April 30, 2011

From NEHJ: N.E. connections help make Dubuque a contender

Dubuque Fighting Saints assistant coach Bobby Kinsella (Brockton, Mass.) talks with team captain T.J. Schlueter. (photo: Jim Naprstek)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

An expansion team on the schedule usually means one thing — a salivating opponent.

First-year clubs are usually filled with young, unproven players and other teams’ leftovers picked up in an expansion draft. Put it together and it often leads to two points for the other guys.

Former University of Maine star Jim Montgomery and Bobby Kinsella of Brockton, Mass., have altered the equation by taking the same elements and shaping the first-year Dubuque Fighting Saints into a club that was in first place overall in the USHL in late March.

Montgomery, the head coach, and Kinsella, one of the assistants, committed themselves to scouting not only talent but also character players and that success has translated into success on the ice.

The USHL granted both expansion clubs, Dubuque and the Muskegon Lumberjacks, seven tenders, or contracts, to execute before the entry draft. The Saints connected, with six of the seven becoming key contributors, including Northeastern-bound 17-year-old forward John Gaudreau, who has been found atop of the league goal scoring leaders; Vermont-committed 17-year-old forward Zemgus Girgensons, a Green Mountain Glade last season who some project to be a high first-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft; and RPI-committed defenseman Luke Curadi (Cheshire, Conn.), who makes his presence felt at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, with more than 100 penalty minutes and 11 points and a plus-7 as of late March.

Dubuque also netted its captain, forward T.J. Schlueter, in the expansion draft; a 25-plus point scorer in Riley Barber in the futures draft; and in the entry draft, one of the league’s leading scorers in former Boston University forward Vinny Saponari (15th round) and a leading goalie in Maine-committed Matt Morris (sixth round).

“Adam Micheletti and Bobby Kinsella did an unbelievable job with our draft and going out and getting tenders,” said Montgomery, who had served as an assistant at RPI for the past four years. “We were fortunate we were able to get some players under the radar who were not valued like they should have been. It’s been an exciting year.”

Meanwhile, Muskegon is around .500 while Youngstown, which finished second to last overall last season as an expansion team, is gaining ground on getting to .500 this season. They are each respectable (and possibly more expected) performances from expansion teams, which makes Dubuque’s season all the more impressive.

Other players with local ties adding to the success are forward Shane Walsh (West Roxbury, Mass.), acquired in an early season trade from Tri-City and committed to UMass-Amherst, and former Gunnery defenseman Nick Luukko, who will go on to play at Vermont.

“Monty and I spent a lot of time researching kids and where they come from,” said Kinsella, former head coach of the Boston Jr. Rangers and a former assistant with Sioux City in the USHL. “We really tried to find out more about each one. If you don’t have good kids, it can make for a long year. We wanted that and worked hard to find it. We’re pretty happy. We did a lot of team building and bonding and our leadership is good.”

The ownership also has New England connections: hedge-fund billionaire Phil Falcone (part owner of the Minnesota Wild), Brad Kwong and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, three of the six partners, all played hockey together at Harvard. The Saints play in a new 3,200-seat arena that has been drawing capacity crowds.

“They’re fantastic,” Kinsella said of the owners. “They’re businessmen, but they’re hockey guys as well. They set us up to succeed.”

The Saints struck gold in landing Saponari, who had been dismissed from Boston University after his sophomore year two weeks prior to the draft and was still on the board in the 15th round. He has been an assistant captain, posted 1.2 points per game, and his NCAA championship experience has been invaluable, coaches and players said.

Still, he was a proven commodity. The Saints really hit it big with the 5-foot-8, 150-pound Gaudreau, who led the USHL with 32 goals through 50 games. Just 17 and coming from midget hockey with Team Comcast in New Jersey, Gaudreau himself said his initial goal was to just play in every game.

“When I got traded here, I thought he looked like a 10-year-old, like someone on the team brought his little brother,” Walsh said. “He really is amazing with the puck.”

Said Schlueter, “At training camp, he sat to the left of me in the locker room, and I’m like ‘Who’s this kid?’ I knew he was the real deal after one shift.”

Gaudreau, who is committed to Northeastern for 2012 but may enter this fall, said playing with Saponari has been a great opportunity, and he admits he’s heard about his size before and it’s motivation to prove others wrong.

“He has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Montgomery said. “It speaks volumes as to what is inside him as a young man. He is a dynamic player with tons of skill. He probably has the best set of hands I’ve ever seen. His skating is slippery like an eel. You line him up for a hit and you just get a nick of him.”

The other unknown commodity who has come up big has been Morris, the Maine-committed goalie who played for the Jersey Hitmen last season. Through 31 games played, he was second in the USHL in both goals-against (2.01) and save percentage (.927).

Morris points to the fourth game of the season as the team’s rallying point. The Saints were 1-2 after their first three and found themselves tied at 3 with Des Moines in the second period. They pulled ahead 6-3 in the third when the Musketeers started taking some liberties, Morris said.

At 14:21 of the third period, there was a line brawl and after that was cleaned up, there was another one two seconds later. There were 11 fighting majors, seven game misconducts and 200 penalty minutes between the two teams. Three Saints were suspended, including Morris.

“It was a crazy game and everyone stood up for each other and that was huge,” Morris said.

Walsh won a state championship while playing for renowned coach Bill Hanson (South Boston, Mass.) at Catholic Memorial and said the Dubuque coaching staff also has been instrumental in the team’s success as has the team unity.

“Everyone has a good attitude,” Walsh said. “No one cares who scores, everyone just wants to win. It’s a fun atmosphere to be around. Everyone off the ice is so close and nobody has anything bad to say about anyone. Being close like that is a lot of fun.”

Bill Keefe can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com