Derek Jeter he is not, but Chris Higgins ’06 has a story just as picture-perfect: a boy who dreamed of becoming a professional athlete gets drafted in the first round and signs with his favorite team.
On May 22, Higgins, at the age of 19, inked a three-year contract with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, a hockey club he has loved and followed religiously for years.
But the former Eli forward, who impressed Montreal officials in rookie training camp, will be reluctant to call his pursuit complete until he hits the ice in his first pro game.
“I am very excited and anxious to begin playing. I haven’t achieved my life-long goal of playing in the NHL so I don’t think I have a ‘storybook plot’ yet,” he said.
In 2002, Montreal officials liked Higgins so much that they orchestrated a pre-draft trade to give themselves a better chance of getting him. The Canadiens gave their 15th overall pick plus an 8th-round selection to the Edmonton Oilers in order to grab Higgins with the 14th pick, making the Eli the first ECAC first-round draftee since 1985, and the highest-picked Yalie ever.
Higgins deferred signing with Montreal for a year, opting to play another season of hockey at Yale, where, under the guidance of head coach Tim Taylor, Higgins feels he matured as a competitor.
“Because I attended Yale and played under coach [Tim] Taylor I feel I have an advantage over some other players who did not have the chance to experience what I have during my two years,” said Higgins, who led the US National Junior Team in scoring at the 2002 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships.
In two seasons as a Bulldog, Higgins garnered more distinctions than most college hockey players amass in twice the time. As a freshman, the 5-foot-11 forward earned ECAC and Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors.
“[Higgins] is a fierce competitor who’s very skilled and that’s a great combination,” Taylor said. “He’s only 190 [pounds], but he can play with and outmuscle some of the biggest guys on the ice.”
During his sophomore year, Higgins received the Herb Gallagher Award as the Top Player in New England, was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and the Walter Brown Award and was ECAC co-Player of Year.
“I’ve matured as a player and person during my two years at Yale,” Higgins said. “I still think I had things to learn at the college level but I felt like my development for the pro game would be better served if I left Yale.”
For members of the Yale men’s hockey team, Higgins’s decision was not a surprise.
“We all talked with him about it,” Eli defender and Higgins’ former roommate Joe Callahan ’05 said. “We definitely knew it was a strong possibility during last season.”
Higgins also consulted with Taylor on multiple occasions.
“I had many meetings with Chris and his family before he signed with Montreal,” Taylor said. “Everyone can understand the dilemma he faced; he had so many opportunities before him — a Yale degree, the fun of college life — that it’s almost unfair, the amount of money they [professional sports teams] tempt kids with these days.”
Montreal has not disclosed the terms of the Higgins contract.
“I don’t speak French,” Higgins said. “But I plan on taking classes.”
French speaker or not, the Habs rookie is already making a name for himself in Montreal.
Since September 6, Higgins and 24 other Canadiens rookies have been playing at Ottawa in a round-robin tournament against Panther and Senator prospects. The Habs rookies fall into three categories: contract signees, junior draft picks and special invitees. Higgins has stiff competition at his position — each of the seven Habs rookies under contract plays forward.
But Higgins has been superb in the first two games of the tournament, gaining the attention and praise of officials.
“[Higgins] is a couple steps ahead of everyone else, and that includes the players on both teams,” Canadiens’ director of player personnel Trevor Timmins told the Canadian Press.
In a 2-0 loss to the Panthers on Monday, Higgins and 2003 draftee Corey Locke led the Canadiens’ offense with five shots apiece.
“According to some of our hockey people, Chris is one of the best people we have on the ice,” Canadiens’ director of media relations Dominick Saillant said. “He’s been solid in Ottawa.”
Saillant added that Higgins would join the main training camp on September 11 in Montreal, but at this point, the forward’s future is uncertain. If Higgins impresses in camp, he could be asked to participate in the Canadiens’ pre-season. Higgins could also be sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs, a farm team, to get more playing time under his belt.
The length of the pro season poses the biggest challenge for Higgins. In two years at Yale, Higgins played a total of 65 games, including exhibition and post-season matches. A regular season NHL schedule is 82 games.
As Higgins adapts to the rigors of professional hockey, his former teammates will not miss all aspects of his presence.
“It’s nice doing runs without him [at practice],” Nick Shalek ’05 said. “He put most of us to shame.”
For now, the members of the team have been following Higgins’ progress in Canada and hope to see him play if he goes to the minor leagues, where the Hamilton Bulldogs will face the Bridgeport Sound Tigers during the season.
“If he ever played over in Bridgeport, we’d love to go see him,” Callahan said. “No doubt, he’ll be great.”