October 19, 2011

With retirement of all-time greats, NE lacks top NHL players

As the second highest scoring defenseman in the NHL last season, Keith Yandle is arguably the biggest star among New England natives in the NHL today. (Getty)

When New York Rangers captain Chris Drury decided to call it a career this summer, the Trumbull, Conn., native’s retirement marked not only the end of one memorable career but also the conclusion of an era that saw New England produce some of the brightest stars in the National Hockey League.

Over the past two decades, the region proudly has been able to claim many of the game’s greatest talents as their own, most of whom have recently earned induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Vermont gave us three-time, 50-goal man John LeClair (St. Albans, Vt.). The Bay State yielded two players that each passed the thousand-point threshold in their careers in Keith Tkachuk (Melrose, Mass.) and Jeremy Roenick (Marshfield, Mass.), as well as a pair of 400-goal scorers in Tony Amonte (Hingham, Mass.) and Bill Guerin (Wilbraham, Mass.)

What they and Drury all had in common went beyond elite talent. Each of them transcended the sport. With their playing days now behind them, the NHL no longer features even a single New Englander who could be considered a household name.

“I can’t think of any off the top of my head,” Central Scouting’s New England guru Gary Eggleston (Wakefield, Mass.) said.

So why is that? Why have we suddenly gone from having an abundance of homegrown stars in the NHL to this?

Eggleston says there are myriad reasons, including ones that go back decades to the days of the Big, Bad Bruins and others that stem from an overall family dynamic that’s changed drastically.

“I think it’s probably been slip-sliding ever since the Bobby Orr era,” Eggleston said. “I think the expense of the sport has to be a factor to consider. Families are smaller and kids are just seemingly not all that interested. It’s parents demanding too many games and kids not getting enough practice and skill development time.

“Massachusetts kids haven’t had the same kind of parental enthusiasm. I’ve talked with parents at tournaments from California, Florida and Texas whose kids absolutely love anything they do on the ice, even if it’s the slightest thrill of skating around pylons. The parents around here would start throwing things on the ice. They demand games, and they think the other stuff is boring. They’re paying a lot of money and sometimes their wishes are met. The kids in those Sunbelt states just figure everything is fun.”

Back when Tom Fitzgerald (Billerica, Mass.) — a member of the Bruins in 2005-06 — and his brother Scott were growing up, inspired by Orr and the Bruins to get into hockey, the sport was nowhere to be found in those Sunbelt states. With the league ballooning to 30 teams, hockey is now a part of far more cultures throughout the United States than it was when that wave of greatness was in its developmental stages back in New England.

With the sport being fostered in so many cities, the road to the pros became considerably tougher for those from so-called hockey hotbeds, as competition began cropping up across the continent.

“The reality of it is hockey isn’t just a Minnesota, Michigan and New England thing anymore,” said Fitzgerald, who suited up for 1,097 NHL games from 1988 to 2006. “It’s a Florida thing, a California thing, a Texas thing. It’s being played in areas of the country that had absolutely no idea what a hockey puck was when that group of us came through. Now it’s like baseball and football. It’s become a sport that’s played all over the country.

“I think we overlook the fact that expansion in the NHL did what it was supposed to do. It opened the eyes to the non-traditional hockey markets.”

That widespread growth of hockey also opened the eyes of college programs in the Northeast, as their scope broadened dramatically over time. No longer were they solely looking at kids in their own backyard. Those locals now had to stack up against the top players from across the country, as schools expanded their recruiting radius well beyond the region.

“Back when I was recruited by Boston College, they didn’t dip outside of Massachusetts,” said Fitzgerald, who spent two years at Providence College before turning pro. “I think Craig Janney (Enfield, Conn.) was the first and he was from Connecticut, and that led to Brian Leetch (Cheshire, Conn.). Once that happened, I’m not sure if it had to do with a lack of talent in Massachusetts, it was just that there was another world of hockey players out there to dip into.”

Need proof of how much that trend has continued to evolve? In 2010-11, only one of Boston University’s top seven scorers hailed from New England. With more outsiders flocking to the region and securing lineup spots with the powerhouses in Hockey East, many natives have decided to follow a non-collegiate path in hopes of reaching the NHL.

That, of course, refers to major junior hockey, where Eggleston estimated there were more than 100 U.S.-born kids playing last year. And while the longtime scout recognizes that heading to Canada has been successful for some, Eggleston is hardly a fan of the tactics often employed by the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“The major junior people scan that college committal list and see players committed for 2012 and 2013, get right on the phone and tell kids to come play for them right now,” he said. “They tell them they’ll put them in school, get them in college, take courses and they fall for it. You have other kids who have been here for a little while like Zach Bogosian, who left Cushing Academy to go to major juniors. That’s starting to be a real problem now. Once kids start to develop here, if they don’t get picked off by the development team in Ann Arbor, they’re opting for major junior.

“They’re being lured there, and there are better kids going that route — which is unfortunate for them, because they would’ve been better off staying here and going to college.”

So what’s the solution? What lies ahead for a region that once churned out high-end talent?

“There are some good hockey players that are coming through,” Fitzgerald said. “Charlie Coyle (East Weymouth, Mass.) came through prep school and was drafted in the first round. Jimmy Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) went from Nobles to the national development program.

“You’re not going to get all the best hockey players in one area like when I was in high school. You’re not going to have every kid either go prep or high school hockey. If there was one league with all the best players, you’d have the best hockey players playing against one another, and that’s how you get better, that’s how you get challenged, and that’s how you improve and develop.”

While the scenario Fitzgerald describes may be utopian, not all hope is lost. In addition to prospects such as Coyle and Hayes, current NHL players Keith Yandle (Milton, Mass.) — who finished second among all defensemen in scoring last season — and Bobby Butler (Marlboro, Mass.) appear to be young stars in the making.

But given the respected perspectives of both Eggleston and Fitzgerald, it seems improbable that such a dominant cast of New Englanders will repeat what the likes of Drury, Roenick and Tkachuk pulled off through the 1990s and 2000s.

Maybe the deck is just stacked too high against players from this area who have aspirations of reaching the pros. Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence, a fluke that all of them simultaneously emerged from the same corner of the country. Then again, maybe someday we’ll talk about Yandle, Butler, Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) or any other current member of this generation the same way we fondly recall the careers of a Guerin or an Amonte.

But for now, one fact remains: New England’s star power in the NHL just ain’t what it used to be, and there isn’t a lot anyone can do to change that.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com