By Mike McMahon
NORTH ANDOVER — Whew!
That pretty much sums up the feeling on the Merrimack College campus, particulary over at the Lawler Arena after an official announcement this weekend.
Stephane Da Costa, the country's top rated freshman hockey player and native of France, is returning to Merrimack for his sophomore season.
After leading the team with 45 points and ranking seventh in the nation with 1.32 points per game, his exodus to greater heights ... A K A the National Hockey League ... appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
After winning every rookie-of-the-year award college hockey had to offer, and being a finalist for Hockey East Player of the Year as a freshman, Da Costa had several NHL offers that needed only his signature.
But just as he turned heads with his electric season last year, including five goals in his first home game, he surprised again when he told The Eagle-Tribune his plans for next season.
"I'm coming back," said Da Costa. "I always thought that I was coming back to Merrimack. I wanted to get bigger and get stronger and a little more experienced on the ice. Team wise, I want to go to the TD Garden and win a championship."
As for NHL offers, they were there.
"I had a few," Da Costa said with a smile. "I had quite a few offers."
But unlike most collegiate players, who can't resist the temptation of a quick NHL payday, Da Costa says he wants to really be ready before he makes the jump to the greatest hockey league in the world, to ensure he sticks around rather than spend an inordinant amount of time in the minor leagues.
"I talked to a lot of people and a lot of people told me that it's never too late to go pro," he said. "Leaving too early to play in the NHL, sometimes you have only one or two chances. I want to be ready for that chance when it comes. I don't want to just rush it and not be ready."
A number of factors figured into his decision to stay, beyond his size and his future in the NHL.
He says the allure of the small college atmosphere has been everything he had hoped it would be. And the strides the program took not only last season — making the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and finishing sixth in Hockey East, its highest finish in 14 years — but since head coach Mark Dennehy took over in June 2005.
"Merrimack is a small school so you know everyone and everyone supports you," he said. "The fans were great and my teammates are just awesome. It's great here.
"It's not all about last year, it's about four or five years ago since Coach Dennehy took the program. He started to get better players and work it differently and the program is going up now and last year is just a start."
Da Costa burst onto the scene last October, scoring five goals in just his second career game against Army. Soon he was a popular request among the media and NHL scouts, who suddenly filled the stands at J. Thom Lawler Arena.
"I was surprised with the attention because this is the big leagues," he said. "It came and now I have to work to get better and take the next step."
After finishing Merrimack's season in March, Da Costa traveled back to France to train for the World Championships, where he competed for his home country against teams filled with NHL players whose teams didn't qualify, or were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Summer has been great," Da Costa said. "I've only had about two weeks off, with the World Championships.
"World Championships were a good experience. I was hurt for about a month and a half before it so I needed to get treatments and stuff but I got to play five games."
Da Costa's brother, Teddy, also played for Team France.
"My brother wasn't lucky either and he got hurt the morning of the first game, so that was pretty tough," Da Costa said.
At the end of the tournament, Da Costa was named one of France's three stars.
There's already a buzz that Da Costa could be the first Warrior to be in the running for the annual Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best college hockey player in the country.
"Next year is another year," he said. "Maybe I'll do better, maybe I won't. I just have to play hard and we'll see what happens at the end of the year."