January 16, 2012

From NEHJ: Stepping up at St. Sebastian's

By Justin Churchill

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 170 pounds, Noah Hanifin didn’t look like your average eighth-grader. Nor did he act like one. 

Noah Hanifin (Norwood, Mass.) capitalized on his opportunity to play varsity at St. Sebastian’s as an eighth-grader last year. (Dave Arnold Photography)

A year ago, the Norwood, Mass., native was a 13-year-old defenseman who had opted to leave his beloved South Shore Kings in favor of prep hockey at St. Sebastian’s. He didn’t know what he was getting into.

“It is a really tough level to play at and I thought it would be really good for my development,” Hanifin said. “It ended up helping me a lot.”

Hanifin — who already has made a verbal commitment to play at Boston College — benefited greatly, earning a spot on the varsity and posting an impressive rookie season with two goals, nine assists and 11 points.

In many ways, Hanifin fit perfectly at St. Sebastian’s, where head coach Sean McCann is focusing on the development of players at a very young age. The former Harvard University and AHL player has built a diverse team full of talent from 12th grade all the way down to eighth grade.

Growing up, Hanifin did not take the most traditional path to hockey, as nobody in his immediate family played the sport.

“I started skating when I was 4,” he said. “I really had nobody in my family that played hockey. My dad took me skating once and I loved it. I had a cousin who lived a couple of houses away from me and he would always come over and play shootout. I loved it and I love the sport.”

The love affair with hockey developed even more with Hanifin’s early involvement with the South Shore Kings. The club remains a big part of Hanifin’s life, and it was a tough decision to choose prep hockey over the Kings.

“For the Kings, I just played within my own age group (’97 birth year),” Hanifin said. “I started playing with them when I was 7 and stopped when I was 12. It was a hard decision to leave, as I still have a lot of friends from the team.”

Now 14, Hanifin is among the leaders of the St. Sebastian’s youth movement.

McCann believes that Hanifin handled the daunting task of playing with kids as much as four years older than him well.

“He is such a mature kid that he took everything in stride and didn’t seem to get too high or too low emotionally,” McCann said. “He is a mature kid to begin with, and I think that speaks a lot about him and his family. His understanding of the game (is good); he is poised and patient. His hockey IQ is high for a kid at his age.”

After his first year at St. Sebastian’s, Hanifin decided that he needed to bulk up and become more physical, so he hit the gym in the offseason.

That offseason work has paid early dividends for Hanifin this season. The defenseman already had doubled his goal total (4) and matched his point total (11) of a year ago in just the first eight games. Hanifin’s fast start mirrored the team’s impressive start.

“We are a really young team compared to some of the other teams, and we have a really good coach in Sean McCann,” Hanifin said. “I think in the future we are still going to have a really good team.”

St. Sebastian’s is a youthful team with a lot of talent spread out. The team features 10 underclassmen, all of whom have worked to earn their icetime from McCann.

Senior captain Brendan Burke (Westwood, Mass.), who has been on the varsity since he was a freshman, is a prime example of how McCann’s system works.

“With McCann, it doesn’t matter what grade you are in, if you perform you are going to get ice. If you don’t perform, he is not afraid to sit you down regardless of how old you are,” Burke said. “He is a straight shooter and he plays it the way he sees it, and if you are not playing well, you are not going to play.”

McCann, though, does not take all the credit for having such a strong youthful team,

“The philosophy of the school always has been to have kids that want to come in at a young age, be a part of the school, be a part of the community, and really develop at the school,” McCann said.  “We want younger kids that are going to come in and be here four or five years.”

McCann has done well in bringing in the right type of players and students. Sophomores such as Corey Ronan (Franklin, Mass.) and Jake McCarthy (Dedham, Mass.) have really stood out as younger stars this season after fairly successful freshman seasons.

And once again this season, McCann has another eighth-grader on his team in Cam Askew (South Boston, Mass.). The forward has been impressive so far this season.

“Cam is a big lanky forward. He is a big kid so he is not the type of kid you are really concerned about physically,” McCann said. “He still has to fill out, and once he does, he could be scary.”

Askew has stepped right into the role of a top forward at just 14 years of age. At 6-2 and 175 pounds, he is similar to Hanifin.

The team also is boosted by arguably one of the best offenses in New England. Burke and fellow senior Danny O’Reagan (Needham, Mass.) are two of the top forwards in the league.

With such experience around his, there is a reason for the hype around Hanifin, who already has proven himself and gained a lot of confidence from his teammates.

“Absolutely, the kids on the team are very comfortable with me and they are some of my best friends,” Hanifin said. “Last year, I was kind of nervous as I was in the eighth grade. I know them all a lot better, so now I can speak up in the locker room.”

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

Justin Churchill can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com