WASHINGTON - Jerry York was traveling home from the American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Naples, Fla., and he picked up a newspaper at the airport in Fort Myers so he would have something to read on the flight.
The veteran Boston College hockey coach chose the New York Daily News and was greeted by a full color photo of Chris Kreider on the back page.
Kreider, who won his second NCAA championship under York on April 7, jumped from college after his junior year to sign with the New York Rangers and made an instant impact. He scored the winning goal in Game 6 against Ottawa in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, was on the ice in the final minute in the Rangers’ Game 7 victory, and had the winning goal and an assist in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Capitals.
“He’s had some big stages that he’s played on,’’ said York. “But none bigger than this one.’’
Although college coaches are never happy to see players leave early, there was no doubt in York’s mind that the Boxford, Mass., native was ready to take the next step in his blossoming career, but York didn’t expect Kreider to make such an impact so soon.
“His size, his strength, the way he’s improved his hockey IQ, he’s gotten so much better,’’ said York. “But I was kind of hoping myself that he’d wait and go through a regular NHL training camp and be part of a team from the get-go. That’s hard to do, but this is extremely difficult to do, what he’s been asked to step in. The Rangers have had a remarkable year and for him to be a major part of it, that’s asking a lot of a young kid.’’
Kreider, who turned 21 a week ago, has received plenty of support from the organization that selected him in the first round (No. 19 overall) in the 2009 draft, and it doesn’t hurt that it is chockablock with Boston influences.
Former BC captain Brian Boyle is a teammate, coach John Tortorella is a Boston native, and assistant coach Mike Sullivan (a former player, assistant coach, and head coach of the Bruins) is from Marshfield, Mass. Assistant general manager Jeff Gorton, a former Bruins assistant GM, hails from Melrose, Mass., and director of player personnel Gordie Clark played for the Bruins and worked in the front office.
Despite that support system, there is no hand-holding in the playoffs, so Kreider is still working without a net to some degree.
What Kreider has done so far is telling, according to Boyle.
“He’s a pretty smart kid, he fends for himself pretty well,’’ said Boyle. “We’re just impressed with how he’s handled himself.
“It’s an adjustment coming into pro hockey. You usually have a summer to think about it and prepare for it, and he had a day and a half and went right into playoff hockey.
“There was no pre-training camp or training camp. It was right into playoff hockey and he’s done a great job.’’
Boyle said it helped that Kreider was the product of a system such as BC’s.
“It was huge for my development and his as well,’’ said Boyle. “Everything BC offers, it turned me into a man for sure. I learned a lot aside from hockey, but the hockey turned me into a much better player as well.
“The schedule we play and the guys we practice against every single day when you’re there and the way we played the game, it was very beneficial for me, and it shows with Chris as well. He’s come a long way since his freshman year.’’
Raising his game
Kreider, who played two years at Masconomet and two at Phillips Andover Academy, has the informal nickname of “Mr. Second Half.’’ As well as he played in the opening months of the season, it was during the stretch run and the postseason that Kreider has shined brightest.
“When there’s a trophy on the line, when it’s something really important, he seems to have the ability to raise the level of his play and he’s done it repeatedly,’’ said York.
Defenseman Tommy Cross, who was captain of the Eagles this season, said Kreider is a mature, humble kid who just wants to help his team.
“The big games, the big stage - and that’s what the second half is - that’s when he is at his best,’’ said Cross. “What I’ve been watching in the last two weeks, it’s the best I’ve ever seen him play. It’s unbelievable what he’s doing, it’s great. I’m so happy for him. It’s unheard of.’’
Samson Lee, Kreider’s roommate and close friend the last couple of years at BC, was at Game 1 of the Capitals series in New York with Kreider’s father, David, and a family friend and were stunned when Kreider’s shot beat goalie Braden Holtby. When the crowd at Madison Square Garden began chanting Kreider’s name, Lee said, they all got goose bumps. But he said success never will go to Kreider’s head.
“He was telling me the other day, he was skating down the ice and he turned around and saw [Washington star center] Nick Backstrom,’’ said Lee. “He thought, ‘Am I really on the same ice as Nick Backstrom?’ I think, for him, he’s enjoying it a lot.’’
Lee had no doubts that Kreider was ready to move on from the college game.
“It was a tough decision between living out his dream and finishing school,’’ said Lee. “We’ve been pretty lucky to have him for three years.
“It’s not surprising that he’s there. It’s a lot of fun watching him doing what he’s doing right now and making such a big impact, just because you see him as a college kid, and when you get to go watch him play [in New York], it’s almost surreal. It’s hard to believe.
“For all of us, we all had faith in him. We knew he was a determined kid. Like he says, it’s just hockey but quicker.’’
Kreider, who has been almost embarrassed by the media attention directed at him, said it has been a whirlwind.
“It’s been crazy,’’ said Kreider. “I’m just trying to keep my head down and work hard. [The level of play] is ramped up considerably. Every single player you play against, they are that much better, that much bigger, that much stronger.
“It’s a fun experience. You want to play against the best players, and that’s what this league is. The game moves faster, the puck moves faster, everything is more precise. If you make a mistake, it’s capitalized on within seconds. Everything is that much quicker.’’
No time to reflect
Gorton said the Rangers expected Kreider to provide depth during the playoffs but an opportunity arose when Carl Hagelin was banned for three games for his hit on Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson in Game 2 of the series.
“Hagelin got suspended, and the door opened, and he was able to show what he could do,’’ said Gorton.
Although the Rangers had interest in Kreider leaving after his sophomore year, Gorton said the extra year of college helped his game advance.
“In hindsight, maybe it was [best to stay at BC],’’ said Gorton. “It’s hard to say. Could he have been here all year and scored 25 goals? Maybe.
“But the reality is, he got another championship, he won another Hockey East [title] and Beanpot and he added to his résumé. It’s hard to argue with what he did at BC and how they prepared him.’’
“We’re all proud of him,’’ said York. “It’s mind-boggling.’’
For his part, Kreider said, there has been no time for him to reflect on anything. That will come later.
“It’s been like this for the last three years or so,’’ said Kreider with a laugh. “I came off the national championship as an 18-year-old, then I had coaches tell me I was going to the World Championships [in which he participated twice].’’
He also won a gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Tournament, playing with current teammate Derek Stepan.
All of that high-level competition has prepared him for where he is today. He hopes the ultimate trophy - the Stanley Cup - is the pot of silver at the end of this rainbow.
“I’ve had a really blessed hockey experience,’’ he said. “I haven’t had time to pinch myself. I’m just trying to enjoy it.’’