Incoming hockey class of ’05 will fill big skates

When Yale team MVP Jeff Hamilton ’01 and the rest of his fellow seniors were honored at last Tuesday’s hockey banquet, it officially marked the end of an era for one of the most successful classes in 106 years of Yale hockey.

To say the least, those seven seniors left some mighty big shoes to fill.

But with the close of the Class of 2001 era, another one has dawned for the seven members of the Class of 2005, which comes in as one of Yale hockey’s most highly touted classes in years.

“With the graduation of our seniors there are going to be a lot of spots to fill, but this is going to be a cornerstone class,” head coach Tim Taylor said. “It is one of the finest in terms of consistent talent and balance across the board that we’ve had here in a long time.”

That is high praise from Taylor, who has lured stars like Hamilton, former New York Islander Ray Giroux ’98 and Atlanta Thrashers’ draft pick Jeff Dwyer ’04 to the Elm City in recent years.

All seven of Taylor’s recruits were accepted into Yale back in January through the early decision application, and five of them hail from the New England area.

Headlining the list is Avon Old Farms forward Christopher Higgins, who has been projected to go as high as the third round in July’s NHL draft. NHL draft specialist Paul MacDonald currently has Higgins rated 118th in the nation, which would place him in the fourth round.

Fitting the typical Yale mold, Higgins is a small but skilled forward who could play center for the Bulldogs. He played on the prestigious New York Select-17 team two years ago.

“He has the potential to be a dominant player at the college level, eventually,” Taylor said. “He is an outstanding all-around athlete, and I think he is going to challenge for an awful lot of offensive playing time next year.”

Taft School teammates Christian Jensen and Ryan Trowbridge will continue skating together at Ingalls Rink next year, bringing a combination of size and speed to the Eli wing spots.

Jensen played for the New England Select-17 team two years ago. He is a quick and skilled skater and is ranked 169th overall by MacDonald.

Trowbridge, who also played with Jensen on the New England team, will bring size and toughness to the Eli front lines. Trowbridge has also distinguished himself as an extremely hard worker off the ice and a very motivated player, both Taylor and Yale goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 said.

The graduation of team defensive MVP Joe Dart ’01 and defense partner John Gauger ’01 leave major holes in Yale’s already shaky defense, but Taylor has picked up two big defensemen to step in next year.

Joe Callahan of Boston College High School and Mike Grobe of junior hockey’s Chicago Freeze both measure up above six feet tall and bring a physical presence to Yale’s blueline corps.

Callahan, who is also under serious consideration in July’s draft, will be the biggest defenseman on the Yale squad next year, while Grobe has shown flash on the offensive end.

“Callahan is a physical player with a little edge to his game.” Taylor said, “Grobe is an outstanding skater and a fast, rangy player for this size.”

Rounding out the class are Milton Academy goalie Peter Cohen and Breck (Minn.) High School forward C.J. Nibbe.

Cohen played in the same high school league as Lombard, becoming the third Boston-area native playing goalie for the Bulldogs.

Lombard said he had not seen Cohen play, but that he had spoken with him several times and plans to contact him in Boston this summer.

“[Cohen] is a very good goalie that didn’t play for a very good team,” Lombard said. “A lot of times that’s good for a high-school player, though, because he really gets to work on his game and is able to adapt faster to game situations.”

Nibbe suffered a major injury last season when a player skated over his arm, severely cutting Nibbe’s forearm. Lombard said Nibbe is “somewhat up in the air right now because of the injury,” but that he still expects him to come in the fall.

The next step for the seven member of the new class will be to complete summer training programs, which Taylor will mail them in several weeks. Captain-elect Luke Earl ’02 also plans to write each one a letter welcoming him to the team.

With an abundance of open spots in the starting lineup next year, the freshmen will have to come out skating well if the Bulldogs want to be competitive. The Elis’ schedule next year will feature two games against recently crowned national champion Boston College, whom the Bulldogs beat this November, as well as perennial powers Boston University, Ohio State and New Hampshire.

“These guys can be freshmen for about three weeks and then we need them to stop playing like freshmen,” Lombard said. “It is part of our duty as seniors to make sure that they do that and that they feel comfortable, both on the ice and off.”

Taylor is confident that this group will be able to stand the likely baptism by fire, calling them “one of the best recruiting class in recent memory.”

Taylor, who became the winningest coach in Yale history this year, credited assistant coaches C.J. Maratollo and Bruce Wolanin ’91 for bringing in the great yield.

The Bulldogs open practice officially next season Oct. 15, and they start their conference regular season shortly after with a daunting trip to NCAA tournament entrant St. Lawrence and defending ECAC regular season champion Clarkson.

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