School’s out and the sun is shining. It’s summertime and living is easy, but four Massachusetts hockey players are hard at work.
Nearly four months removed from a Hockey East playoff loss in Chestnut Hill against Boston College that ended the Minutemen’s season, Kevin Boyle, Michael Pereira, Oleg Yevenko and recruit K.J. Tiefenwerth attended the 2012 New York Islanders prospect camp last week held at Iceworks, the club’s official practice facility, in Syosset, N.Y.
Surrounded by portraits immortalizing current heroes and those of Islanders past, the Minutemen reflected on their own 2011-2012 collegiate season and look forward to the upcoming one.
“[My goal is] just [to] be more consistent,” said Pereira. “I’ve learned there’s no nights off in our league. Being here [at prospect camp] is definitely a great opportunity to measure yourself against guys who are playing at a level above you, learn how they conduct themselves on and off the ice, and bring [that knowledge] to next year.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound West Haven, Conn., native also spoke about his increased productivity and the available ice time left by the departure of seniors T.J. Syner and Danny Hobbs.
“It’s not just going to be me,” said Pereira. “It’s going to be guys like Connor Sheary, Troy Power, Steven Guzzo, Branden Gracel — all of us really need to up our level of play and obviously goals are good, but I want to focus on becoming more of a complete player and helping our team win. Goals are nice, but blocking a shot, [and having a strong forecheck are key]. The goals will come if you’re working hard and that’s what my main focus is.”
Boyle and Yevenko, both of whom will be sophomores this fall, also believe there is much room for improvement.
“[My play] wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be, but I have a lot of stuff to build on so I’m just looking to go forward from there,” said Boyle. “I think it was a little streaky at times — the three Providence games weren’t my best games — but we beat BC when they were No. 1 in the country, we went into BU at Agganis [Arena] when they were No. 1 in the country and [we] won.”
Adhering to the summer program given to him by the team’s strength coach, Yevenko, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound defenseman from Minsk, Belarus, is focused on getting stronger and faster on his feet to adjust to the pace of the speedy collegiate game as compared to the USHL.
“My first job is to be a shutdown defenseman, be physical in my own end and I’ll try my best to add [an] offensive touch to my team,” said Yevenko.
The returning members of the Minutemen squad are aware of their roles and potential in the upcoming season.
“It comes down to swagger,” said Pereira. “We learned we can play and be a dominant team in this league, the question is do we want to work every night? Do we want to be that team? I think everyone’s ready for it.”
Faced with a degree of uncertainty due to the departure of coach Don “Toot” Cahoon after 12 seasons at the helm of UMass hockey, the Minutemen have quickly matured and taken on great self-responsibility.
“There’s going to be a new voice, different schemes and everyone’s got to be willing to buy in,” said Pereira. “We’re [a] tight-knit family now, if somebody speaks, everybody listens. We know what it’s going to take [and] we’re still coming back 25 guys strong.”
Yevenko was personally surprised by the late coaching changes.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Yevenko. “I’ve talked to coach Cahoon and he said hopefully this change will help improve the system and [the] hockey program [overall]. We still have coach Len Quesnelle [and] I have no doubt [the next coach] will be well qualified.”
Boyle, a native of Manalapan, N.J., admits the change is tough, but he looks for the positives in the situation.
“Motivation is definitely still there,” said Boyle. “All the boys — we all have talked, and we understand we really need to work hard. Just because our coach left doesn’t mean we can slack off.”
When asked about Darren Yopyk, a scout for the Minnesota Wild and rumored candidate for the UMass head coaching position, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder drew an interesting comparison between his two former coaches.
“Now that I think about it, they’re actually somewhat similar,” said Boyle. “Yopyk was a graduate assistant for UMass where he learned some stuff from Toot. He focuses on getting you to the next level and he really loves to win, he absolutely loves winning. If he has to be a little harsh sometimes, he can, but he’s definitely a good coach and it’d be nice to have him.”
As the Cahoon era ends, new blood has been injected into the team in the form of freshman recruits like Tiefenwerth, a forward who scored 30 goals and tallied 47 assists with the Junior Bruins in the EJHL last season. While Tiefenwerth acknowledges the coaching change, he remains committed to the program.
“I fell in love with the school and met a lot of guys on the team, so I’m still excited to be [at UMass,]” said Tiefenwerth. “Me [and Pereira] have some chemistry, playing on the same line at Avon [Old Farms]. He told me [Amherst] is a great place to be, there’s always something to do and the hockey is great.”
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound incoming freshman is eager to take the Mullins Center ice to experience the “Mullins Maniacs” first-hand.
“I heard it’s a great environment to play in,” said Tiefenwerth. “It’s one of the biggest rinks in the league, I heard the atmosphere was out of control [and] I can’t wait to play. I want to do the best I can and be a leader on the team within the next four years. [I want to] win a Hockey East championship.”
The ambitious Bellmore, N.Y., native showcased the skill set he will bring to UMass when he joined forces with Yevenko on Team Blue in the Islanders’ “Orange vs. Blue Rookie Scrimmage” against Boyle, Pereira and the rest of Team Orange.
Tiefenwerth’s good awareness and hockey smarts — along with Yevenko’s consistent unselfish play on the blue line, coupled with vocal on-ice leadership — helped Team Blue impress through two 25-minute halves, rather than three 20-minute periods.
Sparked by the hungry play of Pereira, who scored the first goal of the game, Team Orange went on to defeat Team Blue 3-0 in regulation, earning a shutout for Boyle, who played in net for the second half of the game.
“We work on transition all the time at UMass and I saw that opening, skated as hard as I can and [John] Persson threaded the needle to get me that pass,” said Pereira. “I played center tonight [for the] first time in a while [and] had a lot of fun. You just want to come in here and make a good impression and that’s what I hope I did.
“KB (Boyle) played well, he’s been playing well all week. I think he had a little game day jitters this morning, I had his number a bit,” joked Pereira. “But he’s been playing well and it was fun to watch him in those breakaways. He’s working hard and that’s what we need out of him.”
Boyle, whose favorite player is Hall-of-Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, denied valued Islanders prospect, Ryan Strome, on a penalty shot, which was awarded in place of a minor penalty, as per the stipulation of the scrimmage. He blanked all five shooters in the shootout that followed regulation play to snag a 6-0 victory in the signature dramatic fashion of his idol.
“The hockey gods were on my side,” said Boyle.”
On the opposite end of the ice, Yevenko said he felt good for his UMass teammates, but remains concerned with not getting scored on. Tiefenwerth echoed Yevenko’s sentiments saying it was good to see UMass put one in, but he would have liked for his team to score as well.
The efforts of both squads on and off the ice did not go unnoticed, as Islanders coach Jack Capuano talked about what he saw from the Minutemen.
“They each bring a different element to the game, more physical, more skill, but the one thing that you enjoy is that they’re high character kids,” said Capuano. “They were good teammates and you can see in this game tonight that they proved they can play with some of the top prospects that we have on Long Island and hopefully they’re excited they got that opportunity.”
Capuano also acknowledged the notable goaltending of Boyle.
“When I look at a goalie, I look at his compete level,” said Capuano. “I look at a guy that’s aggressive with his angles—and how he played the puck tonight too in the trapezoid—and made himself big. When you do those little things you have success. He battled in there and it was impressive.”
Peter Cappiello can be reached at email@example.com.