July 12, 2012

From NEHJ: It's good to be King

By Jesse Connolly

No matter where you call home in this world, chances are you’ve heard plenty of local-boy-makes-good stories in your lifetime. As human beings, specifically sports fans, it’s in our nature to feel a sense of pride when people from our neck of the woods accomplish something significant. It is our obligation to hail the hometown heroes, to take pride in the feats of those who went to the same school, skated on the same ice or perhaps even lived in the same ZIP code as us once upon a time.

For those of us in New England, when Jonathan Quick received the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs on the night of June 11 — right before he and the Kings took turns lifting the Stanley Cup high above their heads — he became the latest local boy to make good. Really good, in fact.

After Tim Thomas wrapped up his magical playoff run with the Bruins in 2011, we thought no goaltender could ever come close to replicating such a spectacular postseason. Just one year later, folks are saying the same thing about Quick.

The Hamden, Conn., native carried the eighth-seeded Kings to glory, going 16-4 during a playoff run that saw Los Angeles bulldoze over the top three seeds in the Western Conference before dispatching the New Jersey Devils in six games in the Stanley Cup finals.

For those of us who fulfill our duty of rooting for our fellow natives of this region, it’s not just Quick’s dominance that makes his story such a special one. We’ve seen countless New Englanders shine on the big stage in every major sport. When it comes to hockey, hardly a year goes by that a Hockey East alumnus isn’t playing an integral role for the eventual Stanley Cup champion.

But upon further examination, those Hockey East products who have won it all have long come from the teams that rarely budge from the upper echelon of the league. While the likes of Boston College, Boston University and, to a lesser extent, Maine and New Hampshire have been mass-producing future NHLers for decades now, the University of Massachusetts never had had a Stanley Cup champion or certainly a bona fide NHL superstar to call its own until 2012.

Quick was the Minuteman who changed all that.

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So now you’re probably wondering the following: How in the heck did a school like UMass — which struggled so mightily once that its hockey program was nixed in 1979 before making a return to Division 1 in 1993 — beat out those collegiate powerhouses and get Quick to attend?

Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) — who stepped down after 12 seasons as head coach of the men’s hockey program in Amherst shortly after speaking with New England Hockey Journal — said their effort to recruit Quick began in 2004.

“Mark Dennehy was an assistant with me at that time, and it was probably around 2004,” Cahoon said. “Mark was the first one to see him play, then he sent me out to watch him in late 2004. That was his junior year at Avon Old Farms.”

Impressed by his raw athleticism and technically-sound level of play that made him outshine other goaltenders his age, Cahoon said that he knew plenty of other local programs were cognizant of who Quick was and the success he was having at Avon Old Farms under coach John Gardner. He believes the fact that he and Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) – now head coach at Merrimack — discovered and approached the young netminder early played a big role in his decision to join the Minutemen.

“We knew we really needed a goaltender,” Cahoon said. “We knew that we had seen him enough to really label him a good athlete and a good prospect. We acted pretty early. There were definitely people that were expressing interest, but not as much as we were. I think we really got an early start with him, and that’s probably one of the reasons we ended up being successful in the recruitment.”

When Quick arrived on campus in Amherst, Mass., Cahoon didn’t immediately hand him the reins. Instead, he split playing time between his prized recruit and senior Gabe Winer (Stoughton, Mass.).

“(Gabe) was a very capable goaltender and had some success with us in previous years,” Cahoon said. “I certainly wasn’t going to dismiss Gabe as a senior and his good track record and just go with who I knew was the better overall athlete, but Jon was younger, less mature and less experienced. I think that really helped Jon. It made him strive that much harder and make those development growths that you look for in an athlete.”

In the meantime, Quick worked closely with goaltending coach Jim Stewart (Hudson, Mass.), an All-American at Holy Cross whose professional career included a brief stint with the Bruins during the 1979-80 season. When he returned for his sophomore year, Quick was ready to carry the load. He set single-season records for the program with 19 wins, 37 appearances and 1,046 saves, and led the Minutemen to their first ever trip to the NCAA tournament. It was a big leap forward after going 4-10-1 in 17 appearances as a freshman.

“With every good athlete, you try to encourage them and certainly let them know how good you think they could be and what their strengths are,” Cahoon said when asked about Quick’s development. “You try to grow them accordingly. At the same time, you try to be as honest as you can be. In every young person’s development, there are some things that need to be reinforced. With Jon, we were steadfast in that. We made sure he understood exactly how much we respected his ability, but also understood that there were areas that he needed to work on and he needed to grow in order to reach his full potential. I think that relationship was fully understood.”

Much to Cahoon’s disappointment, Quick’s second year at the school was his final one. The coach knew midway through the season that his All-American goaltender wasn’t going to be sticking around for all four years, but he admittedly hoped he’d come back for his junior season. Nevertheless, he knew Quick would be in good hands with the Los Angeles Kings, who had selected him 72nd overall in the 2005 draft.

“They talked with us endlessly,” Cahoon said of the Kings’ staff. “I think they saw him play every game his sophomore year. If (Kings GM) Dean Lombardi (Ludlow, Mass.) wasn’t there, or (goaltending coach) Billy Ranford wasn’t there, Bob Crocker was absolutely there. Bob Crocker is one of the best scouts and one of the best people in the game. He was totally committed to this kid. They knew what the strengths and weaknesses were, and they did a great job of taking Jon and putting him through that development and nurturing him.”

Just 21 at the time he turned pro, Quick promptly learned he had some growing up to do. After being promoted from the ECHL to the Kings’ AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, he overslept one morning, causing him to miss part of a practice and a morning meeting with goalie development coach Kim Dillabaugh.

“I remember never yelling, just telling him to grow up,” Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall told NHL.com. “I do remember telling him that I don’t care if he has to set eight alarm clocks, I never want to make this phone call again.”

Quick got the message.

“It was a wake-up, literally,” Quick told NHL.com. “Everything you do, there is stuff that you can pull out of it. There are still things I can learn from. That’s a situation where it was my first year pro and I maybe got away with a little too much in college. You go there and you realize how responsible you have to be for yourself, because at that time I wasn’t doing it.”

Quick was returned to Reading, Pa., because of his lapse in judgment. Karl Taylor, then the head coach of the Royals and now an assistant with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, said the incident made Quick work harder than ever before.

“The second time he got sent down from Manchester, I think that was a very strong message,” Taylor said. “Obviously he wanted to stay there. He returned to Reading, put his nose to the grindstone and absolutely worked extremely hard and did everything that was asked of him. As they say, the rest was history."

While Taylor said he’d be exaggerating if he said he knew from the get-go that Quick would be an NHL goaltender, he knew there was something special about the Connecticut native that went beyond his natural athletic abilities.

“The one element Jon had that was the difference-maker in my mind was his competitive attitude and how hard he tried on every shot in practice, every single shot in warmups before a game,” Taylor said. “It made his team want to play hard for him. When you think of leaders and great sports figures, when your teammates want to do more for you because of how hard you compete and how much you care, it’s a special characteristic.

“I saw that early in Jon and his team would do anything for him. His teammates were not concerned about whether he slept in or not. They didn’t care because they knew he was going to compete his tail off. He had that extra intrinsic quality. He still has it and his teammates obviously love him.”

That feeling of appreciation is certainly mutual, as far as Quick is concerned.

“It’s a pleasure playing with the group I get to play with every day,” said Quick, who signed a 10-year, $58 million extension one week after finishing as the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy. “As you saw over the last two months, we have one of the best groups in the league, especially on the blue line; we’re as good as anybody. I get a lot of help, so honestly every day’s a pleasure going out there and playing with those guys.”

Quick’s accomplishments this season have made his teammates and Kings fans celebrating the first Stanley Cup in the team’s 45-year history proud. The same goes for the coaches who have taught him a thing or two along the way.

“For me personally, you take great pride and joy in thinking you might’ve had a very small part in helping people reach their dreams,” said Taylor, who also coached Kings forward Dwight King and a member of last year’s champions, Bruins winger Rich Peverley, during his time behind the bench in Reading. “It makes you feel good about the process and hopefully you were able to help them move on, but obviously in the end the players have to do it. Both Jon and Rich Peverley were really talented kids and I didn’t have them long, so obviously they had what it took to make it on their own anyways.”

Cahoon said that everyone involved with the school’s hockey program has been elated with Quick’s achievements.

“Oh, my god, it’s a thrill. It’s a thrill for everyone,” he said. “I get a big hoot out of listening to the guys that are on the team now that didn’t get to play with him, but they know of him or they’ve even met him because he’s come out to the school, and how enthusiastic they are. It’s really impressive to me that Jon’s teammates, the Jordan Virtues, the Corey Quirks, Chris Davis who played with him at Avon and then here, it’s great to see how they’ve responded and how much joy they get from seeing him be such a force at this level.”

Going forward, it’s impossible to gauge just how strong of an impact Quick’s success will have on UMass’ effort to climb the ladder in Hockey East, but Cahoon has high hopes and believes Quick’s success is a big win for college hockey as a whole.

“Well, I think we play at a level where all the programs seem to be producing NHL-caliber players,” said Cahoon, who has seen former Minutemen such as Casey Wellman, Greg Mauldin (Holliston, Mass.) and Justin Braun reach the NHL. “I think it’s fairly well understood that if you can be a great player at this level, you’ve got a real good chance of being a very good player at the next level. I think it’s great for college hockey in general.

“Obviously, when you get the UMass banner being waved, it really gives you a lift in terms of our program and the way the program’s being perceived. Hopefully, it helps us grow into something even better.”

Clearly Quick himself has grown into something pretty special, thanks to Cahoon, Taylor and a number of other coaches who have influenced him throughout his journey from Hamden to Amherst, Reading to Manchester and eventually Los Angeles

He’s also helped further prove that the ECHL can be a path to NHL success. And he’s done the same for UMass, which now can proudly boast it was once the home to Jonathan Quick, the 2012 winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

Hamden’s hometown hero certainly has made good.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal. All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ

Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com