TORONTO — Team NCAA, also known as the 2017-18 Bruins, took on the Maple Leafs Friday night, with no fewer than 11 of the 18 Black-and-Gold skaters having selected the US college game as their preferred route to the NHL.
What was once the anomaly (top of the mornin’, Bobby Miller), has become de rigueur for the Bruins: College kids increasingly frame the personnel picture.
“In general, there are more American kids playing the game,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, asked about the growing influence of college players across the NHL. “I think that has a lot do with it. They’re naturally going to gravitate toward college, as opposed to the junior route — and I think Canadian kids now are going the college route more and more because of the level of play.”
A quick review of the college kids who are expected to suit up Friday for the bookish B’s includes forwards Anders Bjork (USA): Notre Dame; Tim Schaller (USA): Providence; SeanKuraly (USA): Miami of Ohio; Danton Heinen (CAN): University of Denver; Riley Nash (CAN): Cornell; Noel Acciari (USA): Providence; and defensemen Charlie McAvoy (USA): Boston University; Torey Krug (USA): Michigan State; and Kevan Miller (USA): Vermont.
On Thursday, the Bruins returned center/wing Austin Czarnik (USA, Miami of Ohio) to Providence. And David Backes (USA, Minnesota-Mankato) remains on the mend after recent colon surgery.
Of the other skaters to suit up for the Bruins Friday, only Patrice Bergeron, Matt Beleskey, Jake DeBrusk, Jordan Szwarz, Paul Postma, and Brad Marchand opted for Canadian major junior hockey.
Bobby Miller, among the first wave of US college kids to make their way to the league, played two seasons at the University of New Hampshire and turned pro in the spring of 1977. Later that year, the speedy winger joined the pre-Ray Bourque Bruins, and remained with the club until he was dealt to Colorado for Mike Gillis (who later was general manager in Vancouver, including in 2011 when the Bruins beat the Canucks for the Cup).
At the time, Miller was not only among the few US college kids in the game, but also among the few Americans. The league remained ostensibly a Canadian boys club, stocked largely by the three major junior leagues across the provinces — Ontario, Quebec, and the Western Hockey League).
Let it be duly noted that Miller was not the first Bruin to come to Causeway via college. Legendary netminder Frank Brimsek, proud son of Eveleth, Minn., played 11 games at St. Cloud State, turned pro in 1934, and then made the Boston roster in 1938-39.
In the summer of ’82, the NHL’s stock still primarily Canadian, Cassidy had a choice to make: Remain home in Ottawa and play major junior hockey with the local team, the 67s, or head off to college. He had a number of US schools interested, including Colgate.
“I was a good student,” recalled Cassidy. “I was ready to go. I’d turned 17 and went to visit Colgate. It crossed my mind, but then I got drafted by my hometown team, fairly high, and went that route. It worked out. We won a Memorial Cup.
“But I have regrets sometimes that I didn’t get my education. You can still do it in the summers, peck away at [studying], but it’s not quite the same.”
Faced with the same options today, Cassidy might choose differently.
“I would probably go to college,” he said. “That’s a generality. Playing junior, I think you are better prepared [to make the NHL] in terms of the length of the [playing] schedule. But I don’t know . . . it’s been a long time for me . . . I don’t know what the right or wrong route is. But now, yes, I’d probably go that route.”
Part of Cassidy’s thinking is based on his injury history. Immediately following his draft day in June ’83, when he was selected in the first round by the Blackhawks, he blew out a knee while playing ball hockey back home in Ottawa. Considered a prime prospect as a puck-moving defenseman, his career was all but derailed. The knee never right again, he played in only 36 NHL games prior to starting his coaching career at age 31 in 1996.
“Everyone at that age thinks they’re going to be an NHLer, no matter what,” said Cassidy, reflecting on his late teens. “Looking back, it would be nice to have that education to fall back on.”
Marchand, out the last two games, was back in the lineup, paired with usual running mates Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
Cassidy hinted on Thursday that Marchand was dealing with a concussion, noting the veteran left winger was in “protocol” — standard language nowadays for players who’ve been concussed.
Following the customary morning day-of-game skate at Air Canada Centre, Marchand would not specify the nature of his injury, even when asked specifically about returning from a concussion.
“Marshy’s one of our best players and one of the best players in the NHL,” said Cassidy. “Always great to have him back.”
“He’s given us a chance to win every night,” said Cassidy. “The San Jose game was his best — he was the difference in the game. He’s been rock solid. At the end of the day, he’s always been there at the end. He’s been good for us.”
Noel Acciari, out since requiring surgery to repair a finger he broke on opening night Oct. 5, returned to action — a move likely to bump Frank Vatrano back to the press box.
“Good to be back with the guys, a long time coming,” said Acciari, the former Providence College standout.
Acciari broke the finger in an attempt to block a Nashville shot.
“I tried to grip my stick after [getting hit] and I knew something was wrong,” explained Acciari. “I didn’t know whether it was a finger, a wrist, a knuckle . . . or whatever it was—but something didn’t feel right, that’s for sure. A shooting pain right up my arm, that’s what I didn’t know what it was at first.”
Acciari, in a short time, has built a reputation for being one of the fiercest hitters in the game.
“He’s a little bit underappreciated,” said Cassidy. “Not from our standpoint, but maybe around the NHL. He’s a hard-nosed guy that can set the tempo for us physically. We missed him and [David] Backes. So his presence is welcomed back in the lineup.”
To that end, Pastrnak has witnessed opposing players try to get at Marchand by insulting the Li’l Ball o’Hate about his, shall we say, prominent nose.
“All players think they are going to get him on his nose,” said Pastrnak. “But it’ll never work. He doesn’t care about it. He’ll always have an answer for it — so, pretty tough.”
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