey since I was in seventh grade, and I'm turning 56 this year. Born in 1945, no college hockey coach has more victories than his 935, and he's right up there in national championships after winning three of the last six as the head coach of Boston College, where he has been since 1994.

A former BC player who previously coached at Clarkson and Bowling Green, York is credited with resurrecting the Eagles' long-proud program, and he did it at least in part by paying attention to the winds of change in his sport.

"Wherever NHL franchises have been planted, it seems to have spawned a development of youth hockey," York was saying yesterday by phone. "So you're growing up in Phoenix and you're looking at the Coyotes play. Maybe 15 years ago, you would have been a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football. Now the game's there and you end up a left wing.

"It's really an interesting dynamic. And it's great to see from our perspective."

When the NCAA Division I tournament began last Thursday, the 16 schools involved included players from 31 states, the District of Columbia, and four nations besides the United States and Canada.

The leading scorer on three of those teams hailed from California. Among the finalists for this year's Hobey Baker Award - hockey's Heisman - are players from Florida, Alabama and South Jersey.

"Our goaltender actually comes from San Diego," York said. "Who would have thought that 15 years ago?"

Boston College is in the Frozen Four again in no small part because of a small South Jersey kid so exciting to watch he has been dubbed "Johnny Hockey" by Hockey East fans. But while Jim Dowd and later Bobby Ryan and even James van Riemsdyk were semi-notorious when they emerged from the Garden State, Boston College junior Johnny Gaudreau was among 30 players from the Philadelphia area involved when the tournament began last Thursday.

Seven of them will get to play in front of their friends, families, former coaches and teachers when the Frozen Four begins 8 days from now at the Wells Fargo Center. Gaudreau and his brother Matthew, a freshman, are on BC. Union College, their Frozen Four opponent in the first of two semifinal games to be played on April 10, has Nick Cruice, a native of Dresher, Pa.; Cole Ikkala, who once lived and played in Romansville; and Charlie Vasaturo, of Sewell, N.J.

Vasaturo's hometown is the site of Hollydell Ice Arena - where Johnny Hockey first put on skates and where his father, Guy, still runs hockey programs.

Technically, each player is a junior, but they are separated both by age and the path taken to this game. A well-tracked star for both Gloucester Catholic High School and the more-traveled Team Comcast Midget A team, Gaudreau was a 2011 fourth-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames at age 18.

Vasaturo, meanwhile, honed his game playing two seasons in the British Columbia Hockey League before finding his way to Union. So while his coach, Rick Bennett, said yesterday, rather defiantly, "I think this recruiting stuff is blown out of proportion - we're going after the same players Boston College, North Dakota and Minnesota are," one of his team captains, Mat Bodie - 24-year-old Mat Bodie - admitted moments later that his team is composed of "a lot of guys that some teams don't necessarily go after."

Or don't find in time. Not until Union's run to the 2012 Frozen Four did 2014 Hobie Baker finalist Shayne Gostisbehere pop up on the radar screens of NHL teams. Drafted by the Flyers in the fourth round after that run, Gostisbehere is a prime example of the geographic explosion York referenced. A native of Margate, Fla., he is a product of the youth program begun after the arrival of the NHL Panthers.

A Division III school in all sports other than hockey, tiny Union - there are 2,200 students at the Schenectady, N.Y., school - can offer only financial aid to its players, not scholarships. But by building its roster with overlooked and/or late-blooming players, Union has reached the Frozen Four two of the last three seasons.

While more successful than other small schools competing at the Division I level, its success is far from isolated. A year ago, UMass Lowell, which was edged by BC, 4-3, in this year's Northeast Regional final, made the Final Four. Robert Morris, with an enrollment of just over 5,000, made this year's Sweet 16. Merrimack, Mercyhurst, St. Cloud State, Ferris State and Matt Read's Bemidji State have all made NCAA noise since the talent pool has exploded.

Overlooked in his teens, Read signed as a free agent with the Flyers at age 24, a few years after catching the NHL's attention amid the Beavers' Final Four run. UMass Lowell's Christian Folin, a coveted 23-year-old free-agent sophomore defenseman from Sweden, signed with the Minnesota Wild a day after Boston College ended his season.

"At Bowling Green, it was pretty much southern Ontario, Michigan area," York said of his recruiting efforts back in the '70s and '80s. "Now we're going to Florida to get a kid like Austin Cangelosi . . . Florida, California, even Arizona - those states didn't exist for us once.

"Now . . . Texas has players."

Which begs this question: Are they building rinks in Mexico any time soon?


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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