There have been a lot of interesting story lines in NCAA hockey this year; the return of former powers to their past heights, the tumble of the defending champions and several other perennial favorites plus the rise of a few upstart programs. The Merrimack Warriors fit that latter description to a tee.
Head coach Mark Dennehy is in his 6th season as a head coach, 5th behind the bench at Merrimack. The Warriors went 12-18-4 in 2007-08 and that is the best year Merrimack has seen under Dennehy, by a long shot. Last year the team won just 9 of 32 games and that's equal to the wins in Dennehy's first two years combined.
Merrimack was less than a weak sister in the powerful Hockey East Conference, they were an after thought. The free space on the Bingo card. Merrimack's last season where they finished with a winning record came in 1988-89 (.794%)... when they were still a Div II program. Since joining Hockey East the next year, they've been fodder for the likes of BU, BC, Maine, UNH and pretty much everyone else in the conference.
But this year... might be different.
The Mack started the year tough, on the road in North Dakota where even the best NCAA clubs aren't going in as the favorite. The Warriors dropped the opener 5-2 but came back stronger and although they lost the rematch, it was by a narrow 3-2 margin.
Since the opening weekend the Warriors are a respectable 6-3 with wins coming against Vermont (5-2), Boston College (5-3) and defending champion Boston University (6-3).
It's not all rainbows and and lollipops for the Massachusetts based program but they are on pace for 16 or 17 wins and that would be the best Div I finish for the Warriors since the 16-win campaign in 1993-94. While the Warriors are currently unbeaten at home they are also winless on the road - that will obviously have to change... won't it???
One of the reasons Merrimack is off to a promising start is due to recruiting. Coach Dennehy and his staff have had to beat the bushes more than most teams in the Conference but they've managed to lure some interesting players to the program. 12 of the 28 players on the roster are Canadian but before you jump to the very natural conclusion that the Canuck content is the lone reason for the improvement consider this: The team's leading scorer is an undersized native of Paris, France who played 3 years in the USHL (Stephane Da Costa). The team leader in assists (Joe Cucci) is a finance major from Melrose Park, Illinois.
There are a few names that might ring a bell with hockey fans in Western Canada and specifically in AJHL territory. There are 7 former AJHLers on the squad including a trio of Camrose Kodiaks - forwards Chris Barton, Jesse Todd and defenceman Karl Stollery (pictured above).
One freshman on the team this year originally hails from California but joins the program by way of the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League. The Vipers are the defending Jr. A National champions in Canada thanks in no small part to the efforts of defenceman Kyle Bigos and that winning attitude appears to have followed him out East.
Over the summer the 6'5 blueliner was taken by the Edmonton Oilers in the 4th round of the NHL Entry Draft, just cracking the top-100 as the 99th player selected. Bigos attended prospect camp in the Alberta capital in early July and that was where The Pipeline Show first met him.
He's an imposing figure at 6'5 and around 230 lbs, you might be a bit leery of the man if not for the beaming smile that always seemed to be on his face. Not only was he outgoing and friendly but he was more than happy to chat about how he found his way to hockey in California, what led him to the BCHL and how he felt about being a part of the Oilers organization. We also talked about Merrimack and what drew him to the Warriors. At the time, Bigos was one of two Oilers prospects that we approached about contributing to our blog this year and the blueliner appeared genuinely enthused at the thought of it.
As expected, settling into College life took some time but now that he's gotten used to his academic and athletic schedule, we are able to present the first entry to "Bigos Man on Campus". We started off in a simple Q&A just to get the ball rolling this season but we expect the next edition of BMoC will be completely 'Bigos on Bigos' and 'Life at Merrimack'...
The Pipeline Show: The last Oiler fans saw from you was at prospect camp in July. How did you spend the rest of the summer before heading down to Merrimack?
Kyle Bigos: The rest of the summer I was training at a gym in Oak Hills, CA with TSR trainers and had a pretty progressive time with them. I was also skating a lot anywhere I could, but mainly at these two rinks in Ontario, CA where I grew up. I would go to a lot of beer league games as a ringer with a lot of other good players and play for free with teams that needed us. There was a bunch of Jr. A guys and some college players Div. I and Div. III. it was a fun time with all of us. I would also hang out a lot with my brother and family since I don't see them to often.
TPS: We've asked you this question before but knowing that there were a few different NCAA schools that had approached you this past season, can you comment on why Merrimack was the right hockey program for you?
Bigos: Merrimack College was the right program for me because they came forward to me first. They saw my potential and found out about my character and work ethic and were willing to invest in me with a full ride,. I knew from talking to the players and the coaches that [Merrimack] was ready for something big and were getting the guys to do it, and that the culture [in the program] is perfect for developing players in all aspects of the game. Merrimack doesn't have the big name to it yet, which leads a lot of people to mistake it for a bad program and that's the biggest mistake.
TPS: what are you studying?
Bigos: Right now I am majoring in Business and taking the courses for that.
TPS: we've spoken with a lot of players who went the college route and they all say that it took them some time to get comfortable fulfilling the demands on and off the ice. How do you balance academics with your hockey schedule?
Bigos: At first it was pretty hard to juggle all the workouts, video, skill work, and ice time, but once you get into a grove with your studying and hockey its not too bad. I had to cut out a lot of down time to make it work, which isn't a bad thing at all, but it's certainly different than what I was used to in juniors.
TPS: Merrimack is off to a pretty impressive start. It's still early but you've beaten some traditional HE powers in Vermont, BC and BU. To what do you attribute your team's early success? Do you feel like Merrimack is underrated and that you are catching teams a bit by surprise?
Bigos: We're off to the start we wanted. We lost two games to North Dakota on the road, which were pretty tough to swallow as we were still trying to establish our identity and get our feet under us. But then we had the chance to get some teams at home and get going and then head back out to the road against some other HE teams.
Our success comes from hard work and discipline; I've noticed that when we start trying to play fancy and trade chances we let other teams into the game. We can play that game, but we feel we are stronger and better than other teams when we play our puck possession game.
Our road games we're losing by a goal or two, and have yet to break out of our shell and play our best but we're taking the steps to fix that. I feel we are underrated but since we do not have the big names like other HE teams we have to prove ourselves more than any other team which is fine by us... as long as we win. I don't think we're catching teams by surprise but I feel that we have a couple of huge pieces that we didn't have last season which is making us very effective and able to pull out the wins.
TPS: There is a large Canadian Jr A contingent on your roster, especially with 7 AJHL guys. I imagine the team as a whole is pretty tight but do you have some inner Canadian/American friendly rivalries as well? Maybe play some inter-squad scrimmages for international bragging rights? If so... what side do you play for as an American that played in junior hockey in Canada?
Bigos: We do have a lot of Canadian guys on our team and whenever we have the ice or time for ourselves we play U.S. vs. Canada (plus Da Costa!) . We have a great time doing this and it will always be for bragging rights. I played for team U.S.A. even though the captains told me I could play for either team but... U.S.A. was short on defense.
TPS: As one of the older guys with the RBC Cup winners in Vernon last year (above) you were a key guy that the coach would play in every situation and you'd get a ton of ice time. I know at some NCAA programs, the ice time and roles are basically handed out according to seniority. What's your role this year at Merrimack and is it different than what you were used to in the BCHL with Vernon?
Bigos: My role on the team is to be as physical as I can and establish a presence on the blue line. I love to move the puck and and play 5-on-5 with the team we have, but I am also getting the opportunity to play on the PP. We have a couple different set ups but I am not the quarter back on them, I'm mainly just used as a shooter. I also get to play PK which is a blast! I think to go out and block shots and try and stop the talent filled teams in HE is a great challenge and a lot of fun. In the BCHL I would play a similar type of role, just a lot more put on my plate and more of the focus on me, but still an almost identical role here at college.
TPS: Has there been much difficulty for you making that transition up to the NCAA level? What words of wisdom would you bestow on our younger readers who might be considering following the same path as you towards a career in pro hockey?
Bigos: The transition up to the NCAA level is what was expected for me. The speed here is very fast and the players are a lot stronger than juniors. Another big difference I found was just the way the players are so disciplined within their systems and that their abilities to read and react with the play is very good.
All of these things stem from how hard you prepare yourself physically. I felt I had a good off-season and that I have had great improvement even with the team in the weight room and on the ice before the season started. When the season did start and I noticed all of these things, it was pretty easy to adapt. I'm still learning and working on the things I need to, and I feel I'm making good progress and being as effective as I can during the games.
TPS: Who are you playing with on the ice?
Bigos: My D-partner right now is Karl Stollery, from Camrose. He's a great guy- quiet but has a tremendous work ethic and is a great skater. We feed off of each other really well and I learn a lot from him. We click very well on the ice because its very easy to play with him. Our chemistry is very good so far and we're only getting better.
TPS: When the team is on the road, who are you roomates with?
Bigos: I'm roommates with Stephane Da Costa from France. He's a great guy and one of my best friends here. Off the ice he's a very, very funny guy and really down to earth. We always have a fun time and we get along great. I couldn't be happier with my linemate or roommate.
TPS: finally, tell us a bit about Stephane Da Costa... a kid from France, has played last 3 years (maybe longer?) in North America and is having a big freshman season already including a huge 5-point game against Army back in October. Like I asked you in a text a while ago... is he for real?
Bigos: Stephane is the real deal. He's just so smart with and without the puck and he has so much skill to go with it. He reminds me of a little kid around the rink; just so excited and eager to be there and ready to just get on the ice and work. Its something that everyone has in them but we sometimes tend to get away from it at the higher levels as you go up but he brings that to our team and its infectious. Our whole team is at the ice rink and on the ice as much as we can be and it's great.
[Da Costa] is a great skater and great stickhandler and has good speed. He is so smart that its like he has such an advantage with his ability to see the ice and read and react. He controls the play so well as a puck possession guy and sets up so many scoring chances as well as score goals. He is very strong on his skates as well. I cant find anything bad about this kid every time I watch him. He's going to have a great career in the NHL.
Kyle Bigos was a 4th round selection of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He scored 33 points in 58 games with the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL for whom the native Californian played two seasons. He is now a freshman member of the Merrimack Warriors and currently has 6 points in 11 games played with 32 penalty minutes and one game winning goal.
(Photos Courtesy: Vernon Vipers, BCHL, Hockey East, Merrimack Athletics and Gil Talbot)