When he was seven years old and began playing travel ice hockey, center Chris Higgins ’05 received his first Montreal Canadiens jersey as a Christmas present from his father, who had been a die-hard Canadiens fan since 1965. Over 12 years removed from that Christmas day, Higgins received another Canadiens jersey when he became the first Yale ice hockey player ever selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
Higgins, who the Montreal Canadiens selected with the 14th overall pick June 22 in Toronto, will return to Yale for his sophomore year instead of opting for the minor leagues of the NHL. Higgins was not the only Bulldog drafted, as the Phoenix Coyotes took defenseman Joe Callahan ’05 in the third round with the 70th overall pick, and the Colorado Avalanche selected winger Ryan Steeves ’04 in the seventh round with the 227th pick.
The publicity surrounding Higgins and Callahan before and after the draft represents a windfall for the Bulldogs, who have had more interest this summer from top high school recruits than in recent years.
“[Higgins’ and Callahan’s draft placement] is a feather in the cap of the program,” Yale head coach Tim Taylor said. “We’ve definitely had more calls this summer from some big players.”
Although many first-round draft picks forego their remaining college years for a direct jump to the NHL, Higgins decided to work on improving his size and strength while remaining a Bulldog.
“After this year I’ll re-evaluate my position and we’ll go from there,” said Higgins, who has made a verbal commitment with agent Matt Keator at Sports Consulting, a firm that advises professional athletes.
Taylor hopes that Higgins will finish out his four years at Yale before going pro, just like 1999 NHL rookie of the year Chris Drury did at Boston University after the Quebec Nordiques made him their first overall pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.
“I want to see Higgy go straight from Yale to the NHL,” Taylor said. “Four years at Yale should be his minor league experience. You’re not a hockey player forever, and Chris knows that.”
Initially projected to be a late first-round pick, Higgins’ placement in the first round jumped when the Canadiens, who had expressed interest in Higgins, traded a later pick to the Washington Capitals for the 14th overall spot.
“I didn’t think I was going to go that high,” said Higgins, who led all ECAC rookies in scoring as a freshman. “I was pretty relaxed compared to how I thought I would be on that day.”
There might not have been any loud shouts from Chris Higgins’ seat, but the culmination of his son’s years of hard work could not have been sweeter for his father, Rob Higgins, who saw the team he has worshipped since he was seven years old welcome Chris as one of its own.
“This is the kind of thing you can’t even dream about because it seems so impossible,” Rob Higgins said. “Every day I wake up and I go into [Chris’] room at home and pick up the sweater and see the ‘Higgins’ on the back, and I say to myself, ‘My dream hasn’t ended yet.'”
After receiving consensus Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors and leading both the ECAC and the U.S. junior national team in scoring, Higgins has not stopped dreaming about his own goals for this season.
“I definitely feel like I can improve on my play and my numbers from last year,” said Higgins, who just returned to campus yesterday from a two-week prospect camp with the Canadiens. “I want to show people why I was picked so high.”
If his performance in the months leading up to the draft is any indication, Higgins will not be far from turning another dream of regular season supremacy into a reality.