When Boston University beat Maine Dec. 10 - the hockey team’s last game before the semester break - the Terriers were sitting pretty at 10-5-1.
Their goaltending was strong, their defensive corps was deep and talented, and their forwards were offensively prolific.
But the program was shaken to the core the next night, and in the days that followed, when leading scorer Corey Trivino was arrested for allegedly forcing his way into a female student’s dormitory room and assaulting her.
He was dismissed from the team by coach Jack Parker and his scholarship was revoked.
Shortly thereafter, second-line center Charlie Coyle chose to leave the team to concentrate on his pro career.
The departures left the Terriers with a damaged psyche and an uncertain future. Even Parker, in his 39th year behind the BU bench, said he didn’t know what his team’s frame of mind would be when it returned.
That’s when captain Chris Connolly stepped to the plate. The senior had seen the triumph of the 2009 NCAA championship and he had seen his team struggle the following year. He served as a mentor to the large number of young players last season in his first year as captain and he felt an obligation to address a very uncomfortable situation.
“I think both [assistant captains Justin Courtnall and Alex Chiasson] would agree that we felt like it was our duty to pull the team back together,’’ said Connolly. “It’s not something you like to see happen. Like we told our team right before break, ‘We have plenty of time to let this settle down and kind of put it behind us.’
“The message we wanted to tell the guys was, ‘If you take a step back from the events that have happened, we still have ourselves in a very good situation. We still have plenty of guys in here who can do something special.’
“We told guys to think about that as they went home for break and to come back with a good, positive attitude and put it in the past.’’
Sophomore defenseman Adam Clendening said the turmoil was a topic of discussion during the World Junior Tournament, during which he played for the US.
“I was [there] when it was finalized that Charlie left and Corey was already gone,’’ said Clendening. “We had five Hockey East guys there with us. Everybody was like, ‘You guys are going to be bad.’ But we came back and we’re doing just what we needed to do.’’
Clendening said Connolly is a big reason why.
“He’s definitely one of the better captains I’ve ever had,’’ said Clendening. “He’s calmed everything down and kept us focused on hockey rather than everything else that happened.
“You have to say your goodbyes and that kind of stuff and you hate to see people leave. I think Chris did a great job of keeping us focused on what our end result wants to be.’’
In better position
It didn’t happen instantaneously. In fact, in their first game back, the Terriers went out to Notre Dame on Dec. 31 and suffered a 5-2 setback. Sophomore defenseman Garrett Noonan said it served as a wake-up call.
“We went out there and got our butts kind of handed to us,’’ said Noonan. “We thought, ‘Those guys aren’t here anymore and we have to go on without them.’ ’’
Noonan said Connolly’s leadership helped them put the pieces back together.
“He’s someone I know everyone in that room looks up to,’’ said Noonan. “When all that stuff happened, he had a meeting and said, ‘This is how it’s going to be, and we have to move forward. Nothing changes. We have to keep doing what we’re doing.’ It was a big turning point for all of us.’’
Connolly volunteered to move to center from left wing. The loss of Trivino and Coyle left holes at the pivot, and Connolly and Sahir Gill moved over.
Parker said Connolly is actually playing better in the middle. In his first 15 games at left wing, he had 13 points, all of which were assists; in the last nine games, all at center, he has 13 points, 4 of them goals, heading into tomorrow night’s opening round of the Beanpot.
“He’s playing great,’’ said Parker. “He’s a mature kid and a team guy.
“He’s led vocally and wearing the ‘C,’ telling the guys, ‘This is not going to hamper us. Two guys don’t make a team. We can get things accomplished.’
“But most importantly, he’s shown it by the way he’s played: ‘I’m going to switch positions and go play center and watch how hard I work.’ He’s played better now at center than he did in the first semester.’’
Connolly wasn’t sure if his words would make a difference.
“I think that was the big question - we didn’t know what to expect,’’ he said. “It would’ve been a little different if we’d lost guys at different positions but they were our two top centers. It was going to leave a big void in a pretty important spot.
“So we knew some guys who hadn’t played the position were going to have to try it out and we were going to have to work some line combinations to see what would work. We didn’t know what to expect but we were still really positive.’’
Junior defenseman Sean Escobedo said Connolly took a situation that could have led to a downhill spiral and turned it into a challenge.
“Chris was able to bring us all closer together and realize we still had an opportunity to do something special here and we should take advantage of it,’’ said Escobedo. “Just because they’re not here doesn’t mean our season’s over.
“Missing those two guys was kind of our wake-up call. We realize what we have is right in front of us. That wake-up call and the coaches getting in our ears and poking us around and making sure we were fired up, that combination really helped us to jell and come together.
“It was a tough game out at Notre Dame, but ever since then we’ve been practicing hard and playing hard. We were just able to find ourselves and realize who we are as a team without those two guys. We’ve been pretty successful so hopefully we can keep it going.’’
Connolly’s hope is that the Terriers (16-8-1, 13-6-1) make it all the way to the Frozen Four in Tampa, with a shot at facing his younger brother, Jack, who is captain of the Minnesota-Duluth squad and one of the top scorers in the country.
“Each one has won a national title, they’re both seniors and both captains of their respective teams,’’ said Parker. “Last year, I told the Duluth coach [Scott Sandelin], ‘We should pray the Connolly boys can settle it on the ice in the final game.’ But that’s a long way off.’’
Connolly, a Duluth native, said facing his brother has crossed his mind, but there are many hurdles to be cleared in the meantime.
“It’s worked out the best for both of us,’’ said Connolly. “We’ve been able to go down our own paths and find ourselves both as players and outside of hockey. We wish each other the best. Hopefully, we’ll see him in Tampa.’’