When in eighth-grade Chris Higgins ’05 first walked into Avon Old Farms hockey coach John Gardner’s office, Gardner discouraged him from aspiring to play at the varsity level for the New England Prep School hockey powerhouse.
“I was pretty scared,” said Higgins, who was 5-feet 5-inches and 120 pounds at the time. “He took one look at me and was like ‘You’re liable to get hurt if you try out for varsity and play on the varsity team.'”
Gardner could not have been more wrong about Higgins’ abilities. Six years later, Higgins, now 5-feet 11-inches, 192 pounds, is having the last laugh.
A first-round NHL draft pick in June 2002, Higgins is well on his way to hockey’s big show.
Higgins has been a dominant force in college hockey. In two years, the All-American standout has put together an impressive resume: ECAC Rookie of the Year, team MVP twice, ECAC co-player of the year, the Herb Gallagher Award for most outstanding New England forward and Hobey Baker finalist, to name a few.
But the lingering question is whether Higgins will ever don Yale’s blue and white jersey again.
With the 14th pick in the first round, the Montreal Canadiens, who have won more Stanley Cups than any other NHL team, selected Higgins. The draft added another accomplishment to Higgins’ ever-growing list: he was the first Yale hockey player ever taken in the first round. Higgins himself expected to be selected in the 20s.
“I didn’t really know what to do when I got picked,” he said. “I dreamt of that my whole life.”
In one way, Higgins still does not know what to do. This summer, the Canadiens almost certainly will offer to sign him to a professional contract, and Higgins must decide whether to leave college in pursuit of his lifelong dream or put that dream on hold while fine-tuning his game at the college ranks, simultaneously working toward his degree.
In five years, Chris Higgins went from a JV prep school hockey player to one of the top NHL prospects in the world.
Avon Old Farms is a small all-boys boarding school in Farmington, Conn. But in the world of prep hockey, it is giant, producing players such as NHL superstar Brian Leetch. A giant was something 14 year-old Chris Higgins was certainly not when he first took the ice for the Winged Beavers.
Despite coach John Gardner’s admonitions, the Higgins family chose Avon anyway because it combined superb academics with an exceptional hockey program, Rob Higgins said.
Chris did not try out for the varsity team his freshman year, but the following year was a different story. Yet Gardner’s fears persisted.
“We saw the skill that he had but [were] fearful that he might get broken in half because he hadn’t filled out,” Gardner said.
Instead of crumbling before the competition his sophomore year, Higgins led the Winged Beavers in scoring and took them to the New England Prep School Hockey Championship, where they lost.
“I remember that game, because I missed a shot late in the game, and they went down the other end and scored in overtime, and we lost,” Higgins said.
That game was important for another reason: Yale men’s hockey assistant coach C.J. Marottolo was there to see Higgins play. In his first year of high school varsity competition, Higgins was on Yale’s radar screen, Bulldog head coach Tim Taylor said.
“We followed him along a little more closely his junior year, and he was quietly emerging as one of the best New England prep school kids,” Taylor said.
His junior year, Higgins scored 19 goals and added 20 assists in 27 games, and he redeemed himself at the end of the season. Higgins scored the game-winning goal in overtime of the Prep School championship game.
“His junior year, [Higgins] really came into his own,” Gardner said. “He just blossomed as a hockey player.”
As Higgins developed, so did the competition to recruit him: Cornell, Boston College, Harvard and Yale were all in the hunt.
“I just felt really comfortable with [Yale], and in my mind, it was a step above any other program out there,” Higgins said.
And so Higgins chose to stay in Connecticut and left Avon, leaving behind a legacy far removed from the impression he made on his first visit in eighth grade.
“[Right now], he’d probably be [ranked] in the top five [Avon players I have coached,]” Gardner said. “He could go on to be one of the best, if not the best.”
A Smooth Transition
Higgins arrived at Yale in the fall of 2001 on the heels of another former Avon star, Jeff Hamilton ’01, Yale’s all-time scoring leader with 173 points.
“What I told [Chris] as I recruited him was that Jeff Hamilton was our top offensive forward and was probably going to graduate from Yale as our all-time leading scorer, and Chris would come into Yale not with the promise of slipping into his role on the ice, but with the understanding that that role was now vacant,” Taylor said.
Whatever void Hamilton left, Higgins immediately filled.
He led the Elis in scoring, earning ECAC Rookie of the Year honors along the way, tallying 14 goals and 17 assists, eight more points than Hamilton scored his freshman year.
“[Chris was] given an opportunity to make his mark and show us what he could do,” Taylor said. “He seized that opportunity. I don’t think we expected him to score 39 points.”
The ease with which the 18-year-old Higgins transitioned from prep school to college hockey even surprised his father.
With success early in the season, Higgins was selected to represent the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic.
“There’s a lot of honor and pride when you put on the jersey,” Higgins said. “I just wanted to show the coaches that they didn’t make a bad decision, and that they picked the right guy.”
Again, Higgins did not disappoint, leading the team in scoring with four goals and six points.
“That’s where he really made his mark in terms of his ability to play at a very high level,” Taylor said.
The summer — and the draft — came, and Higgins returned to New Haven his sophomore year as Yale’s first ever top round draft pick. He continued to prove why he was worthy of the Canadiens’ investment. The center led the team in scoring with 20 goals and 21 assists, six points shy of Hamilton’s point total for his sophomore year despite playing five fewer games.
“He just makes everyone around him a better player,” linemate and captain Vin Hellemeyer ’04 said. “Playing with him has been a great experience, and I’m probably a better player for it. It’s a lot tougher than he makes it look.”
The 2002-2003 season included another trip to the IIHF World Junior Championships in Nova Scotia, where Higgins was assistant captain, netting three goals and three assists in seven games.
Looking to the Future
On March 16, the Brown Bears defeated Yale 4-0 in the deciding third game of the ECAC quarterfinals.
“We tried to keep an eye on him the entire game and the entire series,” Brown’s coach Roger Grillo said.
Following the game, the hockey team saluted the fans as they have always done and will continue to do next year. But will Higgins be with them at center ice when next hockey season comes around?
“I don’t have a decision made right now,” Higgins said. “Until I receive an offer, I’m trying not to really think about it.”
His teammates say they support him no matter what path he takes.
“Everybody grew up, and everybody’s dream was to play in the NHL, and if you have a legit shot where you could leave school and maybe step in, nobody would hold that against him,” Hellemeyer said. “The team would support whatever decision he made.”
Higgins’ relationship with the Canadiens goes further back than 2002, back to when Higgins’ father Rob Higgins raised his children as Canadiens fans.
When the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993, “it was pure chaos in my house,” Chris Higgins said.
To be at the draft was enough of a dream come true for Chris Higgins; the possibility of being chosen by the team he idolized was inconceivable.
“When the GM from the Canadiens got up to the podium, I wasn’t even paying attention,” Rob Higgins said. “I just happened to [think] ‘I wonder who they are going to pick?’ Every once in a while, I’ll see a picture of Chris with the Canadiens sweater on, and I’ll say, ‘I haven’t woken up yet from this dream.'”
The specifics of the Canadiens’ offer will be a deciding factor for Higgins, especially with the current state of the NHL.
This year alone, both the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators have filed for bankruptcy. Superstars Jeremy Roenick and Brett Hull have publicly stated that players are making too much money and paycuts are needed.
All these issues will surface when the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement expires after next season and negotiations begin.
“Probably the guys who are going to get the short end of the stick are the guys coming into the league, the rookies, as far as contracts and money goes,” Higgins said.
The hockey standout must weigh the costs and benefits of leaving Yale or continuing to improve his game.
“As great as Chris’ college career has been, I think there’s still growth potential for him at the college level, and he could continue to grow and not get stagnant,” Taylor said. “He can be an even more successful player at this level, and the advantage of staying at this level is getting that much closer to his degree.”
Taylor only wishes the best for Higgins, he said.
The quality education available at Yale influenced Higgins’ decision to become a Bulldog in the first place. The same philosophy made Avon a good fit. Education is important, not only to Higgins, but to his family.
“If it was up to me, I would love to have him go back to school, graduate, get a Yale diploma, and go on to professional hockey, if that’s what he wants to do,” father Rob Higgins said. “Ultimately, the decision is Christopher’s. Obviously, he has the final say in things.”
As a child, Chris Higgins’ dream was to play in the NHL, and that’s one thing that has remained constant in his life.
Though it is hard to say at this point, Higgins said he is “pretty confident [he] could maybe crack the [Canadiens’] lineup sometime next season.”
While Higgins waits for an offer from the team he cheered growing up, he tries not to think about the decision he will have to make. His father even anguishes over his son’s dilemma.
“It’s going to be the most difficult decision of my life,” Higgins said. “I’m having a great time at school, and I’m enjoying getting [my] education here, and at the same time, I’ve always wanted to play hockey. It’s my dream. It’s so close now.”