March 28, 2012

From NEHJ: Saponari gets second chance at Northeastern

By Andrew Merritt

It’s a little after 6 p.m. Feb. 13 — the second Monday in February, the final night of the Beanpot — when Vinny Saponari spins a couple of lazy circles across the large Bruins logo at the center of the TD Garden ice. 

Vinny Saponari was a freshman on BU’s national title team in 2009 but was dismissed a year later for an ‘unfortunate’ incident. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

There are 13½ minutes left in the Beanpot consolation game — a singularly strange event on the New England sports calendar. It’s a game with little true meaning, played in the biggest arena in the region, in front of a friends-and-family crowd. Northeastern is trailing Harvard, 2-1, in a game the Huskies will go on to lose, 3-2.

As Saponari carves slow 360s over the spoked-B while waiting for a neutral-zone faceoff, Adam Clendening tapes his stick behind the Harvard bench, the Boston University sophomore defenseman getting ready for the Beanpot final between BU and Boston College.

That game, yes, that game will matter. It will be broadcast on NESN. And it will pit Boston’s greatest rivals against each other in an atmosphere bearing some resemblance to tribal warfare.

There was a time when Saponari and Clendening could have been teammates. Saponari was a freshman on the juggernaut 2008-09 BU team that swept the Beanpot, Hockey East and NCAA titles. He would be a senior this year, likely finishing out a solid career after scoring 47 points in his first two years.

On March 19, 2010, the Terriers’ championship-defending season ended with no titles and a 5-2 loss to Maine in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Two days earlier, there was an incident involving alcohol and Saponari, which has never been publicly elaborated upon by the player or the school. Two months later, Saponari and his brother Victor, a junior, were dismissed.

“It was just some things that happened, it was unfortunate,” said Saponari, who declined to elaborate on what led to his dismissal, though a May 4, 2010, report by the BU Daily Free Press quoted him as saying he was late to a team bike ride. “I was immature. Things shouldn’t have ended the way they did; it was unfortunate that they ended that way.”

Vinny Saponari’s future, on which the Atlanta Thrashers had staked their fourth-round pick (94th overall) in 2008, was in doubt. He had scored a goal in the Frozen Four semifinal against Vermont and raised the Beanpot, Hockey East and NCAA championship trophies, but now he didn’t have a roster spot or a scholarship.

Two weeks later, the United States Hockey League held its annual draft. Jim Montgomery, who’d won a national title with Maine in 1993 before going on to play 12 years in the NHL and AHL, had just been named the head coach of the expansion Dubuque Fighting Saints.

“If we would be able to convince him that coming to Dubuque and playing in the USHL would be the best path for him academically and athletically, we’d get a great player,” Montgomery said. “So we took a chance on him, and we went to work on recruiting him.”

It would be an undisputable step backward for Saponari to go from Division 1 college hockey to a junior team, even one in the United States’ top league, but he didn’t have a lot of options left.

“I just felt where my game was at, and at the time it was the best option for me to give myself as many years possible before I tried to turn pro,” said Saponari, who at 20 years old in 2010 still had a year of junior eligibility.

There are no rules against a USHL team drafting a college player, but doing so risks a pick on a young man who could easily decide he doesn’t want to play in some far-flung junior outpost. Once a team does draft a player who’s willing — or in Saponari’s case, forced — to leave his college team, there is a question of whether that player’s reasons for leaving college will lead to reasons for leaving his junior team.

Montgomery said he had no such concerns.

“There weren’t many issues, and the people I trust said, ‘This is a player that is going to buy in. If you come and you challenge him, he’s a good teammate and a good kid,’” Montgomery said. “I know when I was 19, I made a lot of poor choices at times, and everyone deserves a second chance.”

In the first year of the Saints’ existence, the first year of Montgomery’s tenure, and the first year of life after BU for Saponari, the new kids on the USHL block went 37-14-9, and won the USHL championship. Saponari was a leader on the ice — named a second-team USHL All-Star with 18 goals and 64 points — and off it. 

Vinny Saponari landed at Northeastern after a detour to Dubuque, Iowa, where he won a USHL championship. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“One of the exercises we did, because we were an expansion team, for everyone to get to know each other, was (to ask the players), ‘What’s your highest high and what’s your lowest low of your life?’” Montgomery said. “He was the first player to go — it was voluntary — and he said, ‘My highest high was winning a national championship at Boston University, and my lowest low was my own actions caused me to lose my opportunity to play at BU and graduate from BU with my best friends in my life.’

“That’s a big thing, when you have someone that’s a 20-year-old say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t take much to screw up in life when you’re under the microscope.’”

With two years of college eligibility left, Saponari looked eastward, back to Boston — more accurately to Chestnut Hill and BU’s biggest rival.

“I just think I was fortunate enough to have lived in Boston for two years already, and played against BC countless times,” said Saponari, who applied during the 2010 season for the 2011-12 year. “I got to know a lot of guys on the BC team, and they had a lot of good things to say about the program.”

In December 2010, Saponari hit one more roadblock, when he was denied entry to BC by the board of admissions, as reported by Mike McMahon of the Eagle-Tribune.

It’s here that Saponari, otherwise candid and honest during a February telephone interview, becomes guarded.

“It wasn’t really academic, but whatever,” he said. “There’ll be a time when I will be able to (talk about that), but I don’t think it’s yet.”

The reasons notwithstanding, the verdict was final: Saponari was not going to BC.

Former Maine assistant Grant Standbrook, who had joined Montgomery’s staff for the Saints’ inaugural season, started talking to Saponari about his options. He mentioned Northeastern and coach Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.), who had two stints as an assistant with Standbrook at Maine.

“Obviously, just like BC, because I’d lived in Boston for two years and liked it so much, I’d gotten to see Northeastern and see the campus a lot, play in the building a lot,” Saponari said. “I took a visit out and met with Cronin, got to meet with some of the guys on the team. … I just thought that would be a good fit for me, because I would be able to come in and have a big impact on the team.”

Saponari enrolled at Northeastern for the fall of 2011. Cronin recruited him, but Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) would coach him, after Cronin took an assistant job with the Toronto Maple Leafs in June 2011. Madigan had seen Saponari play while scouting New England for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and combining that with the stellar reviews from Montgomery allayed any fears.

“Whatever troubles he had at BU were behind him, he was a model citizen at Dubuque, he worked hard, and obviously had a good year there,” Madigan said.

Saponari’s impact on his new team was immediate. He had a pair of assists in his first game as a Husky, a 3-3 tie with UMass on Oct. 7, and two nights later scored a shorthanded goal in a loss to Maine.

Perhaps more importantly, he immediately was accepted by his teammates and coach despite the winding path that brought him back to Boston.

“He became a part of the team right away,” said junior Garrett Vermeersch, a frequent linemate this year. “Nobody had any concern about him coming to the team. Things happen, there’s obviously two sides to every story. Nobody faults him in any way.”

Though he hangs out with some of his former teammates, and said that his interactions with people he knows from BU have been “pretty positive,” Saponari admitted there are still some hard feelings.

“It is what it is; I was in the wrong at times, and that was my fault,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from it for sure, but it’s definitely not something you ever want to go through. There’s definitely some negative feelings there.”

BU and Northeastern are separated by about two miles. It’s a five-minute drive, Boston’s notorious traffic notwithstanding.

For Vinny Saponari, that journey has taken more than a year, with some hard lessons learned.

“Now, I don’t take anything for granted,” he said, “because it could be taken away from you so fast.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com