In the last seven days, the Boston University men’s hockey team has been through a LOT. Between a national semifinal loss, plane rides to and from Tampa, transfer portal noise and NHL signings, we’ve had more to analyze in the week after the conclusion of the season than we did between regionals and the Frozen Four. Before we truly “conclude” the season though, let’s take a look back on what was a historic year and a shift in the trajectory of the program.
Was it a new bench boss at the helm of the team that made the difference? The star-studded new entrants that exceeded expectations? One record-breaking freshman? The starting goaltender’s best season of his NCAA career? Of course it was. But more than that, it was the on-ice leadership of ten veteran skaters, whose dedication to the scarlet and white solidified their position as the Terriers who brought this program back to the national stage.
Maybe that’s giving this senior class too much credit, but if you look back at their last four years, especially compared to the four years they were promised, their commitment speaks volumes.
Theoretically, the class of 2023 was promised four years of 35(ish)-game seasons under David Quinn. (I’m not here to talk poorly about Albie O’Connell because I think BU owes a huge amount of its success this season to his recruiting. I am here to say he wasn’t what many of these guys were promised when they committed at what? 14 years old?)
So what did they get?
In the 2019-20 season, the incoming freshman class was 1. Enormous, and 2. Loaded with top-end talent –– remember Trevor Zegras? Despite the skill and size of those 11 guys, the greater team was split with some players starting under Quinn and others under O’Connell.
What else happened in 2020? Wilmer Skoog and Ashton Abel joined the Terriers in January? Right. That, and the whole global pandemic that ended the Terriers’ season (and shut down the rest of the world) on senior night. Sent home in March of their freshman year, Zegras signed, the seniors had their final year interrupted, and the future of the program was completely uncertain.
This isn’t to say that COVID was a uniquely BU experience because obviously it wasn’t. It is to say that despite that uncertainty, those freshmen stayed.
2020-21, while back on campus, was just as variable as the offseason. Between the Hockey East Power Index, practices at half capacity and a fanless sophomore season, the Terriers strung together an impressive stretch of games. The addition of Jay O’Brien was huge for BU that year, and we’ll circle back to the mark he left on this team in his three years.
The chaos that was the 2020-21 season seemed promising. BU finished with a record of 10-5-1, and handed future National Champions UMass its last loss of the season. Let’s remember that a 10-5-1 season is still only a 16 game season.
While seemingly impressive, the Terriers were eliminated in the Hockey East Quarterfinals to the UMass Lowell River Hawks with Matt Brown scoring the go-ahead goal for his team at the time. Two weeks later, they were eliminated in a deflating loss to the St. Cloud State Huskies in the Northeast Regional.
Even with the chaos of the Covid season, that sophomore class, now including OB for a total of 13 guys, came back for more.
2021-22 was the most normal season these guys had experienced, and they finished with a 19-13-3 record. There was more confidence heading into the 100th season of Terrier Hockey. Matt Brown dropped his blue and red and suited up in scarlet and white. Jay Pandolfo was brought back as an assistant coach and lurked in the background, silently injecting culture back into the program.
Yes, they returned the Beanpot to its rightful home on Comm Ave. They also won 11 out of 12 games to start 2022. The win streak and the Beanpot were distractions though, disguising another first round exit in the Hockey East playoffs that ended the season. Skoog scoring a lacrosse goal in an 8-1 loss to Maine was actually the perfect metaphor for the season: one cherry-picked victory, clouded by a whole lotta noise.
Another early end to the season saw Alex Vlasic turn pro and some transfer portal entrances, but still, ten guys decided to stick it out for one more year. And stick it out they did.
We all know how well this season went and how expectations were exceeded in 1000 different directions. Coaching, goaltending, freshmen, culture, buy-in, all of it. Above all though, it was the class of 2023.
The 2022-23 team was held accountable not only by a new leader in Pandolfo, but in the core of this team that was bonded together through three years of uncertainty, chaos, and unfulfilled promises. So who are they and how did they buy into their roles?
Sean Driscoll and John Copeland were two consistent benchwarmers for essentially three years. Ultimately Driscoll ended his BU career the same way he entered it, and being scratched sucks. But he still stuck it out for a program he believed in.
Copeland stepped up when his team needed it most. He came on Terrier Hockey Talk early in the year and discussed how he had started to buy into his role this year. Now, at the end of the season, his game is almost unrecognizable. His confidence and poise with the puck earned him that sixth d-spot, and it’s clear how much he meant to this team.
Jamie Armstrong and Sam Stevens proved their buy-in differently. Someone with aspirations of being a college hockey player also has aspirations of being a top-line player with top-line minutes.
Army and Steve-o were the ultimate representation of offensive depth. They made all the difference this year through their gritty play and their acceptance of what Pando and the coaching staff needed from them.
Ethan Phillips was the most snake-bitten Terrier of the senior class. From red-shirt to red-shirt, it felt like being a Terrier rarely clicked for Phillips, and yet, he wanted to be one for four years. The politics of college hockey might have put his name in the portal, but for him to go pro, he deserves top minutes at another program. His eventual departure aside, Ethan Phillips is a big reason BU played in Tampa.
Matt Brown has the story and career of a lifetime. From ending BU’s Hockey East playoff run in 2021 to leading the Terriers in goals two years later, Brown has been through the ringer not just in hockey, but in life. An incredible player added to the Terrier roster late, and an incredible person to represent this program.
Wilmer Skoog is perhaps the best mid-season addition of all time, with the exception of one mohawked seven-year-old. Whether scoring the Beanpot semifinal overtime game-winner in 2020 or breaking through Cornell’s defense to get his team to the Frozen Four, Skoog quickly dominated the Terrier stat-sheet. He’s a competitor through and through.
Case McCarthy has been a silently consistent leader for BU for four years. While he doesn’t always break through goalies, Mac’s dependability as a defenseman made him go unnoticed, which sometimes, is exactly what you need in a blueliner. His character shined in the way he spoke to media and even in instances of pure terror like the Providence collision when he turned around to be there for his team 24 hours later.
Jay O’Brien didn’t have the college hockey experience he intended to in his freshman year. An underwhelming start at Providence transitioned into a sturdy playmaker for the Terriers with improvements every year. His growth in the scarlet and white was clear in his stats, but also in the way he carried himself off the ice.
“Hell of a group, hell of a season. Going to miss putting on that scarlet and white,” O’Brien said after the Minnesota game. “Just really proud and honored to be a Terrier.”
Lastly, captain Domenick Fensore. Fensore was a character leader who I think most of Terrier nation wishes could lead this group for ten years. The top point-scorer in 2021-22 was clearly more than a top-end player who sat amongst the top of all NCAA blueliners.
He was a presence in the locker room who helped not only transition Pandolfo from an assistant coach to a head coach, but held his teammates accountable to reinstate this program from a Hockey East first-round exit team to a National Championship contender.
Fensore’s commitment to his teammates, his game and this program were often swept under the rug. The hit he took against Maine in January for example lingered for the rest of the season. When he took another big hit in the Hockey East semifinals, he skated to the bench and played his next shift. We never got a full diagnosis of what the injury was, but he was a warrior for the Terriers and embodied the “it hurts to win” mentality.
“That’s what Dom and that leadership group did,” Pandolfo said in regard to the style of commitment his leaders were able to instill in the younger players. “I couldn’t be more proud of them in how they bought in –– how they wanted to be difference makers.”
I truly think there are so many puzzle pieces as to what made this season special, but I’d say the biggest pieces were Fensore, the seniors and Pandolfo. OB put it best after the Minnesota game:
“He just cares so much about his players, staff… everyone around BU, he treats the same,” the senior said of his coach. “He holds us to a high standard. Holds everybody accountable. He’s going to be a coach at BU for as long as he wants. Hopefully that’s a long time.”
The buy-in wasn’t just limited to the players, but to the fans as well. The shift on Comm Ave has never been more apparent, and you’ve never seen Terrier pride on display the way you see it in these ten seniors. They bleed scarlet and white, and their commitment to the game, themselves, and each other has changed the trajectory of the program.
Pandolfo reinstated the culture and redefined what it means to be a Boston University hockey player. Dom, OB, Mac and the other seven seniors embodied it. They should leave this locker room with their heads held high, knowing they’re leaving this program better than they found it.