Skating Down Different Paths

It was April 11, 2009, shortly after 10 p.m., and hockey gloves, sticks and helmets were flying through the air at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. Members of the Boston University men’s ice hockey team jumped off the bench and tackled each other against the boards in celebration of their overtime, come-from-behind victory against the Miami RedHawks in the National Championship game.

The six BU seniors achieved every college athlete’s ultimate dream of winning a national championship, but the solid bond that carried them through their collegiate careers was about to be broken. Five out of the six BU seniors went on to sign professional contracts, but each skated down a different path, their post college life starting quicker than they expected.

“The day after we won the national championship, I had several voicemails from NHL general managers and from my agent, wanting to talk about the next step in my career,” said Chris Higgins, the senior class’ leading scorer.

The 5-foot-11 forward flew out to Columbus to meet the Blue Jackets’ staff and decided in June to sign. Higgins participated in an NHL camp that summer and was assigned to Columbus’ American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse that fall.

Co-captain John McCarthy signed a two year, two-way NHL/AHL contract with the San Jose Sharks (who drafted him in 2006). The forward immediately reported to the AHL team in Worcester, Mass. for the playoffs.

BU’s leading goal scorer that last season, Jason Lawrence, signed a pro contract with the AHL’s Providence Bruins and joined them for their short playoff run, but he didn’t play. Late that summer, former Hockey East Rookie of the Year, Brandon Yip, signed a one year deal with the team that picked him up in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the Colorado Avalanche.

Matt Gilroy, the Hobey Baker Award winner for the best hockey player in the NCAA, and Steve Smolinsky, were the fifth and sixth seniors that dotted the roster. As a standout defenseman, Gilroy signed an entry-level contract with the New York Rangers and Smolinsky (who only played in 14 out of 45 games) decided to end his hockey career and work on the South Shore.

It seemed as if everyone had a plan, but in reality, nothing about their careers was as rock solid as the collegiate ice on which they skated. “After college you find out that hockey is a business,” Lawrence said.

The locker room camaraderie was about to change for the seniors as well. “In college, everyone is pulling for each other and striving for one goal, which is to win a championship,” Higgins said. “In the minor leagues, guys are friendly and nice, but you’re all competing against each other for that opportunity to get called up to the NHL.”

Yip (who renewed with a two-year contract in 2010) and Gilroy (still with the Rangers) are now regulars in the NHL after only a brief stint in the minor leagues their first pro year. Regarding his transition to the NHL, Yip said, “Strangely it seemed easier at times because you’re playing with the best players in the world. Sometimes your line mates make it easier to play out there.”

The other Terriers have been bounced around from team to team and between leagues. This season, McCarthy has joined his two former roommates, Yip and Gilroy, in the NHL for over 36 games, a significant jump after only four games in the league last year.

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I came into training camp this year,” McCarthy said. “I knew that there were openings on the team, and the one thing I told myself was that I wasn’t going to get cut because somebody else worked harder than me, and it turned out things worked out.”

According to McCarthy, the biggest difference between pro and college hockey, besides the number of games, is that college is “more hectic” with bodies moving faster. The puck travels quicker in pro hockey. The difference between the AHL and NHL involves the mistakes players make.

“If you make a mistake like a turnover or you’re out of position, in the AHL you can get away with it,” McCarthy said. “If you make the same mistake in the NHL, the players are so much more talented that the puck usually ends up in the back of your net.”

There’s little stability in the life of an athlete who’s just entering the pro ranks. Whether he’s being called up to San Jose, sent down to Worcester, or is regularly traveling with either team, McCarthy said the biggest adjustment has been traveling.

“I lived in a hotel until about Christmas,” the Andover, Mass. native said. “Flying back and forth to Worcester numerous times has been tough. The weight of a cross-country flight on the day you have to play is hard, but my family can come to my games when I’m there, and I can head home for dinner.”

Yip’s schedule with the Avalanche consists of over 80 games. He admits it is tough to always play consistently and at a high level. The former BU teammates face off against each other sometimes, and they’ll go out to dinner the night before a game. Surprisingly, the Vancouver, British Columbia native said that one of his major adjustments has been how to handle his free time.

“Most days we just practice for an hour or so, and then we have the rest of the day to do whatever,” Yip said. “So it’s key to find some things to do other than watch TV or play video games. Some guys get really bored or lonely. Luckily, we have a close, young team so a bunch of us always hang out. Kind of reminds me of college,” he added with a chuckle, “minus the school work.”

Former roommates and line mates Lawrence and Higgins grew up in Massachusetts, however, they’ve been everywhere but home the past two years. Lawrence participated in the Boston Bruins’ rookie camp the summer following graduation, but did not sign a contract after playing in a preseason game with the minor league team that fall. He was released to the Charlotte Checkers of the East Coast Hockey League, and after only six weeks he was traded to the Gwinett Gladiators in Georgia.

“To say the least, that season was extremely tough being shipped around to so many different places after such a successful college career,” Lawrence said. “Last year was a bit of a disappointment because you think after leaving college you will get a contract and live the good life, but as you find out hockey is a big world with lots of players.”

Lawrence decided to see what Europe had to offer. He waited through the summer of 2010 and finally caught on this season with a club in the Dutch Elite league.

Higgins broke a bone in his hand just four games into his debut season with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. The injury required surgery, and by the time he came back in January 2010, Syracuse had too many forwards. He was sent down to the ECHL, joining his best friend Lawrence in Georgia with the Gladiators.

At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, he decided to play in the Italian First League in hopes of getting his game back to the pre-injury level.

“I was in a really small town on top of a mountain in Northern Italy where no one spoke English,” Higgins said.  “It was pretty miserable for a 24-year-old single guy from Boston.”

After playing 21 games in Italy, Higgins decided to come back to the U.S. to play, and he’s with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers, a Phoenix Coyote affiliate.

“This is not where I expected myself to be,” Higgins admitted. “Life is full of challenges and up hill battles. All I can do is try to do my best to overcome these challenges and hopefully one day make it to where I want to be, playing in the NHL.”

Regardless of where they are now, these former Terriers do not regret the sacrifices they’ve made over the years to pursue hockey careers.

“I look back at BU, remembering it to be the best time of my life,” said Yip. “Hockey was my dream, and I knew if I kept with it, it would take me to where I wanted to be in life. The best part is being paid a lot of money to do something you love.”

Yip, McCarthy, Higgins and Lawrence are determined to stay in the hockey world as long as they can. Higgins, however, has a back up plan: “I definitely see myself having a regular job one day,” he said.

“You can’t play hockey forever. I don’t see myself using my history degree, unless Jason Lawrence, [former BU teammate] Brian Strait and myself end up opening up our own history museum.” He laughed and added, “We’ll be sure to hire our good friends Yip and Smolinsky as the head security guards with their criminal justice degrees.”

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