By BOB YORK —
We’ve all heard about dreams coming true, so do yourself a favor: turn on ESPN 2 Thursday, April 11th, at 4:30 pm and actually watch one come true for a change.
If you bleed Green, you can’t lose. Thursday’s opening semifinal round game of the NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Tournament, aka the Frozen Four, will feature three–yes, that’s right, three–Deerfield Academy alums.
The tournament’s first game will feature former Big Green standouts Malcolm Lyles (’08), Antoine Laganiere (’09) and Alex Ward (’11), but they’re not all on the same side anymore. Lyles (’08) plays for UMass Lowell, while Antoine Laganiere (’09) and Alex Ward (’11) suit up for Yale.
The matchup will guarantee that the Big Green will have at least one grad in Saturday night’s title game, as the winner of the Yale-Lowell game will take on the winner of Thursday night’s other semifinal round game between Quinnipiac and St. Cloud St. That game will also be televised on ESPN 2, beginning at 8 pm Saturday night’s title tilt will be televised on ESPN, beginning at 7 pm.
So, between 4:30 and 7 on Thursday afternoon and again on Saturday evening between 7 and 9:30 you can bet the phone will be off the hook and the “Do Not Disturb” sign will be on the doorknob of the Brendan Creagh residence. He has a vested interest in the proceedings. He’s the Deerfield Academy boys hockey coach and tutored all three players.
“Having coached and having gotten to know these three young men so well will certainly make this a fun game to watch,” said Creagh, who, pledged neutrality as a fan. That promise will go out the window come Saturday night, however, as one or two of his former charges will have a chance to capture a national championship.
“I just couldn’t be happier for these guys,” added their former mentor. “All three were outstanding athletes but more than that, all three were real hard workers and this indeed is a great example of just where hard work can take you.”
“Making it to the Frozen Four is certainly something every college hockey player dreams about,” said Laganiere, who ranks third on the Bulldog scoring charts this season with 27 points on 14 goals and 13 assists. He finished fourth in scoring last season with 33 points and was the team’s second leading goal scorer as a junior with 19. “And making it even sweeter is the fact that being a senior, you certainly can’t wrap up your college career in a better way than this.”
For the former Deerfield standout, who chalked up 68 points in 58 games through two seasons with the Big Green, Laganiere knows first hand just how difficult it is to be among these last teams standing.
“We had some pretty good teams here at Yale during my freshman and sophomore seasons,” reflected Laganiere. “In fact, we made it to the Elite Eight level of the NCAA tournament both those year. Ironically, that’s as far as we would go though, as we lost both years to the eventual champions … Boston College then Minnesota Duluth.”
The Bulldogs, who enter Thursday’s encounter with a 20-12-3 record, “had some real ups and downs this season,” said Ward, who is the only walk-on to earn a spot on the Yale varsity roster during the seven years Keith Allain has spent as the Bulldogs head coach.
“In fact,” added Ward, who tallied 54 points in 68 games for the Big Green and was the recipient of the Deerfield Hockey Cup (MVP) in 2011 “our worst stretch of the entire season came during the ECAC playoffs … after beating St. Lawrence in the quarterfinals, we lost to Union (5-0) in the semifinals … then lost to Quinnipiac (3-0) in the consolation game.
The next 12 hours proved to be the longest 12-hour stretch of the entire season for Ward and Laganiere and their teammates. “We lost to Quinnipiac on a Saturday night,” recounted Ward. “The next morning, we had practice, then we all went over to a nearby restaurant to watch the Notre Dame-Michigan game.”
The outcome was crucial to any remaining hope that Yale could advance onto the NCAA tourney. It was pretty simple: A Notre Dame win and Yale’s in … a Michigan win and Yale’s out.
“When we got to the restaurant, Michigan was up 1-0,” said Laganiere. Fortunately, Notre Dame cane back to tie it, then went up 2-1 and won it 3-1 on an open-net goal.”
So, Yale was in, but it was forced to take a long and winding road to Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, where this year’s Frozen Four is being held. The Bulldogs, who by now were seeded 15th out of 16 teams, were shipped out to the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich., and forced to stun such hockey powerhouses as Minnesota (3-2 in overtime) and North Dakota (4-1).
“A lot of people look at us as a Cinderella story,” said Laganiere, who went undrafted by the NHL, but who has been receiving a great deal of interest from a dozen or so NHL teams during his senior season. “We don’t look at it like that though … we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and certainly feel as though we deserve to be here.”
The Cinderella role is certainly nothing UMass Lowell (28-10-2) will qualify for, especially after ringing up a 6-0 mark in postseason play (4-0) to win the Hockey East Crown and 2-0 to outlast the Northeast Regional Tournament field to earn a third seed in the overall tourney.
For Lyles, who was converted from defense to forward this past season, extending his final campaign on the collegiate level with a trek to the Frozen Four is sure to be one he will long remember.
“Malcolm was an outstand defenseman for us during his three years here,” said Creagh of Lyles, who collected 18 points on seven goals and 11 assists in 25 games during his senior year with the Big Green.
“He was an outstanding all-around athlete who also participated in football and track while he was here and played a prominent roll in all three sports,” added Creagh. “ From here, he went on to play hockey at Boston College for two years before transferring to UMass Lowell.
“I played with Malcolm for one year at Deerfield,” said Laganiere, “and it will seem nice to cross paths and see him once again. I remember him as an outstanding hockey player as well as an outstanding athlete.
While Lyles was heading up the Deerfield defense during the 2007-08 campaign, Laganiere was one of the big guns up front.
“Antoine is one of the most talented hockey players we’ve ever had here at Deerfield,” said Creagh. “He’s an outstanding skater, he has great vision out there on the ice … he always knows where everyone is. He’s a great stick handler and can shoot or pass equally well.
“Personally, I was very surprised Antione wasn’t drafted by the NHL,” added Creagh. “But I think it could all work out in his favor. At 6-4 and 215 pounds, he still has room to fill out physically and his hockey talents have continued to improve over his four years at Yale. I know interest in him has been growing and, as a free agent, he now has the opportunity to go where he feels he’ll fit in best.”
As for Ward, Creagh isn’t surprised one bit that he has risen to such heights in hockey.
“Alex could have gone to a Division III college and had an outstanding career in three sports … having made a major impact here at Deerfield in hockey, soccer and tennis,” said Creagh. “But he chose the challenge of Division I hockey, and anyone who knows Alex knew he’d make it. He’s a very determined, a very driven young man and he’s always willing to do what’s asked of him by his coaches.”