There was a moment early in the season, before the Player of the Week award, before the junior national team exploits, when Chris Higgins ’05 showed how he could alter the course of the men’s ice hockey team in the next three years. Less than two minutes into a 5-0 rout of Colgate Dec. 1, Higgins danced around three Colgate defensemen before beating goaltender David Cann low to the glove side with the precision of a senior veteran.
While the rest of the press box was busy adding sentences to game summaries, Yale assistant coach Dave Hainsworth said what was on everyone’s mind.
“That kid’s really something, isn’t he?” Hainsworth muttered.
Just over halfway through his first season with the Bulldogs, Higgins has accomplished more than most collegiate hockey players can hope to achieve in four years. Higgins has received ECAC honors twice this year, once as Rookie of the Week and another as Offensive Player of the Week. He’s also the fifth-highest rated prospect among American collegiate players for the 2002 NHL draft, 22nd overall.
As head coach Tim Taylor tells it, Higgins has three-time All-American Jeff Hamilton’s ’01 scoring ability and Bob Kudelski’s ’87 power. Hamilton holds the all-time record in scoring with 173 points in his four years of regular season play at Yale. Kudelski played 11 seasons in the NHL, going to the playoffs three times with the Los Angeles Kings in 1990, 1991 and 1992.
But sitting at a table at Au Bon Pain, Higgins seems like a normal guy. Except for his huge hands. These are the hands that led the U.S. Junior National Team in scoring at the International Ice Hockey Federation Junior World Championships. These hands are the ones that lead the men’s ice hockey team and ECAC rookies after notching 17 points in 15 games.
Higgins’ hands were not always so big. There was a time when, as a 5-foot-5, 120-pound freshman at Avon Old Farms Prep school in Avon, his present 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame was a dream.
“I didn’t even try out for varsity,” Higgins said. “I just figured there was no way I was going to make it.”
The first few months at Avon were hard for Higgins, who had left his Long Island hometown of Smithtown, N.Y., for the first time. At Avon, his days of neighborhood roller hockey in the spring and fall, the bright lights of indoor ice hockey at “the Rinx” down the road in Hauppaugue, and the advice of former New York Islander Jerry Hart were far away.
“Every night I called up my parents and said ‘I gotta get out of here,'” Higgins said. “They said try it for a year, and if you still don’t like it then you can come home.”
Things quickly picked up for Higgins, who found friends when he made the junior varsity squads for soccer and ice hockey his freshman year. It took a year for Higgins to mature and make varsity for both teams, two sports which, to this day, he is equally passionate about for one reason.
“I just love to score,” Higgins said.
In his last three years at Avon, Higgins led both the soccer and hockey teams in scoring. On the hockey team, Higgins was All-League junior year and All-New England his senior year. Higgins’ exploits were enough to garner the attention of now No. 10 Boston University and No. 14 Harvard University, but Yale had its eyes on him long before he earned recognition in the league.
In the middle of his senior season at Avon, months after he had turned down an invitation to join the under-18 U.S. national team, Higgins accepted Yale’s invitation to join the Class of 2005 after he applied early decision.
But how did Yale land a prospect who was recruited by BU and Harvard?
“Starting my freshman year [in high school], I knew I wanted to come to a school like [Yale],” Higgins said. “The deciding factor was the coaching here.”
At the top of the coaching staff is Taylor, who has more wins than any coach in the history of Yale hockey and was the head coach of the 1994 U.S. Olympic team in Lillehammer, Norway. Higgins credits Taylor with the chance he got to join the junior national team at the Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic this winter.
“I wasn’t the most talked about guy,” Higgins said. “I wasn’t the most high-profile guy. I think he talked me up a lot and gave me a shot to join the team.”
In fact, it is hard to get Higgins to take credit for any of his successes as a hockey player.
“Definitely, out of anyone, I credit my parents with 99 percent of my success so far,” Higgins said.
When asked who is responsible for the last 1 percent, Higgins mentions Hart and Taylor, anyone but himself.
Although Higgins’ significant impact on the men’s ice hockey team this year is an example of just how far he is removed from his junior varsity days at Avon, the transition to Yale was not without its difficult moments.
On Sept. 11, Higgins was one of many students who were frantically calling home to make sure their loved ones were safe. Unlike most students at Yale, however, Higgins was checking to make sure his father Rob, who is a firefighter in Brooklyn, N.Y., was not at ground zero when the World Trade Center collapsed.
“I didn’t know he was on vacation,” Higgins said. “I tried calling him for two hours and I was really scared.”
Higgins’ father was OK, but he immediately was called to work at ground zero, where he spent the next 72 hours working 18-hour shifts to help clear the wreckage.
“If I wasn’t trying to be a professional athlete, I would definitely try to do something that requires the same dedication that my father has,” Higgins said.
Dedication has landed Higgins a spot on the top line on the men’s ice hockey team and a potential spot in the first round of the NHL entry draft. In the next few weeks, Higgins will be meeting with Hart to discuss the draft and select an agent to represent him.
Despite the hype associated with the draft, Higgins said he will return next year and does not plan on abandoning his studies just yet for the big leagues. Instead, he is focused on the task at hand, securing home ice for the ECAC playoffs.
“I’m just doing my role,” Higgins said. “If my role is to go out and block shots, then I’d still be happy just to be on the team.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”20055″ ]