Tom Grace is a veteran in the world of pro and collegiate hockey, serving for years as the voice of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Norfolk Admirals. He's also worked on the staff of the NHL's Florida Panthers.
He's back at BC for his second stint as commentator for the Boston College Eagles, and this weekend will be doing color commentary for BC's IceBreaker games. Next weekend in Wisconsin, Tom will be handling play-by-play. Tom chatted with us this week to preview the season. You can listen to the stream of this weekend's games on BCEagles.com.
BCI: Tom, thanks for joining us to preview the season. Before we go in to specifics, do you have some overall thoughts on this team after preseason camp and the scrimmage on Sunday?
Tom: "There has been tremendous turnover. Let me preface this by saying: describing facts is not setting up for excuses.
I go all the way back to 1982 with BC hockey. I have never, ever recalled this much turnover in one season. 20 of our 25 players are freshmen and sophomores.
I am not saying this to say there should be a drop in success. But if 20 of our 25 players were juniors or seniors, that would be a story as well.
My freshman year class in 1982, I thought was the biggest and best class that BC has ever brought in to school. We had Bob Sweeney, Scott Gordon, Doug Brown, Neil Shea, Bobby Emery, John McNamara... it was just a huge class. Obviously those guys were very successful. At the time, bringing in 10 freshmen was almost unheard of. This year we're bringing in 13. The only other team that has more in the whole country is Miami who brought in 14.
The real question now is, what do we look for this season with such a young team?
The number one thing is - when you have a team this young, you get better and you improve every single day. Every practice, every game. There's tremendous enthusiasm and great excitement. Think about how excited these freshmen are to know they're going to be a major part of the lineup.
Fans fear change, obviously. We had 8 guys leave early. But these things happen. Even the Beatles broke up. Life goes on. This is now a tremendous opportunity for newcomers to be instant contributors.
I thought Joe Dudek was the MVP of our exhibition game on Sunday. Who would have thought that last year? He now has an opportunity to play on a higher line, get some power play time, and contribute. He's one example of many.
5 of our 6 defensemen are going to be freshmen or sophomores. The only veteran we have is Scott Savage. So here we have Casey Fitzgerald as a veteran, and last year we were wondering if we were going to crack the lineup.
We’ll obviously have a freshman goalie as well, with Joe Woll looking like the likely starter. Having a freshman goalie is a good thing if he's like Thatcher Demko or Scott Clemmensen. They're going to see so many shots and get better every day. Everybody needs a little patience, but that's not to say we can't be really good this year.
BCI: A key to this season will certainly be the play of sophomore Colin White. How good do you think he can be this season? He and some of the other returning top scorers will be crucial.
TOM: White is an elite talent. He is clearly one of our best prospects.
I really like the three seniors on the cover of the media guide - Fitzgerald, Cangelosi and Calnan. Calnan has great intangible leadership. Fitzy is a really good scorer. He had a breakthrough year last year, playing on a more talented team. I thought he looked very good on Sunday.
No matter who composes the top line, there's going to be a very young player - whether it's a McPhee, Dudek, a guy like Cotton, or whoever. But we've got some good looking players and that will be a good top line.
White and Fitzgerald are clearly first team Hockey East candidates. Regardless of how many players we lost - do we have some of the best players in the league? And once again I don't think there's any question that we do.
BCI: Graham McPhee really impressed in the exhibition on Sunday. How big a role might he play as a freshman?
TOM: He will have every opportunity to succeed. Coach York does not like to single out freshmen. That's a wise strategy. These kids are still learning their way around campus. They had one game against a very aggressive Canadian team that they probably won't ever see again.
No matter where McPhee begins the season in the lineup, I think we've seen right away with his skating ability and his hockey sense, he's going to be a contributor.
BCI: The Mattila brothers are interesting additions for BC. The Eagles have rarely recruited players from Europe, but these two brothers from Finland could be important freshmen for BC.
TOM: If I was going to name a wild card for this season, I would call 'em the Flashy Fins - they're both really good skaters. They both competed very hard in the exhibition game on Sunday. It's great that they're brothers and can help each other adjust to college and life here in the US. They clearly look to be D1 talents. I have a funny feeling we're going to get a lot of great moments from these guys.
BCI: Which of the freshmen look like they could slot in and be “energy guys,” sort of like a Barry Almeida or a Matt Lombardi-style player?
TOM: It's too early for labels. Energy player is sometimes a flattering way of saying not a top scoring kind of guy.
But if you look at some of the teams that are having success - Lowell, Quinnipiac, Union and the like - they have bigger, older players, often guys who weren’t drafted.
I’ve always believed, you take the best players you can and hope they stay as long as possible. I will always welcome a Brian Leetch or a Noah Hanifin. Give me those guys every year - just as they do at Kentucky or Duke in basketball.
But we’ve got some players likely to stay longer on this roster, which is a good thing. I think all of the players have tremendous upside. I can’t wait to see how Cotton grows in to his body, and I’m anxious to see how Booth and Walker develop.
Not everybody is a top six forward. But even watching some of the younger guys in the exhibition, even on the penalty kill, I was impressed with the work ethic, the intelligence and the awareness, and that gets back to the coaching staff and the great work they do.
BCI: Any update on Chris Calnan’s health going in to the weekend?
TOM: Chris Calnan did not play in that exhibition game and Luke McInnis was under the weather. Calnan should be a game-time decision this weekend. He’s close. It’s a long season, so obviously they’d rather make sure he’s ready for what comes after Christmas than what comes before Halloween.
Calnan is going to be one of the leaders of this team. No question he's a top six guy.
BCI: BC opens up with Air Force this year, a tough opponent. What are your thoughts on that matchup?
TOM: I was on the opening trip last year, when we played West Point and RPI. Talentwise, West Point was overmatched, but they played hard and they were very physical. Some of ourplayers got banged up. Brendan Silk's season ended in that game.
I do expect Air Force to be very physical. Remember, a kid playing at the Academy, he’s probably undrafted, and he’s going in to military service. So when they get to play a BC, that has NHL-pedigree kids, of course they're going to play as hard as they can - it's extra incentive to really get after it. So it's going to be very physical.
Air Force however has better skill and talent than Army and are always a solid opponent. They will come in expecting to have every chance to win.
They play in the altitude in Colorado regularly, which can be a benefit. If you prep correctly and hydrate correctly the altitude can be overrated, but these are young kids playing their first varsity game. It’s going to be a good challenge, but you have to play somebody. Playing teams like Air Force, Denver and Ohio State should give a good chance for these kids to go out there and compete.
BCI: What kind of an impact could it have on the team’s identity to play a lot of early road games?
TOM: I have found in my experiences, especially in pro, if you have good people on your team, the more road games and the more time you get to establish an identity as a team, it is an absolute blessing in disguise. These guys are college kids, they're making memories - whether it's the jokes, getting used to having a roommate, the schedule - it's exciting. These road games will challenge them. It's a character opportunity.
There is going to be an identity of who and what this team is. You and I don't know it yet. It could be awesome.It could be disappointing. They could be a lunchpail group, they could be high-flying --- this team can skate. They're not very experienced and they're not overly big but they're good. The identity will get forged. It's exciting to see how it unfolds. These road trips are going to be very important."
I will be stunned if this team isn't vastly better by January. If these kids learn, they will get a feel for what it takes to win-- BC isn't about showing up. BC is about winning games, winning trophies. These kids signed on for that and we have the ingredients to continue that recipe but you have to go out and earn it."
BCI: How do you size up Hockey East this season?
TOM: BC is in the top handful of teams, but you have to be an extreme optimist to vote BC #1 in the preseason poll.
BU has brought in one of the most heralded recruiting classes, but that doesn't mean they're going to have the best team. They're also going to have to assimilate and build chemistry.
Lowell is an older team with great experience - and they're good. Let's not take anything away from Lowell - they are well coached, they have an awesome arena, and they've developed a culture of winning. it took them a long time to get up the hill, and they're up there and they enjoy the view.
If you could privately show our roster, our talent to the other coaches even though it's young, I can't believe there aren't at least 7 teams that would cherrypick most of the kids from our roster if they could. We're clearly top 5. A realistic objective is a first round bye.
Winning the Regular Season championship, I don't think that's realistic. But if these kids are better than we realize, they might be skating rings around some of the older kids before too long.
Thanks to Tom Grace for taking the time to preview BC Hockey. The season begins tonight at 6:30 PM against Air Force and you can listen live on BCEagles.com.