November 20, 2011

From NEHJ: Ferriero a Garden-variety hero

By Jesse Connolly

When Sharks coach Todd McLellan expressed frustration with his struggling squad and needed someone who could step in and steal a job, the decision was an easy one. San Jose got on the horn with their AHL affiliate in Worcester, and just like that, Benn Ferriero was hopping on his umpteenth cross-country flight to California. 

The Essex, Mass., native spent his first two pro seasons yo-yoing back and forth between the NHL and the American Hockey League, shuttling back and forth and back again. After a strong camp this fall, a full-time spot with the big club seemed to be within reach, but the 24-year-old winger was among the last players to be cut.

Rather than sulk after being assigned to Worcester, the Sharks forward got off to a strong start with two goals and an assist in two AHL games, keeping himself penciled in at the top of the call-up list.

“I wanted to stick from the start,” Ferriero said, “but I’ve done it the past two years. It’s really nothing new to me. I’m used to traveling and meeting the team in different places, and just playing.”

Whether or not a looming trip to Boston factored into McLellan’s decision at the time of the recall remains unknown, but anyone who has followed Ferriero throughout his playing days expected nothing but good things to happen when the 5-foot-11 forward took to the ice Oct. 22 at TD Garden.

“I played here about four times a year in college when I went to BC,” said Ferriero, who racked up 139 points in 165 games over four years at Boston College. “I played here twice a year for the Beanpot, and I think twice a year, except for one year, in the Hockey East finals. I guess I’m kind of familiar with the building, but there’s a big difference between playing BU and playing the Bruins.

“It’s a whole different pace, whole different atmosphere, whole different environment. The Hockey East finals and Beanpot are pretty intense, but when you make the next level, it’s all ratcheted up a notch.”

And while the game itself is understandably taken to another level in the NHL, for Ferriero, the results at the Garden weren’t much different than the winger’s days at The Heights. The two-time Hockey East champ and 2008 Beanpot winner was victorious yet again on the Garden ice, as the Sharks earned a 4-2 win.

And as luck would have it, the game-winning goal came off of — you guessed it — Ferriero’s stick in the final period in what must have been a pretty surreal night.

“I had to get quite a few tickets,” Ferriero said after playing in his second pro game in Boston. “My family is in town, so it’s nice. I’m sure they’re pretty excited for me.”

Back when he was just 10 years old, the Bay State native’s beloved Bruins drafted Joe Thornton out of the OHL, a player Ferriero literally grew up rooting for alongside his father at games. Looking down the bench and seeing Thornton, now the Sharks’ captain, honored by the Garden faithful for reaching the 1,000-game milestone, was surely a trip.

“When I was younger, my dad would bring me into some games. I grew up watching Joe Thornton and now I get to play with him,” Ferriero said. “It’s pretty cool to come in here and be lucky enough to score the game-winner. I was really excited about getting to come back and play in my hometown against the Bruins. It was pretty special for me.”

Going forward, Ferriero is turning his attention to becoming a consistent contributor for the Sharks, but that isn’t to say his stints to date in San Jose haven’t featured success. In his first career playoff game this past spring, the former seventh-round pick of the Coyotes buried the game-winner in overtime to defeat the Red Wings in Game 1 of the conference semifinals, a feat that made him the only player in league history to score in overtime of a postseason game on his birthday.

Ferriero knows he can’t produce such magical moments every night, but after racking up a lifetime supply of air miles flying from coast-to-cast for the past two-plus seasons, the BC alumnus hopes his dedication and strong work ethic will soon pay off.

“I’m getting there and working hard,” he said. “Hopefully, I stick around here for a while.”

McLellan gave Ferriero a ringing endorsement after the young forward came through in the clutch, a sign that he just might get his wish and — at long last — be able to set up shop in the Bay Area on a full-time basis.

“Benn is really growing as a player,” McLellan said. “He surprised us last year at training camp. He had a chance to stick around, but he needed some time in the minors. In the time between now and then, our team has faltered a little bit. He has got the opportunity, and we always said there would be some internal competition. He’s made good on it. We’re happy for him.”

THE STAT

Brian Boucher (Woonsocket, R.I.) is one of six goaltenders drafted in 1995 who are still active in the NHL today.

Clark at crossroads

After repeatedly being praised for his work ethic and leadership abilities, and sticking around for the entirety of the preseason, many believed Chris Clark inking a deal with the Bruins was a foregone conclusion.

But on the eve of the 2011-12 campaign, word came that no contract could be agreed upon and that Clark would remain an unrestricted free agent at the end of his tryout with the Black and Gold.

Once the captain in Washington, Clark is now 35 and finds himself in a tough spot. Cutting ties with the Bruins so late likely proved to be a disadvantage, as most NHL clubs’ rosters were all but finalized by that time.

Boston coach Claude Julien, however, gave the South Windsor, Conn., native a ringing endorsement.

“Anybody who asks me the question right now, I’ll answer without hesitation that Chris Clark can still play in the NHL. That’s not a question,” Julien said. “We just had too much depth. What he was going to bring and what we’re capable of offering him, I think it would have been tough for him to fit in our top 12.”

Gill reaches major milestone

Fourteen years ago, Hal Gill (Bolton, Mass.) found himself at Bruins training camp fighting for a spot with the Black and Gold. His heralded head coach wasn’t sold on him being ready for the NHL.

Gill won Pat Burns over eventually and now has gone onto an improbably lengthy career. The towering, Canadiens defenseman played in the 1,000th game of his NHL career Oct. 20, something that never would have happened had Burns and Jacques Laperriere — an assistant with the Bruins during his rookie season — not given him a shot.

“I think Jacques and Pat decided to give me a shot,” Gill told NHL.com. “It was by no means handed to me; they made me work for it every day. But I look back at that and you need a lucky break to make it in the league. I think that was it, those guys believing in me.”
A winner of the Stanley Cup in 2009 with Pittsburgh, Gill has 172 points, a plus-47 rating and 917 penalty minutes in 1,003 games.

DiPietro can’t catch a break

After his first healthy offseason in what seems like an eternity, the black cloud oft-hovering over Rick DiPietro’s head returned just a few weeks into the season. The Winthrop, Mass., native took a puck off his mask in practice and suffered a concussion from the hard impact.
With the Islanders carrying three goaltenders, DiPietro had yet to make a start before being injured Oct. 12. He returned to serve as the team’s backup vs. the Penguins on Oct. 25.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com