Here and now, Noah Hanifin is thinking only about the here and now, which is Saturday afternoon’s NCAA East Regional date with Denver in Providence, the first step in Boston College’s quest to reach the Frozen Four for the eighth time in a dozen years.
“It’s a very rare opportunity we have as a team,” said the Norwood freshman, who has been playing like a post-grad ever since he arrived at the Heights. “It’s only two games and we can come back and play in the Garden. But right now we’re going to focus all of our efforts on Denver.”
Everyone outside of his locker room has been talking about Hanifin and his future — which NHL club will be taking him in the June draft and whether he’ll be one-and-done as an Eagle.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens,” said Hanifin, who is universally expected to be selected third overall after Canada’s Connor McDavid and North Chelmsford’s Jack Eichel. “This is my dream, to play professional hockey, and now that it’s starting to become a reality, it’s pretty cool. You don’t want to get too stressed out about it. You want to enjoy it.”
At the other end of Commonwealth Avenue his cosmic twin has been going through the same thing. Eichel is Hanifin’s college archrival, national teammate, and good pal. “Jack’s a really humble kid and we don’t like to talk about that stuff too much but we definitely have talked about the process,” said Hanifin. “We both went through the national program. We both accelerated to go to college. We’re both from Massachusetts. So we had similar setups. It’s nice to have a buddy who’s a really good player to reach out to and talk to about it. Knowing I’m not the only kid going through it . . . ”
Hanifin and Eichel have gone through the past year and more in fast-forward, trying to deal with the present without being pulled into the future. “It’s been ridiculous,” mused Hanifin, who didn’t turn 18 until late January. “I feel like it started yesterday, getting into the locker room and meeting the guys. It’s crazy how fast things go, especially in college.”
Had he stayed in the leisurely lane Hanifin would be just finishing up at St. Sebastian’s, the Needham prep school where he made the varsity as an eighth-grader. Leaving there after his sophomore year to join the National Team Development Program in Michigan was wrenching. “It was a really hard process because I’m very close to the school,” Hanifin said. “So it took me a long time to really think about it.”
Had he stayed at St. Seb’s, Hanifin likely would have ended up at the Heights anyway. “We’ve had terrific players stay and go to Nobles or St. Seb’s and step right in here,” said BC coach Jerry York. “For some [the NTDP] is a good fit. For others it’s not the correct railroad to take. Certainly in Noah’s case it benefited him. I’m not sure if he’d stayed here he’d be the same player, but that’s part of the book we can’t read.”
A year in the Midwest with his precocious peers undoubtedly elevated Hanifin’s game and his performance with last year’s US gold-medal team at the world under-18 championships got him on the NHL’s radar. He could have stayed with the national development team for another year but Hanifin concluded that it was time to head for the Heights, where his grandfather had gotten his diploma in 1957 and where Hanifin had watched BC’s varsity religiously as a kid.
“They push you a lot in Michigan and that obviously helped me to come here and adjust so easily,” he said. “If I’d stayed out there I would have definitely been able to develop, but there are things here that I couldn’t have gotten out there.”
So when he came home last spring Hanifin enrolled in an intensive online program that covered his senior-year studies and enabled him to enroll at BC in the fall. “There were times last summer when my buddies would go and hang out but my parents said, ‘hey, if you want to go to BC . . .,’ ” he said. “It definitely took a lot of discipline to get through it and it was definitely a grind but it was worth it to be here this year.”
As the second-youngest player (after Adam Pineault) in program history, Hanifin received an accelerated on-ice education as well. “He was 17 when he came so there was a maturity adjustment period for him, especially when some of the players in the league are 24 and 25 when they’re seniors,” observes York. “Now you’re talking about six years’ difference. But Noah’s very observant, very intelligent as a player. He could see the progression he’s had to make and he’s done it.”
Hanifin had a full offensive skill set — size (6-3, 205), top-level speed, stickhandling, and an imposing shot. What he needed was a matching defensive repertoire. “He’s always had terrific offensive flair because he had the puck all the time,” said York. “Defensively he’s had to play against bigger, stronger, smarter guys than he’s been used to.”
By now there’s no doubt that Hanifin has the complete package required in the NHL. “Everybody looks at Noah and says he’s a gifted offensive player and he is,” Dan Marr, the league’s Central Scouting director, told NHL. com. “But what makes him so special is that you have to play defense first and the offense will come. He truly grasps the game from defense to offense.”
If Hanifin does go third overall, he’ll be BC’s highest-ever selection and the first American defenseman taken in the top three since Atlanta picked Zach Bogosian third in 2008. That, though, is a summer decision and the snow still is melting in Chestnut Hill.
“Let time tell and see what happens with the draft,” said Hanifin, who has made a point of avoiding the hockey Twitterverse. “My plan is to come back next year. That’s my goal right now, but we’ll see. You’ve got to take your time. You’ll know when it’s ready. Discuss it with your family and your school and see what the right decision is.”
Here and now are Hanifin’s priorities. “He’s just a young man who’s living right in the moment,” said York. “That’s the best of both worlds, when you have a very talented player with a very bright future but is excited to be where he is.”
Where he is today is Providence. Where Hanifin wants to be is in the Garden, where Ray Bourque once wore the same numeral 7. “It’s living up to a lot,” Hanifin acknowledged. “But I like that number.”