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Lots of experience among incoming Queen’s hockey freshmen

June 25, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

One day not long ago, when he was playing for the Sudbury Wolves, Chris Van Laren was having a chat with assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom. The conversation got around to the four Stanley Cups Beukeboom won as a player in the National Hockey League, three of which came while he was a member of the Edmonton Oilers.

Which one, Van Laren wondered, was his favourite?

“He said the one with the New York Rangers,” Van Laren recalled, “because he didn’t have Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe” and the other luminaries of the Oilers, a team in the midst of winning five championships in seven years, surrounding him.

The Rangers, on the other hand, hadn’t won the Stanley Cup in more than 50 years when Beukeboom was dealt there in 1992. He was an important part of New York’s championship team two years later.

“He said being part of that building block was most special to him.”

The thought stayed with Van Laren and Tuesday, on the occasion of being introduced as one of the newest members of the Queen’s Golden Gaels, he said the prospect of being part of a championship hockey team in the making was an important reason why he chose to cast his lot with a team that hasn’t won a conference title since 1981.

“If we can do some things with this program and turn some things around in the next two or three years, especially with the recruiting class that we have, we’ve definitely accomplished something more than a lot of other schools have,” Van Laren said.

“Kris Grant said it best: I’ve joined teams that were loaded up front and loaded in the back and you’re just sort of a throw-in but if you’re a cornerstone or a building block to a team, that definitely feels a lot more important to you. You have something to tip your hat to.”

The aforementioned Grant was another of the nine-member recruiting class coach Brett Gibson announced Tuesday. For Grant, the notion appeals that he could be part of a team’s rise to better things.

“Over the years I’ve been part of rebuilding teams,” Grant said. “I’d rather be part of that than being on a team that brings in guys with money and all that. I’d rather be part of something that we have to work to get.”

Goaltender Kevin Bailie echoed the sentiment.

“I think it would be way cooler to build a program and winning with it instead of just going to a school that’s expected to win.”

A four-year veteran of the Ontario Hockey League, Bailie yesterday recalled his rookie season with the Oshawa Generals.

“We had John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto and we let them go, a total rebuild,” he said, “and it was tough at the start, for sure, but I got to grow with a group of guys, grow up with them, grow as hockey players with them. I’m life-long friends with all those guys. It was an amazing experience.”

Bailie said he doesn’t believe the Gaels, a team that has flirted with .500 for the past several seasons but hasn’t won a playoff game since 2010, needs a drastic overhaul.

“This team’s been on the way up for a couple of years,” he said. Becoming competitive “is definitely going to be a challenge,” but it’s one to which he’s looking forward.

“If it was easy,” he said, “everybody would do it.”

All nine incoming freshmen have impeccable pedigrees, all but two of them with extensive major-junior experience:

• Bailie, a 21-year-old goaltender from Belleville, spent five years in the OHL with Oshawa and London, and last spring was named the outstanding goaltender at the RBC Cup tournament, helping the Summerside Capitals to the silver medal at the national junior A championship;

• Chris Clarke, 20, a goaltender from Halifax who was 13-1-1 last season for the Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads;

• Jordan Coccomiglio, 20, a forward from Burlington who played two seasons in the OHL with Erie and Barrie and won the Fred Page Cup this season with the Truro (N.S.) Bearcats;

• Patrick Downe, 20, a defenceman from New Maryland, N.B., who played three seasons for Moncton in the Quebec major junior league and was a teammate of Coccomiglio with the Page Cup-winning Bearcats in Truro;

• Grant, 20, a defenceman from Odessa who played two seasons in the OHL with Erie and ended his junior career this spring with the Kingston Voyageurs;

• Mike Schug, a forward from Sault Ste. Marie who played three seasons with the Kingston Voyageurs, and ended his junior career as team captain;

• Regan Soquila, 20, a forward from Maple Ridge, B.C., who will be joining his older brother, Jordan, with the Gaels, after playing junior A with the Merritt Centennials, with whom he 13th last year in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League scoring race;

• Van Laren, 23, a defenceman from Kingston, who sat out last season after a year at St. Thomas University and four years in the OHL with Niagara, Sudbury and Guelph;

• Blair Wentworth, 21, a forward from Calgary who played three seasons in the Western Hockey League with Chilliwack and spent the last two years playing junior A in Calgary and Dauphin, Man.

At an early morning news conference Tuesday in the Queen’s athletics centre, Van Laren, who attended Holy Cross Secondary School before beginning his hockey odyssey, said he always wanted to play hockey at Queen’s.

“Queen’s has always been in my backyard,” said Van Laren, whose sister graduated from Queen’s two years ago. “I wanted to be able to go to such a prestigious school and hockey was one of the ways that would help me do that.”

Van Laren was at Queen’s last year, while he sat out his mandatory season for transferring from St. Thomas, in Fredericton, N.B.

“I realized it just wasn’t the right spot for me,” Van Laren said of his experience in the Atlantic conference. “Some schools entice players with different things and I sort of followed something that I don’t think was the most important to me.

“When it really comes down to it I wanted to be close to home.  I’ve been on the road for the last six, seven years so it’s nice to finally be settling down in Kingston, where I want to build some roots.”

Van Laren had a chance to practise with the team last year and liked what he saw.

“In that locker room it’s like a bunch of best buddies in there,” he said. “Being able to be part of that atmosphere is pretty special when you know that your days in hockey may not be numbered, but they’re definitely limited.”

Grant said he wrestled with the decision whether to play his last year of eligibility in junior hockey or start university. When the Voyageurs, a team that began the season with modest success, wound up making a terrific run deep into the Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs, he decided “it was a good year to end my junior career on.”

Grant never spent a lot of time exploring his academic options. He applied to just one school — Queen’s — for just one program — science — possibly leading to a career in physical therapy.

“It’s the only school I wanted to go to. I didn’t have any interest in any other schools … so I was kind of hoping to get in. When I did I was pretty excited.”

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