April 19, 2012

From NEHJ: Home sweet home

By Jesse Connolly

For young hockey players throughout New England, it’s a scenario that’s played out for ages, from driveways and dead-end streets to nearby ponds and local rinks. 

Mike Mottau (Avon, Mass.) was traded from New York to Boston on deadline day. (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Depending on which generation you grew up in, we’ve all pretended to be Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque or Tim Thomas at one time or another, doing our best to emulate the heroes we idolize like no other. For a select few, that big dream of one day actually playing for the hometown Bruins has come true.

For Avon, Mass., native Mike Mottau, it happened in February, as the veteran defenseman was acquired in a trade with the Islanders.

“It was great,” Mottau said of playing in his first game as a Bruin. “I took a few extra seconds to take a look before I put the jersey on. It was my childhood dream to play for the Bruins. It meant a lot to play in a game and be a part of this organization.”

While the news that he was bound for Boston came as a pleasant surprise for Mottau, his wife, Courtney, and son, Ryan, were equally as thrilled.

“My son used to wear his Bruins gear underneath his Islanders gear, so he was always a fan because of the success of last year and all his cousins and friends back here being Bruins fans,” Mottau said. “He was a fan prior to this, but now that we’re back, he’s really excited. I think the one thing that kind of hit him when I told him wasn’t so much that I’d be on the Bruins, but that he could meet (Zdeno) Chara and Thomas.”

Now that the dream has become reality for Mottau, who won the Hobey Baker Award at Boston College in 2000, one must wonder: Is it everything it’s cracked up to be? Is there extra pressure playing professional hockey in your backyard?

“I guess yes and no,” said Shawn Bates (Medford, Mass.), who spent parts of four seasons with the Bruins after a four-year run at Boston University. “Obviously you’re a hometown kid and you want to perform at the highest level. It’s a job, so you just have to look at it that way, go out every time and do the best you can.”

Much like Bates, except for an AHL stint up in New Brunswick his first year, Bob Sweeney (Boxboro, Mass.) never had to relocate in making the jump from college to the pros during the 1986-87 season. As a player in his young 20s, he believed the experience was highly beneficial. 

Shawn Bates (Medford, Mass.) played in 135 games for the Bruins. (Robert Laberge/Allsport)

“When I finally did get the opportunity to play full-time with the Bruins, I actually did live at home my first year,” said Sweeney, who now serves as executive director of the Boston Bruins Foundation. “It’s a good support system. I don’t know how a kid like Tyler (Seguin) does it, with what he’s accomplished being 18 or 19 years old, in a city living by yourself. That’s a pretty big undertaking. I was 22 or 23 years old living at home. It’s a huge difference with someone to cook your meals and help out, and obviously support you as well.”

Mottau, who turned 34 in March, is at a different stage in his life than when Sweeney debuted with the Bruins, as the veteran defenseman has a wife and four kids at home. But the demand for tickets playing in his hometown is a lot different than his other NHL experiences with the Rangers, Flames, Devils and Islanders.

“It’s been OK,” Mottau said. “Early on, my mother set the tone whenever I came into play (in Boston). I could reserve tickets, but I wasn’t going to be buying tickets. Once I open that door, it could be endless. A lot of people already had tickets as well, so it was pretty neat. I’ve gotten calls on tickets, but it hasn’t been a distraction or a hassle.”

With the playoffs on the horizon, however, Sweeney’s experience alone proves Mottau’s phone might be blowing up in April.

“The pressures of people always looking for tickets and stuff like that can be a little bit more prominent when you play in your hometown,” said Sweeney, who reached the Stanley Cup finals twice with Boston. “Everybody wants to be your friend again when you’re in the playoffs and that can be a little bit of a distraction. I think I had it down pretty good. I was one of seven growing up, so it was hard for me to get tickets for my family, let alone everyone else.” 

But at the end of the day, the pluses of the experience outweigh the minuses. For Bates, who scored his first goal on his first NHL shot against the Los Angeles Kings, it’s still somewhat surreal to realize he played for the Bruins — who remain his favorite team. 

Bob Sweeney (Boxboro, Mass.) had a career-high 48 points for the B's in 1990-91. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

“That was a big thrill and, of course, playing with one of my favorite players of all-time, Ray Bourque,” Bates said. “Just to walk in that locker room and put on the same jersey, words can’t explain it.”

For Sweeney, who came oh-so-close to winning it all with the Black and Gold alongside fellow New Englanders in Bobby Carpenter (Peabody, Mass.), Andy Brickley (Melrose, Mass.), Craig Janney (Enfield, Conn.) and John Carter (Winchester, Mass.), last year’s postseason run wasn’t the equivalent of capturing the Cup as a player, but playing a small part in it all was a thrilling experience.

“They just got on a roll and never looked back,” Sweeney said. “The excitement they brought to the city was unbelievable. To have them win the Cup last year was something I was very proud of. As players, we would’ve loved to have done it ourselves. But, it’s not always meant to be.”

Whether you’re a BC fan, a Bruins diehard or just someone who likes to see a local kid succeed, nearly everyone throughout New England will be hoping it is meant to be for Mottau and the Bruins this spring.

“It would be an amazing experience,” Mottau said. “Just knowing some of the guys prior to even coming here, and talking to them during the summer about the experiences they had last year, the sacrifices and the experience of going through it and actually winning it, they said it was just amazing. To do it in your hometown would be that much more of a thrill.”

Those who played the game, even just a time or two, know how long he’s envisioned such a magical moment.

The stat

Should he remain out for the rest of the season, Tom Poti will have missed 143 of the Capitals’ last 164 games.

Aucoin savors opportunity

It’s been more than a decade now since Keith Aucoin wrapped up his four-year run at Norwich University and turned pro in 2001-02. With an illustrious minor-league resume, the Waltham, Mass., native has done it all in the AHL, from leading the league in scoring to leading his team to Calder Cup championships.

But at 33, despite a bevy of stints with the Hurricanes and Capitals over the past six seasons, there’s one place Aucoin has never been: the NHL playoffs. As of March 28, the 5-foot-9 center had played in 22 games in 2011-12 for Washington, equaling the number of NHL games he’d played in over the past three seasons with the club.

With the Caps battling it out for one of the few remaining playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, Aucoin — who had nine points in his 22 game — is trying his best to focus on one game at a time and not worry about what April may hold for he and the Capitals.

“You try not to think about it. You try to just play. But you know you’re getting old and you want to get another chance,” Aucoin told the Washington Times. “I finally got the call, and I’m taking advantage of it.”

Following his call-up in February, Aucoin’s wife, Maureen, gave birth to a son, Brayden. Aucoin was appreciative of the timing.

“When my son’s older, he’ll know he was born when I was in the NHL,” Aucoin said.

Pacioretty moves forward

Max Pacioretty had an anniversary of sorts March 8, but he wasn’t dwelling on the day that Zdeno Chara ended the Canadiens winger’s season with one shove, knocking Pacioretty into a stanchion at the Bell Centre that left him with a concussion and fractured vertebra.

“Like I keep saying, I’m just trying to take things day by day,” Pacioretty told the National Post. “I don’t look in the past. I look toward the future. Today is a new day and I try to build off of yesterday.”

After many feared his career was in jeopardy, the New Canaan, Conn., native ranked amng the NHL’s top 20 goal scorers at the end of March.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com