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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Dream job accepted

Wilson assumes Toronto helm with invincible gratitude

What exactly did Ron Wilson get himself into when he formally accepted the Toronto Maple Leafs' coaching job on Tuesday?

The Maple Leafs' website proclaims itself to be not the site of a mere team/franchise/organization, but rather "The official site of Leafs Nation." Within the heading for the site sits a twinkly blue Toronto skyline and to the far right reads the tagline: "The passion that unites us all."

Sound familiar? It ought to for any sport-loving, binational North American. If you follow with enough interest, the parallels between the Leafs and such illustrious baseball franchises as the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs.

More often than not, Bob Cole and Harry Neale, the elder statesmen of Hockey Night In Canada announcers, carry out their weekly duty from the nosebleed nest of Air Canada Centre -a mansion which has all but always logged standing-room only audiences. When they aren't there, the team plays under the watchful HD cameras of a full-time Southern Ontario sports network known as Leafs-TV.

Those outlets, together with a relentless array of newspapers and radio personnel serve to percolate Toronto's and the hockey world's collective love/hate relationship with a team going on 42 years without a Stanley Cup and four seasons without a playoff berth.

And on Wilson's first day, they kept him talking for a good 37-plus minutes.

Make no mistake, though. Wilson was way ahead in this game. Rough estimates say he's been at least four decades ahead. He noted during Tuesday's conference that he had "lived and died with the Maple Leafs" during his pre-adolescent years in Ontario and kept a grip on his allegiances even as he shuffled here to leave his everlasting skatemarks on Riverside and the PC campus.

As for Toronto's often prickly puck paparrazzi, he was so far ahead that, in his opening remarks, he said, "I know one of your questions may be 'Why did (the hiring process) take so long'? Well, when you've gone through the rollercoaster I've been through over the last month, you wanna make sure you keep emotions out of the decision-making process and make your decisions with your head...and I think that, talking with my friends around the league who agree that I would be a good fit for Toronto, I decided to accept their offer."

A while later, addressing the pen-and-paper horde more directly, he acceptingly predicted, "You guys know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. So occasionally, we're gonna have, I don't know, some duels. But that's the fun part of it."

For any uptight scribes who just want to do tell it like it is, those are the words of a godsend. But Wilson's unimaginably jovial and amiable kickstart to his Toronto tenure is the conspicuous result of his own send of blessing.

"I'm the happiest person in the National Hockey League today. I'm fulfilling a dream. I'm kind of completing the circle. When I was growing up in (Toronto suburb) Fort Erie, I dreamed of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs as long as I can remember.

"I lived and died with the Maple Leafs through the 60s and eventually got an opportunity to play for the Leafs and actually wear #14, my hero's (Hall of Famer Dave Keon) jersey. And today to be able to come back and be a part of the Maple Leafs again is basically a dream fulfilled that I never thought I'd get to experience."

He will get to experience it, though, primarily because of the lengthy, well-saturated resume that was laid before interim GM Cliff Fletcher, who incidentally is occupying the former chair of PC graduate John Ferguson, Jr.

Apparently, Wilson's assurances aside, one reporter wasn't ready to plunge all the way into potentially sensitive inquiries. The question was simply what Wilson thought of Fletcher's giving way to a whole other permanent GM. Furthermore, might he have somebody in mind? (Hint, hint.)

"There's nothing at all like that," the coach answered in the same chill tone that he used all day. "I work for Cliff right now and I'm looking forward to that whether it's for two weeks or five years."

Several minutes and several topics later, another reporter was finally blunt about it. Is Wilson's former classmate, Brian Burke, ditching Anaheim for Toronto -as was being speculated even while Wilson's sand was still running out in San Jose?

"I can't deny that Brian Burke is one of my best friends and it's logical," Wilson began in a good two-and-a-half minute response.

"Brian and I are in contact because we're friends. We do alumni things for Providence College, we help them raise money. This will be my 15th year coaching in the National Hockey League as a head coach and I have never once worked for Brian Burke. So if we're this tight as all of you people assume we are, somewhere along the line Brian would have hired me as his head coach and he's never done that."

And the speculation should taper off for now with Friday's reports that Fletcher's GM position had been cemented for at least the next full season. Still, Wilson has at least left a mousehole-sized opening to the ultimate possibility of working with Burke, if there's any fertile ice to it whatsoever.

"If you just rely on your friends, I probably wouldn't have a job," he said. "But Brian is a good friend and he's someone I would go to war with anytime."

Rheault Unful-Philled
The Philadelphia Flyers reportedly had until June 1 to decide whether they would sign a couple of uncertain draftees, among them newly graduated Providence captain Jon Rheault.
When the moment of truth came and went, no pens brushed across Rheault's prospective contract. Just tumbleweeds. As a result, the gravity guiding the course of Rheault's pro career is -for the moment- off.

The collective data, especially from a Friartown fan perspective, makes a puzzler out of this. After all, Rheault had only just finished a third season as team MVP highlighted by his cracking the 100-point plateau. And by the looks of the output of his remaining understudies, he'll likely be the last triple-digit magician the PC program will see for some time.

But it's simply an alien game once one morphs from a junior or collegian to the pros. As far as a stable position in the Flyers organization goes, the puck has been on Rheault's slippery stick for a good two years (he was picked deep in the fifth round in the 2006 draft). That's offered plenty of time for the dynamics in Philadelphia to literally sway from one extreme to the other; and a couple of times at that.

Bill Meltzer, a Philadelphia-based nhl.com correspondent, explained the situation dead-on to an inquisitive Hockey Buzz forum of Flyer fanatics. He granted that Rheault has been a "Good college player, marginal NHL upside, and several players already blocking him on the Phantoms (the Flyers' neighboring AHL affiliate)."

The Flyers' youth movement has been in the making ever since the NHL's return from the lockout, and they have already surged from a 29th overall finish in 2006-07 to reaching the Eastern Conference Finals this past spring. Heck, even the constellatory James vanRiemsdyk -Philly's #2 pick a short year ago- has not been hurried into the pro ranks, even after an as-promised brilliant freshman campaign at New Hampshire.

For Rheault, meanwhile, this may mean starting simpler with an independent ECHL team or perhaps venturing abroad.

Four More Aboard
The PC women's team recently confirmed the addition of four additional NLI signees -forwards Lauren Covell and Arianna Rigano and blueliners Christie Jensen and Breanna Schwarz- thus sealing a rather sizeable 10-member freshman class to flow into Schneider Arena this autumn.
Barring any further fluctuation, the Friars' 2008-09 positional distribution should read as follows: 13 forwards, eight defenders, four goaltenders. This would mean an increase of two players in the defense department and one more member of the goaltenders' guild.

On the whole, coach Bob Deraney is slated to have a far more auspicious total of 25 bodies at his disposal versus the sometimes unreliable 22 he had to work with this past season. PC found itself reduced to a fractionary game roster at times last season -particularly for six weeks in the stretch drive when co-captain Rachel Crissy was sidelined by a battered knee. One evening, in a road loss to Boston University, they were also without the services of Jenna Keilch and could only employ ten forwards.

This season, though his number of desginated forwards (13) remains unchanged, Deraney, if need be, will at least have the option of bumping up the quintessential two-way connoisseur Erin Normore and/or mimic Amber Yung now that he has two more defensive players than the minimum requirement. (And recent history says it's bound to happen given that Finnish flare Mari Pehkonen sacrificed five collegiate games to represent her country in two different tournaments last year).

As far as netminding goes, Deraney should figure it safe to redshirt the incoming Genevieve LaCasse. After all, he suited up the three goalies he already has for much of last season, though only Danielle Ciarletta and Jen Smith logged any tangible playing credit (rising sophomore Christina England was the odd woman out).

Quick Feeds: Pro Ambitions, the camp founded by former Friar and P-Bruin Jeff Serowik has delved into its 18th summer of action and will make its first regional stop at BU June 22. A series of camps will be held at URI's Boss Arena starting July 6 and running as late as July 18...Closer to campus -actually, right on campus- the first of two Bob Deraney girl's hockey camp sessions kicks off June 22 at Schneider Arena...Look for the names of incoming Friar defensemen Danny New -#141 amongst the Central Scouting Service's top North American skaters- and Bryce Aneloski -#157 on the same leaderboard- in next weekend's NHL Draft. If both are selected, PC's 2008-09 roster will tentatively field five NHL prospects, already boasting Mark Fayne (New Jersey), Joe Lavin (Chicago), and Pierce Norton (Toronto). Out of 87 current or committed collegians mentioned by this year's CSS, 22 have Hockey East ties...RIP Tim Russert, a noted Buffalo Sabres fan, a recent Boston College parent (which, it's been said, made him an automatic Superfan), and more importantly a quintessential role model for any aspirant journalist, regardless of what breed of journalism or topic of coverage one shoots for.

Friday, June 13, 2008

On Lacrosse

Friars may be growing up too fast

When Big East commissioner Michael Tranghese, not wasting a moment of his final year of duty before retirement, announced the conference's forthcoming men's lacrosse league Wednesday, a shoulder-sack of excitation was slit and spilled all over Providence and beyond.

Proclaimed Friars' coach Chris Burdick: "In the fastest growing sport in the country, it's important to provide role models and opportunities for young athletes. The newly formed Big East lacrosse league will provide those role models and opportunities with the addition of top-notch programs."

Tough to argue. After all, the Big East does lay claim to the recently crowned Syracuse Orange -now 10-time national champions in the last 25 years- as well as Notre Dame -ranked fourth overall in the final LaxPower poll this spring- and Georgetown, #8 at season's end. Both will help to inaugurate the league in 2010, opposite PC, Rutgers, and St. John's.

And interestingly enough, even crosstown rival Brown skipper Lars Tiffany had a few words. His statement read: "The rest of college lacrosse now has to be even sharper. PC has awoken and empowered their own sleeping giant."

Wow. Kind words. But strange words at that, given the Bears are an impeccable 15-0 in their all-time series with the Friars.

Burdick, in his now decade-long tenure on the PC sidelines, has never once confronted the six rivals who are suddenly slated to become an annual obstacle. The last time a PC lax team did have any incidental contact with another Big East inhabitant was in 1995, Kevin Murray's last year here. That was a venture to St. John's, where they absorbed a 19-6 lashing.

The Friars have never recorded a tussle with the likes of Notre Dame or the almighty Orange.
But if they were to in their current state of affairs, it would likely duplicate their last NCAA tournament venture when they lost to Duke, 18-3, thirteen months ago.

Just look at the track record of any MAAC ambassador when they lock poles with the established bigwigs from New York to North Carolina. It's all the same. When the brackets are in place, they contain one proud MAAC banner-raiser raring to affix its cleats into the same grand bowl of turf as some presumptive national semifinalist.

For the former club, the pleasure is cut off right there. The Friars, three-time MAAC champs since 2004 know the feeling in the form of a 15-3 drubbing by Johns Hopkins, a 14-8 submission to Hofstra, and the aforementioned Duke scourge. Most recently, Canisius felt it when they sank before Syracuse, 20-3, in their first-round encounter. In the interim of PC's miniature dynasty, it was the 2005 Marist Red Foxes collecting their automatic bids, then snuffing them out before Johns Hopkins by a 22-6 margin.

Maybe that's what validates the Panglossian fervor in Burdick's statement. In the first nine seasons of MAAC Lacrosse, its tenants have done each other little more than honed butter-knives which one squad is bound to take up against the santokus that Syracuse & Co. brandish.

Somewhere down the line, if all goes according to plan, that will change for the Friars and anybody else who breaks off. The implicit logic behind bolting now and taking up annual regular season battles with the same established powerhouses is speeding up athletic evolution.

But it still means inevitable growing pains at the start. It might not mean baking a string of vinegary doughnuts the same way PC has failed to scrape out a single W in its nonconference gauntlet of late. If the Friars can at least kiln the kind of valiant effort they put forth in an 8-6 shortcoming with North Carolina earlier this year, they could notch some noteworthy wins with more succeeding opportunities.

But the way the Friars measure up with the Orange, the Irish, and even the Hoyas right here and now, it's the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (from before the sensitive name change) versus the AL East of 1998-2007.

So savor the Friars' final quest for a MAAC crown in 2009. It will most likely be PC's last legitimate hardware hunt for a while.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Track Log

Something to add

Friars send annual sprinkling to NCAAs, each with an extra rung to grasp

Something mystical -or, if nothing else, years of simple building upon building- worked tangibly for Ahmed Haji at the climactic turn of his fourth and final PC track season.

By sheer grace, or a hefty dollop of drive, or an exponentially escalating package of proficiency, or all of the above, the track spirits finally gleamed in approval at an all-seasons runner of an endless cross-country trophy case but an inverse shortage of equivocal track and field accomplishments.

After he had snuffed out on his first three stabs at a ticket to the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Haji made a charm out of the fourth attempt and is set to take one last hustle in PC attire a good month after he was handed his degree. Together with female associates and outdoor championship veterans Katie DiCamillo and Danette Doetzel, he will represent the Friars in Des Moines, Iowa, on the campus of host Drake University (ironically yesterday's home of PC's new men's basketball skipper, Keno Davis).

Haji and DiCamillo will each run through their respective 5,000 meter semifinals Wednesday evening, the ladies going first at 8:10, the men to follow at 8:50. Doetzel will carry out her one-shot deal in the 10,000 meter dash Thursday night, the cue-gun going off for her group at 8:10.

Should either Haji or DiCamillo advance, they will hang about for Friday's meter finals, the women to go at 9:15 p.m. and the men immediately following at 9:35.

Haji, a four-time veteran of the NCAA cross country championships, earned his passport here on April 24 with a nip-and-tuck finish at the Penn Relays, where he hadn't earned any glamour since he went there in 2004 as a senior with Conard High School. Coming back in the form of a ripe collegian, he finished sixth among 31 5,000m dashers, logging a flashy 13:57.01 running time.

Between PC's four student-athletes of the year (Haji was distinguished under the male individual sport heading), Doetzel is the only one with still another year to work with in Friartown. And between this year's trinity of track elites, she's the one branding the progressive archetype.

In the not-too-distant past, Doetzel has made 5,000 meters her specialty. She went 12th overall in the final round of that very event a year ago in Sacramento with a 16:27.67 finish. Three months ago, accompanied by the Friars' mile-run connossieur Hayden McLaren, she clocked in at 16:36.04 to finish 13th in a final pool of 16 at the Arkansas-hosted indoor championships.

She has, more or less, "graduated" in the short time since. In Arkansas, she was one of the final 16 standing in the 5,000m event, where she finished 13th overall within 16:36.04.

Since then, during this outdoor season, she has laid claim to the Big East throne for 10,000m competitors. Doetzel completed that venture in a matter of 33:27.64 for first place in the conference final May 3, plenty to fulfill the NCAA qualification criteria.

Earning the option of a double-dip in both the 5,000 and 10,000 runs this week, Doetzel chose the latter option by itself. And so, she leaves the 5,000 legacy solely in the hands of DiCamillo, who fell a few gusts short of joining her in last year's finals.

DiCamillo, who at the 2007 indoor bonanza logged an identical 13th-place finish in the indoor 5,000 meter run (16:23.28 time), stamped her passport to Des Moines less than two weeks ago in the East Regionals. She claimed fourth-place by means of a 16:48, only fifteen seconds ahead of a fifth-place, shortcoming Friar friend in Krystal Douglas.

DiCamillo, Doetzel's fellow junior and a cross-country ace like Doetzel and Haji both, will look to better last year's semi-final run of 16:26.13, which placed her 12th in that tour and on the sidelines to watch her teammate, who finished twelve seconds and a slim three slots ahead of her.