For decades, Boston area hockey fans puffed out their chests with pride.
We were the Hub of Hockey, the Mecca ... no matter what those clueless Minnesotans thought.
But unfortunately for the Greater Lawrence/Southern New Hampshire region, realistically we weren’t holding up our end of the bargain.
The numbers didn’t lie. The North Shore, the South Shore and metro Boston were producing bushels of talent, but frankly our area wasn’t.
Well, we’re making up for lost time. The recent NHL draft was a high point in area hockey history.
Pinkerton’s Zach Sanford was chosen 61st overall, a second-rounder by the Washington Capitals. He was the second highest selection in area history, just one spot behind BC Hall of Famer Steve Heinze of North Andover, who played in the NHL from 1992-03, mostly with the Bruins.
Then Ryan Fitzgerald of North Reading, Malden Catholic and the Valley Junior Warriors, one of two talented sons of former 18-year NHL winger Tom Fitzgerald. He was chosen in the fourth round by the hometown Bruins with the 120th overall pick.
In the sixth round, Brian Pinho of North Andover and St. John’s Prep was chosen by the Capitals with the 174th overall pick.
Three area high schoolers taken in the same draft had never happened before. Only three area high schoolers had been drafted the previous 13 years. Records are incomplete but quite possibly it was three in 19 years.
“It’s very cool. Very, very cool,” said Pinho. “I respect those kids a lot. It’s an honor to be drafted with them.”
Sanford, the 2012 Eagle-Tribune MVP, said, “It’s great. New England hockey is definitely underrated. As you can see, it produces some quality players.”
Kimball Union freshman George Sennott of North Andover tweeted after the draft, “All the locals getting drafted gets you to push it even harder. Truly an inspiration. Congrats to everyone who has been part of it.”
Don’t be surprised if success begets success. An eye-popping 19 local players will be playing Division 1 college hockey this winter and/or have committed to Division 1 programs.
Repping small town
Sennott’s Kimball Union teammate is senior-to-be Joseph James “J.D.” Dudek. The former Pinkerton star recently was selected to the U.S. Under-18 Select team which will play in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in August. North Andover’s Tyler Bird, who has committed to Brown, also tried out for the team.
Dudek has taken notice of the success achieved by his former teammate Sanford and other local stars.
Dudek realizes he, too, is a role model for area hockey hopefuls.
“It’s awesome,” he said on the car ride from the national team tryouts in Williamsville, N.Y. “These younger kids look up to us. ... I’m just try to rep (represent) a small New Hampshire town.”
The Amherst, N.H., resident is doing just fine on the repping front.
The New England Hockey Journal’s Kirk Luedeke wrote, “(Dudek) is one of the most creative playmakers in New England. Like most kids his age, the Boston College-bound pivot needs to get stronger but projects as the top prep player in next year’s draft.”
Luedeke, who has covered the NHL draft for 15 years, said in an e-mail, “J.D. has the talent to be a late first round, solid second-round player.”
With his whole future in front of him, Dudek is just trying to stay level-headed. After starring for Pinkerton’s 2012 Division 1 state championship team, he, like so many other prospects, elected to go the prep school/junior hockey route.
The 5-11, 178-pound center-forward is now at Kimball Union. After committing to BC last summer (he’s slated to start school there in the fall of 2014), he led the Wildcats to a 28-3 record. This year KUA will be coached by former University of Maine and UMass Lowell head coach Tim Whitehead.
Playing in the Hlinka Tourney will be special.
“This is the biggest one,” noted the 17-year-old Dudek, whose father is Plymouth State football legend and former Sports Illustrated cover boy Joe Dudek.
“If you watched the draft, they said almost 40 times, ‘This guy played really well at the Hlinka Tourney.’”
The dream: Play with Ovechkin
Zach Sanford, who attended Pinkerton this winter but played instead for the Middlesex Islanders junior team, won’t soon forget draft day.
“It was a long day, 2:30-10 p.m.,” said Sanford, who was there with his parents, Cindy and Mike, older sister Melanie, girlfriend Michaela Blackwell and a few friends.
“By the time I was called, I was getting a little anxious. It was just a great day. The best weekend of my life. Second round is great. It’s definitely an honor.”
The axiom there are no guarantees in life is amplified ten-fold in the cut-throat world of sports. Yesterday’s hero can be today’s zero and vice-versa.
But second round is second round. And the Caps traded up to choose him. That means he’s a big-time prospect.
As for his NHL chances, Sanford said, “If I put in the work and everything it takes, I believe I’ll definitely get there.”
A lot of people in the know agree with him.
Luedeke in the New England Hockey Journal wrote, “Sanford made the jump to junior hockey. Although it took the young power forward time to adjust, no area prospect finished stronger. He has fine size (6-4, 190), skating ability and shot. He’s still very much a raw project.”
Everybody agrees, the best is yet to come.
The Red Line Report wrote in April, “Has been this season’s sharpest riser in New England. His improvement and torrid second half show his potential to develop into a true power forward.”
Sanford, who graduated from Pinkerton last month, will be playing next year for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL before heading off to BC.
The Eagles jumped in late when the forward’s game took off last season.
Now you hear comparisons to ex-UNH great James van Riemsdyk, who is with the Maple Leafs.
Of course, his hope is a few years down the line to be lining up with Alexander Ovechkin.
“It would be great,” said Sanford. “He’s probably the best player in the world and one of the best ever. It would be an honor. Washington is definitely one of the teams I liked the most. Their offense fits me. They are a very offensive team with Ovechkin and (Nicklas) Backstrom.”
Sanford and Windham’s Conor MacPhee, a Providence College recruit, will be heading down this week for a week-long development camp with Washington.
Traveling identical roads
It’s eerie the similarities between Sanford and Dudek. Both went to Auburn (N.H.) Village School in their hometown, then Pinkerton and soon Boston College.
“It’s a crazy thing, a fluke thing,” said Dudek. “Especially for a New Hampshire public school, it’s definitely weird.”
Both have shown considerable improvement since then, but they were plenty good while with the Astros, leading them to the 2012 Division 1 state title.
Dudek was a sophomore and scored 20 goals and tied for the area lead with 33 assists.
Sanford, then a junior, scored a whopping 36 goals for the 21-2-2 Astros. The Eagle-Tribune MVP’s 69 points that winter were the most by an area skater in at least a decade.
“I think we knew we were two of the top players. I don’t think we knew how good we really were. We’re both late bloomers,” said Dudek. “Playing together was awesome. We’ll find each other again in college and it will be awesome.”
Learned from Blackwell
North Andover’s Pinho can’t help but smile when thinking about the draft.
“I was watching on TV,” he explained. “I got a text right before. Right as I got it, I looked at the screen and it said my name. It was awesome. I dreamed about that ever since I started playing.”
Pinho, a two-year co-captain, used to go to practice with his older St. John’s Prep teammate Colin Blackwell. A fellow North Andoverite, Blackwell also got drafted and is now playing at Harvard.
“I wished I was in his position as a sophomore. Now I’m in his position,” said Pinho, a 6-0, 171-pound center most known for his playmaking skills. “We’re very close. I learned a lot from him. He pushed me on the ice and off the ice.”
Pinho will be playing with the Indiana of the United States Hockey League next year and then will head to Providence College.
While obviously a thrill, he downplayed the importance of the draft.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “It’s just one day in June. It’s just a pat on the back to let you know you are one of the elite. Obviously, it’s a big deal, but it’s not that big a deal. You have to forget about it.”
From local rinks to NHL
All these young stars are chasing the dream. A dream already attained by Andover’s John McCarthy. The St. John’s Prep grad captained BU’s 2009 national championship team and has played in 51 career games with the San Jose Sharks.
When he made his NHL debut in January of 2010, McCarthy became the first area native to play in the NHL since North Andover’s Steve Heinze (1992-03) and Ed Ronan (1991-97).
Several more could make it in the coming years.
Two former Phillips Andover stars, Boxford’s Chris Kreider and Marblehead’s Cory Schneider, have hit it big in the NHL. Ex-Pinkerton and UNH great Paul Thompson, who scored 20 goals in 58 games this year for the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, is hoping to join them.
Feeling a draft
The NHL draft was big, but another indication of the local hockey surge came a month before in the USHL draft.
North Andover’s Brian Pinho was taken No. 6, Pinkerton’s Zach Sanford No. 28, Haverhill’s Elijah Harris No. 105, Andover’s David Belluche No. 165, Andover’s Max Prawdzik No. 212, North Andover’s Tyler Sifferlen No. 230, North Reading’s Nolan Vesey No. 300, North Andover’s Joey Daccord No. 307 and Windham’s Connor Moynihan No. 378.
The rugged 210-pound Moynihan, who just completed his freshman year at Windham High, and Prawdzik, a talented sophomore goaltender at Brooks, both also already have been drafted by the prestigious Quebec Major Hockey League.
Follow Michael Muldoon on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.
Name Town or School College/Graduate Tyler Bird Andover Brown '19 Colin Blackwell North Andover Harvard '15 Bobo Carpenter North Reading Boston University '19 Andrew Cerretani Pelham Maine '15 J.D. Dudek Pinkerton Boston College '18 Shane Eiserman West Newbury UNH '18 William Eiserman West Newbury Bentley '18 Casey Fitzgerald North Reading Boston College '20 Ryan Fitzgerald North Reading BC '17 Conor MacPhee Windham Providence '17 Steve Mastalerz North Andover UMass Amherst '15 Brian Morgan Windham Maine '17 Brice O'Connor Londonderry Maine 14 Brian Pinho North Andover Providence 18 Zach Sanford Pinkerton BC '18 Tyler Sifferlen North Andover UMass Lowell '18 Tommy Thompson Londonderry St. Lawrence '15 Jimmy Vesey North Reading Harvard '16 Brian Ward Haverhill St. Lawrence '17