One of the difficult realities of college sports is that any one team can never be built to last. With student-athletes graduating after four years, and some going pro even before that, roster turnover is never easy for any team, let alone one that just saw the graduation of its winningest class in program history.
That’s the position Northeastern men’s ice hockey coach Jim Madigan found himself in after last season, when after three NCAA Tournament appearances, two Hockey East championships and two consecutive Beanpot championships, 11 players moved on from Northeastern. Among them was sophomore Cayden Primeau, the 2019 recipient of the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s most outstanding goaltender, and junior Jeremy Davies, a 2019 nominee for the Hobey Baker Award for the NCAA’s top hockey player.
If you ask Madigan, it wouldn’t come as a surprise that this group had achieved such success. In his own words: “They know what it meant to be part of a winning program and what it takes to prepare to be a winning team each and every day.”
With 11 new spots on his roster and 11 big shoes, or skates, to fill, the importance of recruiting became clearer than ever this offseason. While there is no shortage of college hopefuls interested in donning the Red and Black, there is a limit on how many players can be on the team’s roster, making it crucial for Madigan and his staff to pick the right recruits. For Madigan, however, the recruitment process isn’t just about trying to fill in gaps with the flashiest players out there.
“We don’t need the best 15 forwards, or 10 defensemen, or four goalies in the country. We got the right ones for Northeastern Hockey,” Madigan said. “It’s not always the most skilled or most profile players that win – what we’ve been able to do is put a team together that complements each other.”
It’s this idea of teamwork and playing athletes off of each other’s strengths that has allowed Madigan to ice such competitive teams in his nine seasons as head coach of Northeastern, a concept that isn’t lost on freshman forward Riley Hughes.
“We have good players all the way through our roster, so I think we’ll all be able to make an impact, and hopefully we’ll have success this year,” he said.
For the new Huskies, the choice to play for Northeastern wasn’t a difficult one.
“Hearing about the championships they’ve won recently, it’s definitely something you want to be a part of coming in as a freshman,” said freshman goaltender Connor Murphy.
“This school’s always one of the ones you look up to when you’re playing as a kid,” echoed Craig Pantano, a fifth-year transfer goaltender and Massachusetts native.
Across all the Huskies’ successful teams, despite talented players coming and going, the common denominator has been the strength of the culture in the locker room – something that stems from the upperclassmen. Mike Kesselring, a freshman defenseman, noticed it shortly after arriving at NU.
“It’s been really open-arms. Obviously we have a lot of freshmen, so we need to be able to gel quickly,” he said. “For me, especially, [team captain] Ryan Shea’s been doing a really good job helping me get adjusted.”
This experience wasn’t unique to Kesselring. From summer workouts to getting acclimated to campus in the first months, the veteran players helped their younger teammates along the way.
“There’s a good, solid senior class, and the freshmen and sophomores from last year have been able to carry over some of the traditions as well,” said Hughes. “They welcomed us, they’ve been awesome with us, and we’ve gelled pretty quickly.”
Madigan summarized the phenomenon: “[A team’s culture is] cyclical. As those upperclassmen move along and graduate, then the juniors and sophomores take over. Everyone gets the chance to be the mentor and the mentee in the process.”
Take Zach Solow, a junior forward and alternate captain. Last season he was on the receiving end of the upperclassmen’s influence; this year, he is looked up to as one of the leaders.
“[They taught me about] buying in to what the coaches are saying, showing the passion it takes to be a Husky, and just playing as hard as you can every night and helping the team win.”
Finding himself in a leadership role on the team, acting as a mentor for the newest generation of Huskies, he noted, “Everyone’s a leader in their own way. They’re gonna come through to the best of their abilities and it’s gonna help us win games.”
There’s an understanding between the new student-athletes and the returning veterans. Everyone knows what it’s like to be the new guy. Everybody will need to step up and lead in their own right.
It only draws the pack closer together.
“Everything’s really tight,” said Murphy. “There aren’t any cliques in our group.”
At the end of the day, it’s that strong leadership core and the passing of ideas and lessons, which allows the Huskies to weather the inevitable storm of roster turnover.
“I think I learned how to lead, just seeing the leadership core and how they went about winning,” said captain Ryan Shea. “Just having that confidence and kind of swagger.”
Although the winningest class in Northeastern men’s ice hockey history may have moved on, their work ethic, drive, and passion has left an imprint in the locker room which will be passed on for years and years to help maintain that level of success and acclaim.
“The last four years I’ve learned a culture that’s pretty close to me, and now it’s just my time to pass it on,” asserted Shea.
So while there may be 11 young faces taking the ice as Huskies for their first time this season, it’s the strength of the team’s faceless culture off the ice that has left the team no worse for wear. And from Madigan’s perspective, that culture never appeared stronger.
“When you can see [culture] the most, is when you aren’t in the lineup, and the person that replaces you goes out and has a great day in your spot, but you’re just as happy for his success as if it was you. It’s about ‘Team First.’”