June 23, 2014

Poti calls it a career

By Roman J. Uschak

Worcester, Mass., native and ex-BU star Tom Poti amassed 69 goals and 258 assists for 327 points in 824 NHL games. (Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Longtime NHL defenseman and former Boston University blueliner Tom Poti officially announced his retirement in May following a 14-year professional career that saw him skate with the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Washington Capitals.

“It was a couple of things,” Poti said recently from Cape Cod, where he now resides. “My body was pretty beat up. I had fractured my pelvis, and I never recovered 100 percent and couldn’t skate the way I wanted to.

“And I‘m not getting any younger,” he laughed.

Poti, 37, racked up 69 goals and 258 assists for 327 points in 824 career NHL regular-season contests between 1998 and 2013, while also collecting 586 penalty minutes and finishing with a plus-44 plus/minus ranking. He also tallied two goals and 17 assists for 19 points in 51 Stanley Cup playoff games, helping all four of his franchises to the postseason.

A Worcester, Mass., native, Poti started out academically at St. Peter-Marian High School before transferring to Cushing Academy for three years. He also played with the Central Mass Outlaws and was drafted in the third round (59th overall) by Edmonton in 1996 just prior to enrolling at BU.

“Tom Poti was one of the most passionate and hardest-working players we have had at Cushing Academy,” said Cushing coach Bill Troy. “Tommy always loved the games, practices and competing. He was always the first player on the ice and always the last person off. He simply loved the game.”

Although he considered Boston College and other New England schools, Poti believed that BU was the best place for him, mostly because of the man behind the bench at Walter Brown Arena.

“Jack Parker was probably the biggest decision-maker,” he recalled. “After meeting with him, there was nowhere else to go. Being a Worcester/Boston kid, you want to play in the Beanpot, and having Jack Parker made the decision easy.”

Asked when he knew he probably wouldn’t have Poti for four seasons, Parker chuckled that it was on the day he recruited him to BU.

“I kind of knew he’d be one and done, or two and done,” said Parker (Somerville, Mass.). “In the back of my mind, I hoped he’d stick around for three years, but I knew he would move on quickly.”

As a freshman, Poti helped the Terriers all the way to the 1997 NCAA Frozen Four in Milwaukee, after a 4-3 overtime win over Denver in the East Regional final in his hometown of Worcester. BU then ousted defending national champion Michigan in the semifinals, with Poti assisting on two goals in a 3-2 win, before falling to North Dakota by a 6-4 count in the title tilt.

“It was a pretty cool as a freshman to get all the way to the big dance,” said Poti, who was named to both the Hockey East All-Rookie Team and the NCAA All-Tournament Team that season. “We lost a tough game to North Dakota. It would have been nice to win the whole thing, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

As a sophomore, Poti put up 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points, doubling his output as a rookie. He also won a second straight Beanpot title with BU, with the Terriers winning both games in overtime, and became the first defenseman in almost two decades to earn the prestigious tournament’s MVP trophy. He’s still the last defenseman to do so, but he explained it wasn’t all about him.

“It was a special thing, but our seniors that year were the first class to win four Beanpots in a row,” said Poti. “We talked about getting it done for them, and it worked out well.”

He also earned first-team All-Hockey East and All-America accolades that season and played his final collegiate game in an NCAA regional final loss to New Hampshire in Albany, N.Y., one game short of the Frozen Four at the FleetCenter in Boston.

“He was a terrific player in our league,” said Parker, who felt that success in Hockey East could translate into Poti becoming a solid pro. “He was terrific on the ice. He could get the puck out, make great passes and defend and defend well. He was the complete package; he just needed to fill out a little bit.”

Poti, who eventually clocked in at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, turned pro with Edmonton in 1998-99, notching five goals and 21 points in 73 games. He also collected NHL All-Rookie Team honors while helping the Oilers to the first of three consecutive Stanley Cup playoff berths during his tenure in Alberta.

“My biggest memories are scoring my first goal (against Detroit), which I’ll remember forever, and playing in my first game,” said Poti. “All the hard work and dedication paid off, and those were probably the two most special moments.”

The Oilers’ postseason stay each of his three years was short-lived, however, lasting just one round apiece. He was dealt to the Rangers late in 2001. Poti was a member of the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team that earned a silver medal in Salt Lake City under the tutelage of none other than Herb Brooks. It was the Americans’ first silver medal in 30 years, and the first U.S. Olympic men’s hockey medal of any kind since the gold-medal miracle at Lake Placid in 1980.

“That was awesome, probably one of my best experiences ever,” recalled Poti of skating with a number of future Hall-of-Famers, and especially for the iconic Brooks. “To play for a legendary coach like him is something I’ll tell my children and grandchildren about some day.”

He’ll probably also tell them how he handled his omnipresent food allergies during his decade-and-a-half in the NHL.

“It’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life,” said Poti, who still carries an epinephrine auto-injector with him as a precaution. “It never improved.”

He said he’s always had to be conscious of what he ate, and what ingredients his meals contained. That particular ritual wasn’t made any easier by all of the travel that NHL play entails, especially in his days with Edmonton, where one trip could encompass hours at a time in airports.

It didn’t stop him, however.

“It wasn’t too much of a hindrance,” said Poti, who would pack up and bring along his own food when he was with the Oilers. His menu options expanded when he played with the Rangers, at least where air travel was concerned.

“They had their own plane,” he recalled. “It was pretty sweet having someone ask me what I wanted (to eat), and it made my life easier.”

Not that Poti ever sought out special treatment, as his prep coach would attest to.

“Tom was the consummate team player,” said Troy. “He has had a lot of individual success, but he was always happy for his teammates. He would always put his teammates first. As I coach, I learned a lot from being around a player and person like Tom Poti. He was a kid with a great skill set and a great talent, but he cared more about the team and was very, very humble.”

“He was pretty fine-tuned when he got to us,” added Parker. “He had great vision and puck skills.”

A Bay State boy who nonetheless grew up a New York Yankees fan, Poti played three full seasons in Manhattan. He totaled a career-high 48 points in 2002-03, when he was also named to the NHL All-Star Game, before he later signed with the rival Islanders as a free agent in 2006.

It was in his one year on Long Island that he collected six goals and a career-high 38 assists in 78 outings. The Islanders made the playoffs but fell to Buffalo in five games, and Poti exited as a free agent to Washington, where he would spend the last five years of his NHL career.

Poti skated in two rehabilitation games with the Hershey Bears, the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate, in 2012-13, and scored one goal in the only two minor league games he ever played. One of them was at the DCU Center in Worcester.

“It was pretty funny,” he said of playing in his hometown.

He also played at home during the 1996 World Junior Championships, one of the few high school players on an American squad that was mentored by a certain Jack Parker. The U.S. finished fifth that year, defeating Finland in overtime in Marlboro, Mass.

Poti, who sat out all of 2011-12 injured, played in his final 16 NHL contests in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 regular season, registering two assists. After sitting out this past campaign with lingering back and groin injuries, he hung up his competitive skates on May 1, at least professionally.

He’s played in a handful of charity games since his last NHL appearance, in support of the Wounded Warrior Project and also the Travis Roy Foundation, the latter for the paralyzed BU player whose career preceded Poti’s own on Commonwealth Avenue.

“I’m just trying to lend a helping hand,” Poti said of his charitable efforts.

He also participated in a few warmup contests against the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team that ultimately earned silver in Sochi, Russia, in February. Mostly, though, he’s just a hockey dad these days, ferrying his 4-year old son back and forth to the rink.

“I take him there one or two times a week,” said Poti, who also has an infant daughter with his wife, Jessica. “He loves it so much.”

His son has started a learn-to-skate curriculum and will enroll in a learn-to-play program next winter. Poti said that he might inquire about coaching while helping out in any other way he can, and perhaps with more than one team one day.

“Someday I’d like to own a youth hockey franchise and help out kids with my experience, to give them a safe place to learn, enjoy and love the game,” he said. “It would be a pretty cool way to give back to the community and the local kids.”

“Tom’s time in Washington proved what a terrific two-way player he was, and he was a great leader for some of our younger defensemen,” said Nate Ewell, deputy executive director for College Hockey Inc. and the former vice-president of communications for the Capitals. “He helped the organization turn the corner and become an elite team. He had some unfortunate injuries or else I’m sure he’d still be playing at that high level.”

His prep school coach concurred.

“He was a star at BU, played in the world juniors, was a USA Olympian, played 14 years at the highest level, and was an assistant captain in the NHL and an NHL All-Star,” added Troy. “Still, with all that success, he is a better person than a player.”

Though Poti has called it a career in hockey, at least as an active player, he’s started a second one in golf at Golf 365 Cape Cod with his former personal trainer, Jeff Handler. The business, which features a pair of indoor virtual golf simulators, opened its doors in February.

“You can work on your game and play the best courses in the world right here in Hyannis,” said Poti, an avid golfer himself. “The opportunity presented itself, and I’m excited to be a part of it with a great partner.”

He played quite a bit of golf during the winter on the simulators, and said that the experience has translated into his own game outdoors.

Although he’s moved on professionally from the rinks to the links, Poti already has helped pave the way for other New Englanders to make the jump from prep school to college stardom to sustained NHL success.

“I had a chance to catch up with Tom after a Caps practice at BU during his final season in Washington,” said Ewell. “It was easy to see how much it meant to him to be on campus. He’s a great role model for New England kids who aspire to play college hockey and perhaps one day make an impact in the NHL.”

From Worcester to Boston to Washington, Tom Poti surely did all of that. Just ask his college coach, who won nearly 900 games all-time at the Terriers helm, including more than 50 of them with Poti on the blue line.

“He’s certainly up among the top players here,” said Parker. “He had such a great impact and was such a skilled defenseman. There’s not too many like him in the history of our program.”

This article originally appeared in the June edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

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