Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thanks for the Memories

This is a tough time of year for the parents of graduating hockey players, be they at Penn State or any other college. Moms and dads are dealing with the end of their son's collegiate career, and they're wondering what they're going to do with their weekends come next fall.

NHL Network and TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie is one of those parents going through withdrawal syndrome.

Bob's son Mike has wrapped up his collegiate career at St. Lawrence University.

Being a typical hockey parent, Bob made it to most of Mike's games at SLU. Today, he penned a poignant thank you note on the Division 1 forum of USCHO.com.

Here is what he wrote about his exposure to NCAA hockey. His words speak for themselves, and what he writes is just as appropriate for anyone involved with the ACHA.


I would just like to take a moment to thank everyone in the U.S. college game I’ve come in contact with over the last four years and express how much I have enjoyed my four years as the parent of a student-athlete at St. Lawrence University. For as involved as I am in hockey, the truth is until my son Mike went to SLU my exposure to the college game was extremely limited. Who’s kidding who, it was almost non-existent.

It has been a wonderful four-year ride for him and our family and I am going to miss it very much.

I had heard all sorts of things about the college game before I got there, how the stickwork was terrible because the players wears full facial protection or how there was no respect because the players couldn’t fight or how there was no hitting or whatever. But after four years of not missing too many of my son’s games, home or away, I discovered the hockey was terrific. I didn’t see the stickwork I was warned about and on the lack of respect issue, I think we’ve seen that it exists in all levels of hockey, even where fighting is permitted. The hockey I saw over the four years, for the most part, was fast and exciting and physical. I loved that there were very few scrums after the whistles and the action went up and down the ice with breathtaking speed and games were usually complete in a just a shade over two hours.

I generally don’t get too engaged in the whole college vs. major junior debate because they are, for me, apples and oranges for the most part. Both have their inherent strengths and weakness. The vast majority of high-end kids now end up in major junior and that's fine. The CHL is a terrific league with a lot of high end talent, but it’s a league for 16 to 20 year olds. College hockey is a league for 18 to 25 year olds. And it's still a great development league as well. It was an easy decision for my son. He probably wasn’t physically mature enough even at age 18 to play major junior, though he did have the opportunity and offer to do so. So he rolled the dice on getting a scholarship and was fortunate enough to get one solitary scholarship offer to attend SLU (Thank you Chris Wells and Bob Prier. )

My son was a 20-year-old freshman and I know that sometimes is an issue that’s debated on these boards and elsewhere and I’m obviously biased but I don’t think college hockey would be any better off if were limited to true freshmen right out of high school. Not everyone is ready at 18, for the college experience in general and college hockey in particular. I’m not afraid to say my son couldn’t have competed at this level any sooner than age 20, but he still went on to have a pretty good college career both individually, at least they tell me 49 goals and 100-plus career points is a worthy achievement, and team wise (one regular season championship and an NCAA tournament appearance as a freshman, three trips to Albany in the ECAC tournament) too. As I said, I’m baised but I believe the 20 year old freshman can offer a lot to the college game.

The truth was when my son first started, I wasn’t even sure he could play at this level. I remember walking out of Schneider Arena at PC in his first ever road game, after he was directly responsible for giving up the winning goal, and thinking he may never get back into the lineup. But that first year ended up being something special, my son’s large freshmen class performed well and had the honor of playing with three great and special senior Saints – Drew Bagnall, Kyle Rank and Max Taylor – who epitomized what class and character and leadership and being great student-athletes were all about.

There were all sorts of hilites too numerous to mention that year, but the win over BU in the Dartmouth tourney – my son scored the GWG on a penalty shot in OT on John Curry and I was back at TSN watching it on TV because of WJC commitments, one of only two games I missed in his freshman year – and the come from behind win over Dartmouth in the ECAC consolation game in Albany – he scored two third period goal, including the GWG – in a victory that put SLU in the NCAAs were probably as good as it gets. My fears of him not being able to play at this level were gone, but the great thing about his college career was that every game was a challenge. There were never any easy nights. The ECAC is nothing if not competitive.

I could go on and on about so many specific instances – good and bad and pretty much everything in my kid’s sophomore year was bad, can you say jinx? LOL – but when it’s all said and done it will, for me anyway, be about the people and places I got to see.

Trust me when I tell you the only way I was getting to an Ivy League school was to watch my son play there. I love so many of the rinks and venues in the ECAC. There’s nothing quite like the Lynah Skating Rink for the whole college experience and Cornell is always a force to be reckoned with there. I absolutely love the unique architecture of the Whale at Yale and Hobey Baker Rink at Princeton. It was always a special night going into Bright Arena, where SLU supporters inevitably outnumbered Harvard fans. Thompson Arena in Hanover is warm and inviting and as good a place to watch a game as anywhere and Dartmouth is a beautiful campus. To be able walk around the campuses of Colgate or Princeton or Yale was special. I was able to see a Big Red Freakout for myself at RPI and I loved going into the hostile environment of Cheel Arena and nothing quite matches up to the animosity or intensity of Clarkson-SLU. I have come to love Providence, a hidden gem of a city, and my geographical knowledge of New England and the northeastern U.S. has never been better. But thank God for GPS, especially in Boston, where you learn the hard lesson that the Tobin Bride is not on I-95 but I-93. LOL.

I was like a little kid for those special out of conference games in buildings I grew up hearing about – Yost Arena in Michigan and Munn Arena at Michigan State – and I had my other favorites too. The Whittemore Center in UNH, although I liked how some of the kids called it Lake Whittemore because it’s so huge an ice surface, the Gut in Burlington, VT, a great old style barn, and Agganis at BU, the nicest new-style college rink I was in.

I came in contact with so many great people, far too numerous to mention. But to make the friends we did in Canton, especially the Phalons, and to spend as much time roaming the road with other SLU parents, especially my running mate Jeremiah Cunningham, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. The SLU fans are a special breed themselves, supportive and passionate and it was a pleasure to get to know Got 6, critsports, hockeyplayer1015, TimU, Muskieman, the Tupper Lake crew and so many others.

Ditto for the fellas, as they like to call themselves, Mike’s roomies in the suite (Flanny, Patty, Weaves, Jeremiah, Teese and D Kells) and all the good kids, past and present, who put on the scarlet and brown in the cozy confines of Appleton Arena and everyone involved with the SLU hockey program, from Joe and all the coaches to the behind the scenes staff to the Friends of St. Lawrence boosters who do such a wonderful job of looking after our kids like they’re their own.

I got to meet so many other great parents of opposing players – Mario Trabucco’s dad, Sean McMonagle’s dad and grandfather, Mike Backman (father of Sean), Bill Gillam (father of Josh), amongst many others – and my college text buddies, Don McIntyre, whose son David starred at Colgate, Dan Whitney, whose son Sean is at Cornell, and Tom Giffin, whose son Charlie also played at SLU. And the many media guys, Dan and Max at the WDT, Ken Schott in Schenectady, Brian Sullivan, Gladdy, Adam and so many others. And thanks to USCHO, INCH and CHN for providing tremendous coverage for the college game.

It was always fun to scoreboard watch and see how my son’s former St. Mike’s Buzzer junior teammates – Brayden Irwin in Vermont, Brendan Smith in Wisconsin, Kevin Schmidt in Bowling Green, Andrew Cogliano in Michigan, John Scrymgeour and Freddie Cassiani at Lake Superior State, Michael Forgione and Andrew Rygiel at Geneseo, amongst others – or how the local Whitby kids (Scott Freeman and Louke Oakley at Clarkson, Dan Nicholls at Cornell) were making out in their college careers.

There were so many good times. Some tough ones, too, because hockey and life at this level isn’t always easy or fun, but on balance it was just such a wonderful experience.

I was disappointed that SLU lost three times in the ECAC semifinal and never won an ECAC title, but on the bright side, Mike’s college career did not come to an end losing to Clarkson at Appleton in the first round of the playoffs and that was less than two minutes away from being reality. That GWG goal puck, Mike’s last at Appleton, will be a valued memento.

I don't think there's any question my son is a better player now than when he started at SLU and he's most certainly a better, more mature young man and in a short time, he's going to have a degree and perhaps an opportunity to keep the playing the game for a bit yet, at what level or where we will see in due course. I am not sure it gets any better than that as a parent.

I hope none of this comes across as self serving. I’m feeling a little sentimental about the end of a phase in our family’s life and when I get like that, I tend to write about it…occupational hazard, I guess. And I really did want to thank everyone, including those who grace these boards and do so (for the most part LOL) with maturity and insight and entertainment. It’s been a terrific ride and just a wonderful four years. So thanks to everyone. I’ve got some roots in the college game now and while I won’t have the direct involvement of being a parent of a player, I won’t be going cold turkey, that’s for sure.

So all the best to everyone, enjoy the games and thanks.

Bob McKenzie

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Devil of a Game

It's been a couple of weeks since putting pen to paper (so to speak) after the sudden end of the Icers season, and I couldn't think of a better time to get back to the "Booth" than tonight as I sit in my hotel room at the Newark Airport.

I'm not flying anywhere, just relaxing after a great evening at the Prudential Center, thanks to the generosity of Messrs. John Conte. Number 6's father and grandfather invited Greg Kirstein (Matt's father) and your humble correspondent to join them at tonight's New Jersey Devils - Columbus Blue Jackets game.

To say we enjoyed ourselves is an understatement. OK - maybe Kirstein didn't after the Jackets were smoked 6-3. In case you didn't know, Greg is the Jackets' general counsel by day and hockey dad by night.

We couldn't get much closer to the action. Judge Conte's seats are along the boards right beside the visiting team penalty box!

You really appreciate the speed of the NHL game sitting a couple of feet away! Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk put on clinics, Martin Brodeur recorded his 8th 40-win season (no one else has come close) and the win vaulted the Devils into the top spot in the Atlantic Division.

I had to laugh at the Devils fans. Every once in a while a chant of "Rangers suck" came out of nowhere and every Devils goal brought a chant of "Hey, you suck" to Gary Glitter's Rock & Roll Part II.

HOW LAME! Is that the best they can come up with? Reminded me of Illinois fans at the Big Pond!

The elder Conte is obviously known and loved by just about everyone that works at the Prudential Center, including legendary announcer Mike Emrick and his sidekick, Glen "Chico" Resch.

On Tuesday, Doc called his 3,000th hockey game when the Red Wings beat the Penguins 3-1. Needless to say, I've got a long way to go to catch the Hall of Famer!

Mike knows a little about Penn State hockey, mentioning that former Icer Ben Bouma kept stats for him in some of those 3,000 broadcasts.

We not only share a passion for the game, but we also "share" similar broadcasting positions. While the visiting team's broadcasters are up in the rafters, Doc and Chico call the game from the top of the lower bowl, right outside the Fire Lounge.

Now that is what I call a "fan friendly" spot, and both men are happy to meet their fans.

Thanks again to the Contes for their generosity, their hospitality and - above all - their friendship.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Crushed

The look on Bill Downey's face said it all as I walked under the stands at the Edge Arena following the Icers' early exit from the 2010 National Tournament.

It was the same look on the faces of the players - a mixture of shock and disbelief - as they filtered out to the lobby to be met and consoled by parents, family and friends after the Central Oklahoma Bronchos' 2-1 overtime upset of the Icers in Sunday's quarter final matchup.

I questioned whether or not the Bronchos would have any emotion left after their thrilling double-overtime win over archrival Oklahoma the night before - the first time the Bronchos had defeated the Sooners this season.

Lindenwood coach Derek Schaub told me the first 10 minutes would be the telltale sign for UCO. Taylor Cera scored just 2:12 into the contest, finishing off a 3-way passing play with Domenic Morrone and Nick Seravalli.

The Bronchos didn't wilt under a relentless Icers attack, but once again Penn State faced another hot goalie - Blairsville, PA native Justin Sgro.

Sgro, who played youth hockey with Chris Cerutti, was simply sensational. His thievery of Tim O'Brien late in the third period was a game-changer, and set the stage for the Bronchos' heroics.

With under 2 minutes left in regulation and Sgro on the bench for the extra attacker the Bronchos executed the faceoff play in the Icers zone to perfection.

Shawn Steggles won the draw back to defenseman Nick Novak, who floated a wrist shot past a screened Ted Hume with 1:29 left in regulation, sending the Bronchos and their fans into orbit.

The goal resulted in the fifth overtime game of the tournament, but like the Iowa State - Illinois contest that preceded this one, it was over early.

Jonathan Cannizzo, one of a baker's dozen Illinois natives on the UCO roster, blocked a shot just inside the Bronchos' zone and he was off to the races.

Cannizzo streaked into the Icers end and blasted a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle that beat Hume high to the glove side just 1:42 into the extra frame.

Game - and the Icers season - over, and the celebration underway for the Bronchos.

But the clock could strike midnight for the Cinderella team at this year's ball. With Lindenwood easily dispatching Minot State 7-2 and Ohio taking care of Arizona State 5-3, UCO will face the defending champs from Lindenwood in one semi-final on Tuesday, while OU takes on Iowa State in an all-CSCHL semi.

A tip of the cap to UCO head coach Craig McAlister and his staff for the remarkable job of building their program from nothing to tournament semi-finalist in just four years.

I told coach McAlister after the game that I'm looking forward to their visit to Happy Valley next season.

A big thanks to seniors Steve Thurston, John Conte, Matt Kirstein and Ryan Paradis for their great play and above all for their leadership, which will be missed.

Finally, a special thank you to my friend Bill Downey. As a player and as a coach, Bill epitomizes Penn State hockey.

The Icers family will miss Bill, Amy and Ellie more than they will ever know. End of story, nothing more needs to be said.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Countdown to Canton

It was back to work today for the Icers as they prepare for Saturday's National Tournament opener against the Canton Kangaroos.

Game time is 1:00 pm CST, 2:00pm EST.

After a pair of sloppy wins over Robert Morris to finish up the regular season, the Icers need to tighten down on some things this week before jumping on the bus after Thursday's practice.

I caught up with co-captain John Conte and coach Scott Balboni after Tuesday's practice.