In many ways, their situations could not be more different.
One is a 24-year-old senior who came to Boston University as a virtual unknown, the other is an 18-year-old sophomore who is arguably the top professional prospect in college hockey. One went undrafted, the other was taken in the Top 10. One could have signed with any pro team of his choosing last spring, the other is coveted property of a National Hockey League franchise.
Many players would have gladly jumped ship after the tumultuous roller coaster ride that was the 2007-08 BU men’s hockey season. But for Matt Gilroy and Colin Wilson, the NHL can wait.
There will be time for the money and publicity that come with pro hockey. In the meantime, there is a sense of unfinished business surrounding this year’s Terriers, one that stems from the stinging effect of last winter’s untapped potential.
Gone are 10 members of last year’s team, replaced with new faces eager to contribute to the winning culture required for any hockey team to succeed. Having witnessed firsthand last season the perils that come with complacency and inconsistent effort, Gilroy and Wilson are intent on instilling a renewed focus in this year’s team before departing BU for greater pastures.
‘This was the best recruiting class we’ve ever had because two guys came back in an All-American defenseman and a star player as a freshman last year,’ BU coach Jack Parker said. ‘We kind of fell into that, because I thought it was a done deal the other way for both of them.” ‘ ‘ ‘
But despite the many variables that factored into their respective decisions, a common denominator emerged: the desire to win a national championship.
‘It speaks a lot about both of them that they both weren’t happy with the year we had last year,’ senior co-captain John McCarthy said. ‘It kind of left a bad taste in their mouth. The fact that they came back after having the option to leave speaks volumes about their characters.’
Seasons that end without NCAA Tournament appearances just don’t suit Matt Gilroy.
As a freshman in 2005-06, his Terriers were denied the program’s first Frozen Four appearance since 1997 by the slimmest of margins. Two years ago, an inept offense coupled with over-reliance on standout goaltender John Curry led to an untimely exit in the opening round of the NCAAs. And last year, BU wasn’t even invited to the party, mainly due to a horrendous first half that squelched any hope of an at-large bid.
Now, in his final season donning the scarlet and white, the senior co-captain isn’t one to take chances. He knows that this, as they say, is ‘it’ – one last opportunity to reinvigorate a program that has drastically fallen short of expectations over the last decade.
Not long after an agonizing season-ending loss to the University of Vermont in last spring’s Hockey East Tournament, the wheels were set in motion for a Gilroy return. He could have joined teammates like Bryan Ewing, Pete MacArthur and Brian McGuirk in saying goodbye to the Terrier program that night, but he didn’t have to. And frankly, after taking time to reflect, he didn’t want to.
‘No one liked the way the whole season played out last year,’ Gilroy said. ‘It was just a big disappointment and it was hard to deal with. I was lucky enough to come back after that and not see your class have to end your career on that without having one more go at it.’
Still, the decision process weighed heavily on the former walk-on. He sat down with his family, and, over the course of two weeks, listed and discussed the pros and cons of returning to school and turning pro.
The financial aspect was clearly in his favor. No matter what NHL club he signed with, Gilroy would be limited to a fixed-rate free-agent contract. Should he wait a year – and clear the league’s entry-level contract system by turning 24 – the fixed rate would be lifted and every NHL team could bid for his services the following spring.
‘He has a much better bargaining point this year,’ Parker said. ‘He can say, ‘You all tell me you love me.’ This year he can say, ‘How much do you love me?’ He’s much better off this year from a financial point of view, and he’ll be an even better commodity because he’ll be that much better.’
A certain freshman forward also served as a major selling point for Gilroy – his younger brother, Kevin, whom he has never played with in his hockey career.
‘When I looked at it, it was better to stay,’ Gilroy said. ‘It was actually way better to stay. You dream about playing professionally, but if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. You only go to college for four years, and I didn’t want to lose that.’
It didn’t take long for Colin Wilson to make up his mind. Some two days after being selected with the seventh overall pick of this summer’s NHL Entry Draft by the Nashville Predators, the 2007-08 Hockey East Rookie of the Year notified teammates of his intention to return to Commonwealth Avenue for the 2008-09 season.
‘[The decision] really wasn’t that difficult,’ Wilson said. ‘Although it took me a little bit to decide right after the draft, I pretty much knew I wanted to go back to BU. That was pretty much what was in my head right after the season.’
After all, the alternative wasn’t all that tempting. Looking to delay the start of Wilson’s NHL career as much as possible for the purpose of seeing his most productive years before hitting free agency, Nashville made it clear that Wilson’s first pro season would be spent in Milwaukee playing for the club’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Being faced with the prospect of minor league hockey swung the chances of a Wilson return in BU’s favor, Parker said.
‘I thought Wilson made the right decision,’ Parker said. ‘Our philosophy is you should leave Boston University when you can leave and go play in the NHL. But you should not leave Boston University and everything we have going here hockey-wise to go play in the minor leagues. If you go to the minor leagues, 10 things can happen and nine of them are bad.’
For Wilson, who racked up 35 points last year for a team defined by its offensive prowess, the new season brings a new challenge – taking the necessary steps to enjoy team success as well as the individual accolades that will surely be thrown his way.
‘I think he wanted to come back because of what happened last year,’ Parker said. ‘He had a pretty good year individually, but he was pretty disappointed with how he performed as a team member here and how his team performed. I think he wanted to go out on a better note.’
Individual praise is welcome, but tempered when it isn’t accompanied by wins. To leave after a single season – a campaign that will long be remembered as one of the most frustrating in program history – would have diminished the college hockey experience in the eyes of Wilson, who identified BU as a school with both a winning tradition and a history of producing NHL standouts when he committed in 2006.
‘When you come to BU, you know you’re a part of a winning team and a winning college,’ Wilson said. ‘Something I really wanted to come back and do is make the tournament and bring the team to a national championship. In the end, I just want to help the team. I want to win.’