Casey Fitzgerald knows that ending practice on a goal is good for the soul.
It usually wasn’t this difficult, though. Boston College’s junior captain had been working out on the ice for hours, sweating through the official practice before leading a half-hour scrimmage without the coaching staff present. With only two weeks until the Eagles’ season-opener, head coach Jerry York needs his team to be training as much as possible, and that depends largely on the post-practice efforts of its leaders. After the scrimmage, Fitzgerald organized position drills, skating across the ice to join freshman forward Jacob Tortora in one-on-one scoring chances against goaltender Joseph Woll.
The pair started trading trick shots, taking turns showing off their stick skills as they wound down from an intense afternoon of training. But Woll was still locked in. He turned away shot after shot, snatching up every puck that entered his orbit. Anxious to return to the comfort of BC’s newly renovated locker room, Fitzgerald felt he needed to earn his ticket to the showers.
Gliding forward, he cut left at the last moment and wristed a rocket into the top corner. But the defending Hockey East All-Rookie netminder saw it coming all the way, deflecting the shot and sending Fitzgerald to the back of the line. One more time.
On his next attempt, Fitzgerald wound up for a slapshot, but instead hesitated, turned, and flicked a no-look floater over Woll into the twine. The sophomore goaltender looked shocked at the display of flashiness from a defenseman. Pleased with his parting shot, Fitzgerald left the ice without hesitation. He didn’t lose a step on his way to the locker room, retreating through the same halls that have housed his relatives for the past decade. First, they belonged to his cousins, Jimmy and Kevin Hayes, and then to his brother, Ryan, before he left Chestnut Hill for the pros this year. Now, it’s Fitzgerald’s turn.
Now, it’s his locker room.
Fitzgerald has never come out of his big brother’s shadow, simply because he was never in it at all. Not after the kind of rookie season that he had.
After injuries and NHL departures left the defensive unit depleted, York was forced to throw the younger Fitzgerald into the fire as a freshman. He was unproven, not to mention undersized for his position. Unlike Ryan, Casey went undrafted out of high school due to his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame. But York didn’t have many other options. Luckily, he didn’t need them.
Only one other freshman defenseman in the country posted better numbers than Fitzgerald in 2015-16. He even surprised himself, racking up four goals and 23 assists for a total of 27 points, most among the team’s defensemen.
From an offensive perspective, Fitzgerald is the perfect blue-liner. His passing vision and quick decision-making make him the best puck-mover on the roster, and he’s probably been the best distributor since he stepped on campus. In his debut against Army, he facilitated the power play like a veteran and slotted a one-timer for his first career goal. Shortly after, he won the puck near his own net and cleared it to Chris Brown, who finished the fastbreak for his first career score and Fitzgerald’s first assist.
Early on, it was clear that adjusting to the pace of college hockey wouldn’t be an issue.
“He carried himself with a little swagger when he got to campus,” Ryan remembers.
At 18 years old, Fitzgerald didn’t back down from elite competition. In the Beanpot semifinals against Harvard, he scored the fastest goal the tournament had seen in a decade, off a feed from his brother. And on the biggest stage of them all, the Frozen Four, Fitzgerald assisted Ryan on the game-winning goal against Minnesota Duluth. All the while, he anchored a top-10 defense that allowed just two goals per game.
“When I first came here, Coach Brown did a good job showing me when it was a good time to jump up and be offensive and when it was better to stay back,” Fitzgerald said.
At the end of the season, his work on both sides of the puck was honored with a selection to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. A couple months later, he got the respect he earned, as the Buffalo Sabres selected him in the third round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. But perhaps what’s more impressive is his rapid ascension into the upper ranks of team leadership. Ryan, for one, thinks it was only natural.
“When you’re talking about leadership, a lot of the times it’s the guy who’s most comfortable,” Ryan said. “He had that comfort level that a lot of the freshman didn’t have—he was already buddies with all the kids in my class … I think having me in school when he first stepped on campus definitely helped him.”
“Casey has always had that, and now without his brother here, he's stepping forward. He's more assertive, he's a more dominant presence in our room.” Jerry York
t also helps that Fitzgerald (almost-but-not-quite) literally has ice in his veins.
His dad, Tom, played in the NHL for 17 seasons and now serves as assistant general manager for the New Jersey Devils. Tom, too, had the clutch gene: In the 1995-96 playoffs, he buried the decisive goal, a 58-foot slapshot, to send his Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup.
In addition to the Hayes brothers, Fitzgerald is also related to Keith Tkachuk and his son, Matthew. Keith is recognized as one of the best U.S.-born players in history as one of just five Americans to score 500 goals. Matthew, meanwhile, decided to skip college hockey after he was picked sixth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames. Already, he has made their NHL roster and garnered attention from Rob Gronkowski on Twitter, all at just 19 years old.
For Fitzgerald and his three brothers, the bar was set impossibly high. On the other hand, though, you couldn’t engineer a better support system for a young hockey prospect.
Fitzgerald had the privilege of learning the game from a professional, practicing with his brothers on their backyard rink, and losing—over and over again—to Ryan. It was outside during the brothers’ two-on-two showdowns that they forged and fanned their competitive flames.
“There’s been a few games that have gotten out of hand, some fights,” Fitzgerald recalls. “But they’re always a lot of fun.”
As he matured, that support system only strengthened. Ryan became more of a mentor, guiding Fitzgerald and their Malden Catholic varsity team to a Super Eight Tournament title. Fitzgerald’s cousins, Jimmy and Kevin Hayes, each won a national championship at BC before moving on to the NHL. And Tom was there every step of the way, of course, balancing fatherhood with his front office duties. To this day, Fitzgerald calls his dad after every game to dissect the game, or just talk about life.
“Ever since I can remember, he’s been teaching us the game—the ins and outs of hockey, what to do and what not to do, and how to handle yourself,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been nice to have someone to fall back on. He’s a father first, and then a hockey coach.”
Unchartered waters are rare for a man who has coached through five decades of hockey. Yet that’s exactly what York and his staff must navigate with their senior-less roster in 2017-18.
Although graduate transfer Kevin Lohan brings valuable experience to the amateur group, it’s the junior captain trio of Fitzgerald, Brown, and Michael Kim that stay late to mentor the freshmen and offer leadership in the locker room.
“We’ve always been guys who did the extra work and stayed after since our freshman year,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t just become a leader, you’re always a leader. I’ve been trying to preach to the younger guys that if we’re going to be successful, everyone else has to be a leader, too. It has to be a team of 25 captains.”
There’s a heightened sense of urgency this year. The Eagles are in the middle of the pack looking upward at a talented Hockey East conference, one in which they were picked to finish fifth by the media. Plus, they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder—last year marked just the third time in the 2000s that BC failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
Behind the blue line, the Eagles shouldn’t have much trouble. Scott Savage is gone, but they have Fitzgerald, Kim, and Lohan to fill the gap. And don’t be surprised if Woll carries the team in Thatcher Demko-esque fashion when it matters most.
Scoring, on the other hand, might be a little trickier. Brown leads an attacking unit heavy on sophomore talent—how quickly the underclassmen settle into their expanded roles may determine BC’s future.
That’s why, on offense, York needs Fitzgerald—the only Eagle to earn preseason All-Hockey East honors—to step up now more than ever.
“One thing I really tried working on this summer was shooting more,” Fitzgerald said. “Whether it’s outside in the backyard or on the ice, just ripping 100 pucks or whatever to get my shot better. So I’m coming in with more of a shooting mentality this year, which is something that Coach Brown has wanted me to do for a while now.”
It seems the next logical step in Fitzgerald’s evolution, one which seems destined to end in an NHL uniform. The question is whether he’ll follow in his cousins footsteps and leave at the end of the year, or be like his brother and come back for his senior season.
For now, though, he’s focused on maneuvering through a stacked conference and returning to the postseason. Just like his brother and cousins before him, it’s Fitzgerald’s responsibility to make sure the guys in his locker room are prepared.
“He has something special,” York said of his leadership. “Fitzgerald has always had that, and now without his brother here, he’s stepping forward. He’s more assertive, he’s a more dominant presence in our room.”
Like Ryan said, the best leaders are the most comfortable. And no one feels more at home in Kelley Rink than Casey Fitzgerald.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor