February 12, 2004
Sacred Heart's French Connection

By James Jahnke

Atlantic Hockey/CHA Notebook

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Sometimes, Pierre-Luc O'Brien's teammates have to remind him to speak English in the Sacred Heart locker room.

It's easy, you see, for O'Brien to get carried away and carry on in French with fellow Québécois Marc-Andre Fournier, Kevin LaPointe, Charles Veilleux and Jason Smith around. But he has to remember that outside of the Pioneers' French connection, no one has any idea what he's saying.

"I know it sucks for them," said O'Brien, who notched three goals and an assist in Sacred Heart's improbable home sweep of Mercyhurst last weekend. "I just have to remind myself to be fair to the guys who speak English."

O'Brien, a freshman from Nicolet, Quebec, is tied with senior Mike Reagan for the team scoring lead with 18 points (10-8) this season. His 10 goals are tied with senior Fournier and junior Garrett Larson for tops on the team.

So with O'Brien and Fournier generating some goals, LaPointe and Smith taking care of the goaltending duties and Veilleux making a solid contribution on the blue line, it's no secret that the province of Quebec is a major reason why the Pioneers have won four straight games and climbed into sole possession of fourth place in the Atlantic Hockey standings this month.

"There's no question we've done real well in Quebec with the caliber of student-athlete we've been able to attract," said Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah, whose team has five of the nine Quebec natives in Atlantic Hockey. "They have a real passion for the game, and the other nice thing is they study hard. They're hungry for the opportunity to go to college, and they bring a drive to succeed. But other than us and American International (with Guillaume Caron and Jeason Lecours), not many teams in Atlantic Hockey recruit up there."

O'Brien couldn't even say his own name in English before moving to British Columbia to play junior hockey two years ago. But he now speaks it more fluently than your average college basketball player. He said he doesn't use his bilingual talents for evil – most of the time.

"It is a good advantage in the bars," admitted O'Brien, 21, whose paternal grandfather emigrated from Ireland to Montreal, thus, the surname that doesn't match his first name. "You can talk about girls and stuff without them knowing about it.

"Learning English is one of the best things I can do. For a French guy with a degree from down here, it's gold back home. It's really well-respected in Quebec. You go to Montreal, and it's half-and-half. So if you want to get a job, you have to speak English. It's a plus for me."

O'Brien is studying business at Sacred Heart, although he hopes to play professionally – maybe in Europe – after his college career. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder lacks NHL size, but he can burn.

"He's been outstanding," Hannah said. "There was no break-in time with him – as soon as his skates hit the ice, he was ready. His speed adds a whole new element to our team."


Moving On
With Findlay in its final two months as a lame-duck program, the Oilers players and coaches are understandably starting to look toward the future. Two players have already made verbal commitments to transfer to other schools – freshman forward Mike Batovanja to Michigan Tech and ineligible freshman goaltender Larry Sterling to Minnesota State, Mankato. Findlay coach Pat Ford expects more players to be placed in the coming weeks.

"There are a lot of opportunities for them," Ford said. "Some guys will get the opportunity to play for programs they wouldn't have been able to play for before coming here. It speaks to the quality of player we were able to bring in."

Because Findlay's program is being eliminated, the players won't have to sit out the customary one year transfer period. They'll be eligible next fall.

As for himself, Ford said he has "a lot of irons in the fire." He said his first choice for employment next year would be at a Division I institution with a commitment to hockey. If that doesn't work out, he would consider being an assistant at an elite program, a prep coach or possibly another position with junior-age players.

"I'm in a good position where I can sit back and evaluate each option after the season," Ford said. "But the college dominoes won't start falling for another six-to-eight weeks."

Racin' — With both league tournaments being played solely at neutral sites this year, the AHA and CHA regular-season standings don't mean much except for determining seeds and bragging rights. But we'll take a quick look at how they're shaping up anyway:

Atlantic Hockey: As it has for most of the season, first-place Holy Cross has a nice buffer between it and second place. Right now, it's seven points over Mercyhurst, which was badly hurt by last weekend's zero-point effort at Sacred Heart. The Lakers have a game in hand on the Crusaders, but that doesn't mean much with a seven-point deficit. The teams meet once (in Worcester) down the stretch, and Holy Cross also has a home-and-home with third-place Quinnipiac left on the docket. But the Cross is still looookin' gooood for a regular-season title.

College Hockey America: A couple of weeks ago, Air Force coach Frank Serratore summed up the CHA pretty well. "There's an upstairs and there's a basement," he said. "There's no ground floor." True that is. Wayne State, Findlay and Serratore's Falcons are in the basement and out of the conference race (don't worry, they'll still be in the league tourney). On the top floor is first-place Bemidji State (24 points), second-place Niagara (20) and third-place Alabama-Huntsville (16). Bemidji has played two more league games than its followers, but that will even out this weekend as Niagara and UAH play each other in Huntsville, while the Beavers have two at St. Cloud State. Making things even more fun, Bemidji hosts UAH next weekend and then Niagara on the final weekend of the season. There's nothing better than when the major players in a league race actually play each other down the

Speaking of players, Niagara sophomore goaltender Jeff VanNynatten had this to say about the conference race after sweeping Wayne State last weekend: "We got nine games left and we'll probably need eight or nine wins to get first place." Sure, Jeff, Bemidji is in the proverbial driver's seat right now, but if your Purple Eagles survive the weekend in Dixie, we expect it to come down to the final period of the final weekend in north central Minnesota.

Great Weekend Getaway
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Northern Michigan at Wayne State (Fri-Sat.):
NMU will travel to its second CHA building in three weeks, coming off a win and a tie at Alabama-Huntsville last month. The Warriors don't seem poised to put up a better fight than UAH did, but it wouldn't surprise anyone at INCH if we saw two of Wayne State's better efforts at Compuware Sports Arena this weekend. It's not often that a CHA team can convince a member of the Big Four conferences to visit, so Wayne State had better make the most of this opportunity. The super-young Warriors welcomed injured freshman forward Mark Nebus (3-2—5) back to the lineup last weekend, but they still don't have enough offensive punch (2.31 goals a game) to keep up with NMU under most circumstances. Just more than half of WSU's total goals and points have been scored by freshmen this season. Northern, meanwhile, has stayed pretty inconspicuous in the CCHA and on the national scene this year, so the Wildcats desperately need a sweep this weekend to keep alive slim hopes of an at-large NCAA bid.

While you're there: Finally, Detroit! My hometown. Yeah, yeah, the games are technically in Plymouth, but it would be worth your while to head 25 miles east to the Motor City for any pre- or postgame revelry. Puckheads who have never been to the Hockeytown Café (across from Comerica Park) are almost obligated to check it out. But if you've been there and done that, try to nab tickets to the Second City comedy troupe in the same building or walk a block down Montcalm Ave. to the Town Pump, a top-shelf hole-in-the-wall with smoky blues played almost nightly.

Stick Salute

The NHL, obviously stung by my jersey criticism last week, got back in INCH's good graces last weekend. The league, enjoying its All-Star break, sent a team of officials to work Army's annual grudge match against Canada's Royal Military College on Saturday in Kingston, Ontario, showing its gratitude for the work of both countries' armed services. NHL referee Greg Kimmerly and linesmen Derek Nansen and Steve Barton called just 14 penalties Saturday, the fewest in the military rivalry since 1998. The gesture of loaning its officials was a classy one by the league.

A second salute goes to the Black Knights for actually winning the aforementioned game, 3-2. It was the West Pointers' first win over RMC in Canada since 1996 and it extended their series lead to 38-29-6 in the "oldest continuous international rivalry in all of sports." Seth Beamer, Jon Boyle and Chris Garceau tallied a goal and an assist apiece in the win in front of 3,010 Paladins fans. A snowstorm prevented most of Army's traveling party – except for the team itself – from making it to the game, but thecadets and the band were no doubt happy about the result anyway.

Bench Minor

Quinnipiac still sits in third place in the Atlantic Hockey standings, but one wonders if the Bobcats could be making Holy Cross sweat a little more if they could just win their share of road games. With a loss at last-place American International on Saturday, Quinnipiac fell to 2-11-3 away from home this year. Granted, a lion's share of those defeats came to more talented nonconference teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Merrimack, Providence and Ohio State, but the Bobcats are still 1-4-3 on the road in league games. That's what they have to start winning.

Keepin' It Close — The CHA went 0-3-1 in its marquee nonconference matchups last week, but the league undoubtedly earned a ton of respect anyway. UAH went up to Orono and played Maine within a goal for the weekend. A tough-to-swallow 1-0 loss Friday was soothed by a satisfying 2-2 tie the next night. Not bad for the third-place team in College Hockey America against No. 3 in country.

Meanwhile, Bemidji fell twice to two-time defending national champion Minnesota on the Gophers' home ice, but the Beavers trailed by just one entering the third period both nights. Think Goldy wasn't a bit nervous? Bemidji wound up losing 2-1 on Friday and 5-1 on Saturday, but it didn't overshadow a solid performance – especially by senior goaltender Grady Hunt, who stopped 36 of 38 shots in the series-opener.

Don't tell that to Beavers coach Tom Serratore, though. "We had a chance to win, and you don't know if you'll get the chance again," Serratore said to the Bemidji Pioneer after Friday's loss. "There's no such thing as moral victories for this program any longer, no matter the opponent."


• Lest you surmise O'Brien and the rest of the Pioneers' French connection give Hannah a hard time behind his back, think again.

"I understand some French, so they can't get away with too much," Hannah said with a chuckle. "My mom is French, so I knew it growing up."

• Junior forward Andrew Murray returned to the Bemidji lineup Friday after missing 11 games with a broken leg. And he made his presence felt quickly, scoring the Beavers' first goal and assisting on the other against the Gophers.

Bentley junior goalie Simon St. Pierre missed both games against Connecticut last weekend with a sore knee. Sophomore Geordan Murphy started in his absence and made 32 and 27 saves, respectively in 3-2 and 5-3 losses to the Huskies. The Falcons expect St. Pierre, a candidate for Atlantic Hockey Goaltender of the Year honors, to return this weekend against Quinnipiac.

• Wanna know why Air Force freshman defenseman Brian Gineo was the most popular guy on the team Saturday night and named the CHA Rookie of the Week on Monday? Here's a hint: He scored two goals in last five minutes of the game to rally the Falcons to a 2-1 win over Findlay on Saturday. Scored 53 seconds apart, they were the second and third markers of his college career.

• Was it a game of one-upmanship? We may never know the whole truth. But a couple of elder statesmen on rivals Quinnipiac and UConn seemed to be trying to out-do each other last weekend. Husky junior Tim Olsen certainly won the battle of quantity, racking up four goals (including a hat trick Saturday) and an assist in a sweep of Bentley. But what Quinnipiac senior Ryan Morton might have lacked in numbers, he made up for in importance, scoring all three Bobcat goals in a 3-2 win over Canisius on Friday. Advantage: Push.

• Here are two more individual achievements of note (courtesy of the CHA's two Hobey Baker Award candidates): Niagara junior Barret Ehgoetz became the fastest CHA player to reach the 50-goal plateau with a trio of markers this weekend. He now stands at 51 goals in 94 career games. Alabama-Huntsville forward Jared Ross, meanwhile, was named the CSTV/Hockey Commissioners' Association Division I Player of the Month for January.

• A pair of Atlantic Hockey cellar-dwellers broke seven-game winless slides last weekend, as UConn beat Bentley twice and American International notched a surprising 4-2 victory over Quinnipiac on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets then tied Quinnipiac on Tuesday, taking three points from the series.

• Single-game tickets for the CHA Tournament recently went on sale for $10. The tournament, which will be played March 12-14 at Tri-City Arena in Kearney, Neb., will feature five games (3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on March 12 and 13 and the title contest at 7 p.m. March 14). To order, call (308) 338-8809 or (308) 338-8011.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report.

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