As players, coaches and staff of the Quinnipiac University hockey team boarded their flight to Anchorage, Alaska for last weekend’s season-opening series, one person was conspicuously absent.
Assistant coach Bill Riga was already 3,000 miles from the Hamden, Conn. campus on a recruiting trip to British Columbia, and would meet the team in Anchorage. It was the second trip of the fall to Western Canada for Riga, who racks up the frequent flyer miles as head of BCHL scouting for the Bobcats. He estimated there would be at least two more cross-continent trips before the New Year.
No NCAA Division I college team has as much success recruiting the BCHL than Quinnipiac, a tiny but impossibly pretty school nestled in the shadow of Sleeping Giant mountain. There were nine on the roster last winter, a team that dominated ECAC Hockey and came within a game of the national championship. Seven will skate for the Bobcats this season, once again the highest B.C. representation in the college game.
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold was hired 20 years ago, when the hockey team skated at the Division II level with no scholarships. As the program was elevated and grew, more money was ear-marked for scholarships. It became obvious to Pecknold that he needed to tap into Canadian Junior A leagues. Ontario was a relatively easy drive from the school’s Hamden, Conn. campus. But there was an army of unclaimed talent in the Western provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
His recruiting budget was microscopic. Yet Pecknold managed to establish a foothold for Quinnipiac in Western Canada during the late 1990s. Good fortune helped make it possible. His parents had moved to Bellingham, Wash., an hour’s drive from Vancouver. An uncle resided in Surrey, B.C.
For the price of a round-trip plane ticket, Pecknold could stay with family and spend extensive time scouting the region. All the ambitious, young coach had to do was persuade players to travel 3,000 miles across the continent and help build a program from scratch at his tiny school with the funny sounding name.
Pecknold proved to be quite a salesman.
Among the first long distance recruits was Dan Ennis, a linebacker-sized defenseman who arrived in Hamden in 1999 from the remote coastal city of Kitimat, B.C. Trips from Quinnipiac’s campus to Ennis’ hometown required an international flight to Vancouver followed by a 20-hour drive north. A year later, another budding star of the early days, Ryan Olson, committed from his Merritt, B.C. squad.
Many of the program’s top players ever – Brian Herbert, Jamie Holden, Matt Erhart, Ben Nelson, Bryan Leitch, Brandon Wong, Scott Zurevinski -- have come from the BCHL. Young players listening to the recruiting pitch heard stories of the successes of former BCHL players in Hamden. Visits to the pretty campus often sealed the deal.
“It just snowballed,” Pecknold said. “Once you start getting great players from an area, it helps you get more great players. Over the last dozen or so years, we’ve had 33 players from British Columbia. My understanding is no other college program has even come close to that number.”
True to form, Quinnipiac’s roster for the 2012/13 season included 14 players from Canadian Junior A leagues. The nine from the BCHL included team captain Zack Currie (Victoria), forwards Kellen and Connor Jones (Montrose) and defenseman Zach Davies (Smithers.)
That team steamrolled ECAC competition to win the program’s first league championship, earned the first NCAA berth in 11 years and first Frozen Four appearance. The Bobcats fell just shy of a national title, losing to Yale in the championship game.
Expectations for this season remain high despite heavy graduation losses. The Joneses, identical twins from Montrose, are again expected to man Quinnipiac’s top line and produce offense. Both are on the verge of joining the 100-point club this year. Travis St. Denis (Trail) scored eight goals and 15 points as a freshman and is expected to increase his production this winter. Michael Garteig (Prince George), a two-time BCHL goaltender of the year, takes over for Hobey Baker finalist Eric Hartzell. He earned his first win Saturday night, a 4-1 victory over Alaska-Fairbanks. Freshman Devon Toews (Abbotsford) is expected to contribute immediately to a defensive corps that lost four seniors to graduation.
Quinnipiac, due in no small part to its extensive recruiting of B.C., has emerged as an annual contender for the NCAA title. And the pipeline won’t be drying up any time soon, with at least seven current BCHL skaters committed to the school over the next few seasons.