Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Know Your Enemy: Boston College

You can't get much more distant from last week's team than this week's team. Last week, we profiled a team at the very bottom of college hockey's pecking order at the moment. This week, it's a program that could be described as in the middle of one of college hockey's dynasties - three national championships in the last six years, and five title game appearances in the last eight? Yeah, that's not too shabby. It's all part of an historic turnaround for a program that got a serious monkey off its back in Albany 12 years ago - but has almost always been outstanding.

Boston College
Nickname: Eagles
Location: Chestnut Hill, MA
Founded: 1863
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 5 (1949, 2001, 2008, 2010, 2012)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2012
Coach: Jerry York (20th year)
2012-13 Record: 22-12-4 (15-9-3 Hockey East, 2nd place)
Series: BC leads, 19-14-1
First Game: December 18, 1954 (Boston, MA)
Last RPI win: January 2, 1995 (Troy, NY)
Last BC win: October 13, 2007 (St. Paul, MN)

2013-14 game: October 13, 2013 (Chestnut Hill, MA)

Key players: F Bill Arnold, sr.; F Patrick Brown, sr.; D Isaac MacLeod, sr.; F Kevin Hayes, sr.; F Johnny Gaudreau, jr.; F Danny Linell, jr.; F Quinn Smith, jr.; D Teddy Doherty, so.; D Michael Matheson, so.; F Brendan Silk, so.; D Colin Sullivan, so.; F Austin Cangelosi, fr.; F Chris Calnan, fr.; G Thatcher Demko, fr.; F Ryan Fitzgerald, fr.; D Ian McCoshen, fr.; D Steve Santini, fr.

For decades, Boston College hockey was something of a punchline despite practically never being a truly bad team. The Eagles had one number that would just never seem to go away: 1949. No matter how good BC was, no matter what accolades they racked up, it was a number with which fans across Hockey East would taunt the Eagles, much in the same way that "1918" was lobbed at their city's baseball team for decades.

That ended on the ice at the then-Pepsi Arena in Albany in 2001. After 52 years and 14 Frozen Four appearances, the Boston College Eagles finally won their second national championship, beating North Dakota 3-2 in overtime. Since then, BC has continued to be a mainstay in not only the NCAA tournament (which they've missed only twice since that title), but in the Frozen Four as well, landing  six more Frozen Four appearances and the aforementioned three more national championships in the last six seasons.

But the outstanding history of BC hockey dates much farther back than its current streak of success. First dropping the puck in the final year of World War I (1918), Boston College won twice and lost once in its first season - the program's first winning season, which would become a definite running theme in the coming years. In all the time since that opening year, the Eagles have had only 17 seasons where they lost more games than they won.

Three different Boston College coaches - all alums, and essentially the only three coaches the program has ever had, save for a two-year period in the 1990s and the pre-Depression program - have held the record for most career wins in Division I hockey along the way, which illustrates very well how the program has been as successful as it has been.

The first was John "Snooks" Kelley, who became BC's first full-time coach when the program restarted in 1933 after a three-year lull following the dawn of the Depression. Kelley served as head coach from 1933 to 1972, with the exception of the 1943 and 1946 seasons, during which Kelley served in the Navy (the 1944 and 1945 seasons were not played). During that nearly 40 year stretch, Kelley established BC as a college hockey powerhouse, guiding the program to the first three NCAA tournaments from 1948 to 1950, winning the east's first national crown in 1949 as part of an impressive 21-1 season. By the time he retired, BC had been to six more Frozen Fours, played in the 1965 national championship game (falling to Michigan Tech), and with 486 victories, held the mark for most wins by any college coach.

Kelley's successor would eventually break that record and claim the title of winningest college coach himself. An alumnus who had starred for Kelley and the Eagles just after World War II, Len Ceglarski had already established himself as an outstanding college coach with 14 seasons behind the bench at Clarkson, guiding the Golden Knights to three national championship appearances in 1962, 1966, and 1970 and suffering just one losing season in Potsdam.

Ceglarski's success largely continued at BC, as the Eagles returned to the Frozen Four in his first season at his alma mater, played in the 1978 national championship game (falling to arch-rivals BU), and upon the expansion of the NCAA tournament, took BC to seven NCAA appearances in eight years between 1984 and 1991. Ceglarski oversaw BC's departure from the ECAC and established the Eagles as a dominant force in the new Hockey East, presiding over six regular season titles in the conference's first seven years and two league championships. With 672 total career victories, Ceglarski held the record that his own coach had previously held by the time he retired.

If there has truly been a difficult stretch for BC, it would be between 1992 and 1997, a stretch during which the program endured six consecutive losing seasons. It was a painful period for a program that had never before endured more than two in a row. The period coincided with Ceglarski's final season in 1992, and the elevation of his top assistant, Steve Cedorchuk, to the head coaching position.

The program hit rock bottom in 1994, as Cedorchuk was dismissed following a pair of dreadful seasons in charge. Colgate alum and Bruins hero Mike Milbury was hired to replace him, but Milbury left without coaching a single game after just over two months on the job, leaving BC in the lurch with the season set to begin.

But when that low point ended, the Eagles returned with a bang. In Jerry York's fourth season behind the bench, BC went 28-9-5 and reached its first national championship game in 20 years, only to fall to Michigan, 3-2.

York had gradually rebuilt the program from the ground up after returning to his alma mater. Like Ceglarski, York returned to Chestnut Hill after a long stretch of success elsewhere, including 7 seasons at Clarkson (where he had directly succeeded Ceglarski) and 15 at Bowling Green, where he'd won a national championship in 1984. BC managed to snag York away from BGSU in time for the start of the 1994-95 season after the Milbury debacle.

At the time, it wasn't necessarily a slam dunk - the Falcons had been languishing in the mid-1990s after their national championship run. But it was Jerry York who ultimately brought the program back to not only prominence, but the place they'd missed for so long - the pinnacle of college hockey. The 1998 Frozen Four was just the first of four straight for the Eagles, and after three straight seasons coming up just short of the crowd, it was the ice in Albany that finally got the team over the hump and back to the top of the college hockey world.

Since York's arrival, BC has won nine Hockey East championships, six regular season crowns, appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times, and the Frozen Four 10 times, with four national championships. They've been pretty good. On top of all that, York reclaimed the top position in career wins for a BC coach during the 2012-13 campaign, as he now sits on 935 career wins heading into this coming season.

Along the way, naturally, BC has produced countless NHL players. Every NHL draft since 1996 has featured at least one draft pick associated with the school, and last year's team had seven players on their roster last season that were NHL draft picks.

The final interesting historical fact about BC - they're the only team that was in the Frozen Four for both of RPI's national championships in 1954 and 1985. In both seasons, they lost in the semifinal round and did not play the Engineers.

Last year, coming off their fifth national championship, the Eagles put together another strong campaign, but failed to claim Hockey East honors - either a regular season or tournament title, or both - for just the fifth time since 1998 in part due to UMass-Lowell's big surge. Yet it was not a terrible season for BC in the least - they were among the top-ranked teams in the nation all year, never had a winless-streak that went beyond two, played in the NCAA tournament once more, and had a Hobey Baker finalist in Gaudreau. Their loss to Union in the first round of the NCAAs wasn't considered an upset on its own, but losing 5-1 certainly was a bit surprising.

The Engineers and Eagles are meeting in a scheduled contest for the first time since 1997, and for only the fifth time since the Hockey East split in 1984. The teams also met in the consolation game of the 2007 Icebreaker in Minnesota, which was produced by first-round losses by both teams.

It goes without saying that BC is a team that reloads far more often than it rebuilds (and rebuilding never takes more than a year) with York at the helm, and that is certainly true this year. In addition to one of the most dynamic players in the nation in Gaudreau, 35-point scorer Arnold returns for his senior year, and as usual, the incoming class includes a slew of blue-chip recruits. McCoshen is the top-ranked college-affiliated skater for the upcoming NHL draft, Santini and Fitzgerald will be drafted as well, and Calnan comes in as a draft pick himself.

If there's one thing that BC might be needing to flesh out early in the season, it's goaltending. Parker Milner has graduated, he was the mainstay for the last two seasons. Demko is likely to get the lions share of the playing time over the two juniors that will be on the roster, and if he gets the nod against the Engineers, that might be a minor weakness if he's still adjusting to Division I hockey. He's expected to be the top guy in Chestnut Hill sooner rather than later and has plenty of talent, but the task will fall to RPI's experienced attack to make him uncomfortable as quickly as possible.

There's one difference behind the BC bench that could have an impact on the Eagles going forward - Mike Cavanaugh, York's top lieutenant for 18 seasons and a finalist for the RPI job when it was open in 2006, has left to become UConn's new head coach. This is likely to have more long-term effects than anything, since the Eagles are, as usual, loaded to the brim with talent, much of which was guided into the program by Cavanaugh.

It's worth noting that, as of this publication, the actual date and location of the game against the Eagles isn't 100% known. It's listed on the schedule for October 13, a Sunday, at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill. It would be the back end of a Saturday-Sunday road trip including the opening game of the season at Sacred Heart if that stays accurate, which gives the Engineers a short turnaround time (since Sunday games during the regular season are usually in the afternoon).

Rumors for months have had this game preceding the BU/Cornell game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on the Saturday following Thanksgiving instead - a day RPI currently has open on its schedule and it appears is also open on the BC schedule (they're scheduled to host Holy Cross the previous night). We'll wait and see, but regardless of where this game is played, it's going to be a tough test for the Engineers against a team that's always in the national discussion.

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