In a little more than four years, Charlie McAvoy has gone from full-cheeked 19-year-old who stepped in and shined in the 2017 playoffs to the best homegrown defenseman the Bruins have had since Ray Bourque.
He was fifth in Norris Trophy voting for the NHL’s best defenseman last year. He is the cornerstone of one of the league’s best defenses (the Bruins were fourth in goals allowed last season). In a time of transition for the franchise — the window of opportunity is closing for the group that won a Stanley Cup a decade ago — McAvoy has become one of the team’s most important players.
“I think he’s there,” Bourque said. “You show flashes as a young guy; the potential’s there. I think the consistency came a lot more last year in his game. That’s very encouraging to see.
“If he holds that consistency, he’s going to be one of the top players at that position for many years to come.”
McAvoy is just a couple months shy of his 24th birthday and entering his prime. He is the No. 1 defenseman on a team expecting a deep playoff run. He closes on attackers with speed and force. He skates the puck out of danger and sends sharp outlets all over the ice.
He enters this season with added responsibility as the quarterback of a loaded power-play unit. During his trial run in that spot last postseason, no NHL defenseman was more productive on a per-minute basis.
Everyone in McAvoy’s extended circle — from his Bruins coaches and teammates and management to his agent, his parents, and his old coaches, friends, and teammates — expects him to follow a stellar season with a sizable payday when his three-year, $14.7 million bridge contract expires next summer.
‘“I think the consistency came a lot more last year in his game. That’s very encouraging to see. If he holds that consistency, he’s going to be one of the top players at that position for many years to come.”’
In recent months, six NHL defensemen signed long-term deals worth $8.45 million-$9.583 million. McAvoy will land somewhere in that range. On Wednesday, Bruins president Cam Neely said that the sides are talking, and he hopes an extension will come “in short order.”
If the sides come to a deal, McAvoy could become the next great Bruins defenseman, extending the storied lineage that connects Eddie Shore, Bobby Orr, Bourque, and Zdeno Chara.
So how did he get here?
A Long Island kid
McAvoy’s journey began in Long Beach, N.Y., a strip of a town 3.2 miles long and a half-mile wide on the south coast of Long Island. It is a Rangers hamlet in Islanders country, but Spoked-B flags fly in two places: at the home of Charlie Sr. and Jennifer McAvoy, and at Charles A. McAvoy Plumbing & Heating, the business founded by the defenseman’s great-grandfather in 1926. Bruins stickers adorn the rear of the white van Charlie Sr. drives to and from job sites.
Charlie Jr., whose first gig was washing dishes and mopping floors at nearby Brand’s Delicatessen, dug water and sewer mains in the summers.
“I wouldn’t bring him in every day,” Charlie Sr. said. “He had too much hockey to play. But he’s a worker. Whatever was asked of him, he did it well.”
A few blocks from their home is Long Beach Municipal Ice Arena, where the Rangers used to practice. Charlie’s late grandfather, Bob, counted numerous Rangers among his clients, including Jean Ratelle, John Ferguson, Brad Park, Walt Tkaczuk, and Ron Greschner. Charlie Sr. played hockey and baseball with John Ferguson Jr., the former Bruins executive. The team regularly gifted them tickets to games at Madison Square Garden.
Charlie Sr. recalls the gentlemanly Ratelle, after returning to MSG with the Bruins in November of 1975, removing his glove, reaching over the low glass and shaking hands with his favorite plumbers, including a pre-teen Charlie Sr.
“I became a bit of a Bruins fan,” he said.
While still clinging proudly to his Blueshirt support, he saved up and went to a local sporting goods store and had them sew “McAvoy 10″ on a white Bruins jersey.
The Rangers had left Long Beach by the time Charlie Sr. took over the family business with brother Kevin and cousins K.C. and Robert, but the McAvoys remained fans. They were also contractors at the rink, with a key to the door.
Charlie Jr. had been whacking balls with a stick, his dad said, and “ripping up the sidewalk” in mini-rollerblades. When he turned 3, he and older sister Kayla, 4, took their first spin on ice skates with full equipment. Those first choppy shuffles would develop into some of the NHL’s most fluid strides.
At age 4, Charlie began a four-year stint with New York Apple Core, a mite team based at the Ice Arena. Charlie Sr. became an assistant coach. When Charlie was 8, he joined the Long Island Gulls at Iceworks in Syosset, where the Islanders once trained. They took summer trips to Marlborough, Mass., where Charlie played showcase games with the Junior Bruins at the New England Sports Center from ages 7 to 12.
He was also into football, baseball, lacrosse, and surfing, the latter a favorite father-son pastime. Charlie Sr., who still gets out a few times a week, said his son catches only a few waves a year, but can still hang.
“He’s legit,” confirmed childhood buddy Adam Fox, the Rangers defenseman and reigning Norris Trophy winner. “He was pretty good then. I’m sure he still is.”
Fox grew up in Jericho, about 25 miles north of Long Beach. The two became hockey pals around age 5, and were soon defense partners with the Gulls. Their coach was Mike Bracco, whose son Jeremy (a 2015 second-round pick of the Maple Leafs) was the team’s top forward.
“We hung out all the time,” Fox said. “We had a lot of fun in the hotels, playing mini-sticks. I don’t want to say we were reckless, but we played ding-dong ditch, all that stuff. We were a bit immature as little kids.
“We’d have sleepovers. We’d watch Ranger playoff games together. We’re still real tight. When we catch up, it’s the same as it was back then.”
When reached by phone last week, McAvoy’s parents were driving 100 miles to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut to watch 18-year-old daughter Heather, a freshman defender at Saint Anselm, take on the No. 8 team in the country.
Heather’s twin, Holly, attends SUNY Cortland, and older sister Kayla, 25, is pursuing a master’s at Queens College, so the family knows life on the road. During Charlie’s Gulls days, the McAvoys bought a Chevy Express conversion van, running the odometer from zero past 200,000 miles.
“It was Toronto one weekend, Chicago the next, Buffalo the next, Philadelphia the next,” Charlie Sr. said. “Everybody bought in. We were these crazy Long Island hockey parents that were all-in.”
‘He had swagger’
In 2012, McAvoy was 14 and had aged out of the Gulls, and was dealing with a broken wrist. He joined the New Jersey Rockets of the Junior B Metropolitan League. As with the Apple Core, he was the youngest player on the team, battling for ice time with 17- and 18-year-olds.
That’s not unfamiliar territory. Charlie Sr. is the youngest of seven.
“If I needed something, I had to fight for it,” said Charlie Sr.
Charlie Jr. says he’s “not very confrontational,” and has never seen his father snap. But even as a babyface, he played the game with snarl.
“He was good then for the reason he’s good now: He had swagger,” said Rockets coach Bob Thornton, whose alums include John Carlson, Kevin Labanc, and Zach Aston-Reese. “We told him, ‘Go out and get points. Make your stock go up.’ ”
Despite his age, McAvoy was named offensive defenseman of the year in the Metro League.
The adjustment wasn’t easy.
To get to practices in Newark, N.J., he would take the Long Island Rail Road an hour to Penn Station in Manhattan, then another 25-minute ride via the PATH train. The commute and the upgrade in competition made him weary. Sometimes he would doze off while doing his homework. He would feel a tap on the shoulder.
‘“He was good then for the reason he’s good now: He had swagger. We told him, ‘Go out and get points. Make your stock go up.’ ”’
Bob Thornton, McAvoy's junior coach
“I got so good at falling asleep on the train,” McAvoy said. “Oh man. More than a couple times the ticket-takers would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you wanna end up at … this train’s docking after this. We’re going to put it in the yard.’ I had my bag and my sticks and I was loading up everything and chugging.”
After practice, Thornton would drive him to his home in Manhasset. Charlie Sr. or Jennifer would drive 40 minutes to pick up their son.
At first, the young defenseman thought about quitting. But after a month of practices and weekend games, he was hooked.
Reacting to adversity
McAvoy had his first major disappointment the following March. As he was driving with his father to the OHL Cup, a major showcase in Toronto, to play with Thornton’s Elite Hockey Group, a message popped up on his phone. The 40-player tryout-camp roster for the United States national team development program was out. He was not invited.
“He was devastated,” Charlie Sr. said.
But a pep talk on the way energized Charlie Jr.’s spirit and skating legs.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Michael Curran of the Orr Hockey Group, who introduced himself to Charlie Sr. at the tournament and soon became their family adviser. “He just owned his age group. Owned it. He had the size, the skating, he could think fast. Everyone was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ ”
Don Granato, the coach of the national team’s juniors, was advised that his coaching staff made an error.
“Two good friends of mine separately called me to say, ‘I think you missed a kid who’s pretty darn good,’ ” said Granato, now coach of the Buffalo Sabres. “We added him in and the rest was history. He was exceptional from the moment the camp started.”
McAvoy said he arrived in Ann Arbor, Mich., to join the national team development program with no hard feelings.
“First shift of camp, Charlie lined this kid up at center ice and sent him into next week,” Charlie Sr. said. “Five rows deep of scouts were watching. Every scout from the NCAA to the OHL to the WHL was there. The whole building went ‘Ooooh!’ ”
Granato saw an instant leader. McAvoy was a central figure on a roster that included Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin, and Zach Werenski, players who will likely be among McAvoy’s teammates at the Beijing Olympics in February.
“People just wanted to be around him,” Granato said. “I’m not just talking teammates, I’m talking people, adults, kids. He has such a great personality, an incredible energy and zest for life.
“I saw no limits to his future. He was a fun kid to work with and be around. You see talented players all over the world, every rink you walk into. It’s the players who have those intangibles who are going to keep getting better and figure out how to improve.”
McAvoy credits his two years at the program, with top-level competition, strict curfews, and regular check-ins, for keeping his head on straight and creating lifelong friendships. With his mother’s help (Jennifer is an elementary school teacher), he took online classes to graduate from Pioneer High a year early.
McAvoy was apprehensive about joining Boston University in 2015-16. At 17, he would be the youngest player in NCAA hockey. The Terriers returned all six defensemen from a team that made the Frozen Four. He had the option to play major junior hockey in Canada, and he was also eligible for the NHL Draft.
“It’s not easy being a freshman in college and it’s your draft year,” said David Quinn, BU’s coach at the time. “You can easily get distracted when you’re a [projected] high pick. I thought he did a hell of a job staying focused.”
He quickly became a go-to player for Quinn, who said he was “stunned” to see three defensemen drafted ahead of McAvoy the following June: Olli Juolevi (Vancouver) at No. 5, Mikhail Sergachev (Montreal) at No. 9, and Jake Bean (Carolina) at No. 13. With pick No. 14, the Bruins stayed local.
When Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo were hurt the following spring, the Bruins burned a year off McAvoy’s entry-level deal by calling him up for the playoffs.
“I remember being so terrified,” McAvoy said of the decision to turn pro. “I didn’t know I could do it. Even leaving college was such a jump. I was just a mess.
“Once you sign, something’s torn away — so permanently. There were a lot of tears, a lot of sad goodbyes with friends. But when I got to [Providence, home of the Bruins’ AHL affiliate], it was like something clicked. I felt like I belonged. The confidence, the feeling of deserving to be there.
“Once I got up, the guys were super supportive. ‘You can do this. You can handle this.’ I rode that wave.”
He still is. His parents are floating somewhere above.
“My friends say, ‘You got any room on that cloud?’ ” Charlie Sr. said. “ ‘I want to come hang out with you.’ ”