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Long Ride Home: Austin Cangelosi Is Back Where It All Began

Stuck somewhere on I-90 on his way back to Boston College from Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, Austin Cangelosi had to blush.

“Well, that’s nice of him to say for sure,” Cangelosi said.

Cangelosi, the Eagles’ center and alternate captain in 2016-17 who now plays for the American Hockey League’s Albany Devils, was referring to the kind words of his recently former head coach, Jerry York. In his 45 years leading college hockey teams, York has seen a lot of players. But there was no doubt which three reminded him most of Cangelosi.

Nathan Gerbe, Cam Atkinson, Johnny Gaudreau. York put Cangelosi’s name alongside three Hobey Baker candidates, the last of whom won the sport’s highest honor in 2014.

Okay, in fairness, a lot of that has to do with height. Like those three, Cangelosi stands well below the invisible line of where a casual fan’s stereotypical hockey player would stand. A lot of it also has to do with style of play—Cangelosi, like that once-in-a-generation trio, is speedy and scores in high volumes. He’s the kind of player the new NHL wants.

But York’s reasoning goes beyond size and skill. Those three were all leaders. They made BC what it was in the years they played. Cangelosi is no exception to that mold. After playing a role on the third line in the final year of the Gaudreau era, Cangelosi has been the Eagles’ leading scorer over the last two years. In his 2016-17 senior campaign, Cangelosi amassed 21 goals and 14 assists while capturing his second-consecutive faceoff winning percentage crown. Though the year was ultimately trying for BC fans—the Eagles missed the NCAA Tournament for only the third time since 2000—York poses another question: Where would they have been without him?  

“Clearly, he was our most valuable player,” York said of Cangelosi, The Heights’ Male Athlete of the Year. “He’s my choice for my MVP.”

***

If Andy and Diane Cangelosi had their way, really, who knows where BC would have been.

Cangelosi’s parents moved him and his brother, John, from their home in New Jersey to Estero, Fla. in 2002. Ideally, the Cangelosi boys would follow the same path as the rest of their family: the summer sport route. Diane played tennis at Fairleigh Dickinson, and Andy was on the rugby team at Villanova and continues to play golf now. Even their grandfathers were athletes—Andy’s father John played catcher at Florida State, while Diane’s father Ed was a table tennis champion in Austria.

Unfortunately for the parents, Google Maps wasn’t around for them to scout out the neighborhood in advance. The Cangelosis moved only five minutes away from Germain Arena, home of the ECHL’s Florida Everblades and Lee County’s premier ice hockey rink. The boys, who had grown up playing roller hockey up north, graduated to the only frozen water worth skating on in southwest Florida. Austin and John milked as much as they could out of the fledgling, early-2000s hockey scene down South. But given the lack of competitiveness, there’s only so much a player can get out of it, especially if he or she wants to go pro.

“Not trying to knock on Florida,” John said, “but the hockey is way better up North.”

So when John, three years Austin’s senior, was old enough, he made the trip to Western Massachusetts to join head coach Tom Pratt at one of the nation’s best prep schools, Northfield Mount Hermon.

John’s move up north paved the way for his brother to find an out. In turn, Cangelosi was a talent Pratt just couldn’t ignore. Playing the brothers on the same line, Pratt saw in Cangelosi a terrific penalty killer who could excel as a two-way player while also sitting at the top of the umbrella on the power play, even as a freshman. Cangelosi had quick hands and a low center of gravity. Though he initially deferred to John on the draw and preferred the wing, Cangelosi easily adjusted to Pratt’s system. And boy, did he have some jump on the ice. No one could outskate him.

“He can close a 3-foot, 5-foot, 7-foot gap really quickly,” Pratt said.

Pratt quickly realized that if he couldn’t ignore Cangelosi’s talent, colleges soon wouldn’t be able to either. He made a call to York, his coach back during his playing days at Bowling Green, to get an assistant out past the Berkshires, ASAP.

“I knew quite clearly that Austin would be an attractive player for a number of schools, so I wanted to give Boston College a heads-up early,” Pratt said.

Enticed by the detail with which Pratt described him, Connecticut head coach and then-BC assistant Mike Cavanaugh came out to see Cangelosi. A week later, associate head coach Greg Brown was in the stands too. Not long after that, Pratt pulled Cangelosi into his office—the BC staff had seen all it needed to see, and was ready to make an offer, just halfway through Cangelosi’s freshman season.  

“He drops the bomb that Jerry talked to him and offered him a full scholarship to school,” Cangelosi said. “I had no intentions of thinking that far in the future, I was just trying to take it day-by-day, and all of a sudden, I get this offer for college.”

When York came calling, so did other schools—Cangelosi recalled Northeastern, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire among the programs that showed interest. But one visit to Chestnut Hill and a tradition of winning and excellence were all he needed to be convinced.  

***

When York is convinced, so are the fans.

Grant Salzano, one of the hockey beat reporters for SB Nation’s BC Interruption and BC ’10, recalled the first moment he was really excited about Cangelosi.

“Austin came in with some weighty expectations, and frankly, a lot of that was because of a single play he made while in the USHL,” Salzano said in an email.

He saw a clip on YouTube in which Cangelosi’s USHL team, the Youngstown Phantoms, took on the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in the 2012 Eastern Conference Playoffs. Tied 3-3 in overtime, Cangelosi skated past center ice into the faces of three defensemen. Knowing that, with his stature, he’d never get around them, Cangelosi flipped the puck over the head of the lead blue liner. The defenseman swatted it with his hand, but the deflection fell behind him. With that great closing speed, Cangelosi skated easily around him on the right to go backhanded, high past the goaltender’s right, for the game-winning goal. The video has been played nearly 700,000 times.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkZE0ldxiE8

Funny enough, it’s the same exact moment York cited as when he knew Cangelosi was his man.

“That was our validation point that we’ve got the right guy coming to the Heights,” York said.

But, as Salzano noted, that goal, as well as the success of smaller skaters in York’s system, may have unfairly placed too high of a belief in Cangelosi to be “the next one” in the season immediately following Gaudreau’s Hobey campaign. After a down sophomore year, in which BC failed to come close to the high-flying offense of 2014-15, many of the frustrations fell onto Cangelosi’s shoulders.

Things changed in 2015-16, when the reinforcements arrived. The star-studded freshman class, including Miles Wood and Colin White, as well as the continued development of Alex Tuch and Zach Sanford, took the pressure off Cangelosi to be the focal point of the offense. That, Salzano believes, helped Cangelosi focus on his game.

And, while he continued to score plentifully, his game grew around the faceoff.

His exploits in that field have already been documented. But, amazingly enough, Cangelosi somehow got better than being the nation’s best.

Cangelosi won faceoffs in 2016-17 at a whopping .650 clip, best in the country again. That mark was .3 higher than the next closest center, Matt Marcinew of Denver—he was also the only Eagle in the top-100 nationally. When BC was in the defensive zone and needed to hang on to a one-goal lead, Cangelosi instilled confidence that he could shut the game down. No player in recent memory has been as good at one singular, specialized skill as he has.

“Knowing we had his faceoff skills also always made me breathe easier,” said Laura Berestecki, BCI’s editor-in-chief and BC ’13, BC Law ’16, in an email.

His faceoffs continually set up goals, too. BCI’s Joe Gravellese, BC ’10, referenced this year’s Frozen Fenway, in which a struggling Eagles team on the opposite side of the PairWise Rankings leaned on Cangelosi to bail them out. He perfectly set up Michael Kim to rip home a game-tying goal.  

“That turned the game around and BC went on to pick up the W,” Gravellese said in an email.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6XFSoeNigs

He provided a plethora of other memories too. Gravellese remembers Cangelosi’s first home-opener, when he scored two goals in a 9-2 blowout of Wisconsin. Berestecki recalls Cangelosi’s natural hat trick this season in Portland. All three can’t help but think about his prowess on the penalty shot, particularly the one he potted last season against Boston University.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmspwNOlrps

And all of those memories make Cangelosi harder to let go.

“Jerry talked a lot this year about how this was one of his favorite teams to coach, even though they had some struggles through the middle of the season,” Gravellese said. “I’m not in the locker room but I’m guessing Cangelosi is a huge reason for that—his leadership, his drive, and his continued progression was fun to watch.”

***

As Kentucky’s John Calipari likes to remind us, winning in college isn’t the primary goal. It’s getting your guys to the next level.

York doesn’t ascribe to that same level of one-and-done obsession. Still, he understands the importance of preparing his players to get to the NHL. Normally, it’s easy enough when you bring in a revolving door of first-round picks. Yet York actually thinks it’s a blessing that Cangelosi didn’t get drafted.

“As a free agent, he had a bunch of choices of them,” York said. “If you’re not going to be a first rounder, that’s the better route to go through.”

And, according to York, a player like Cangelosi is perfect for the the new NHL. The first- and second-line talent still trends toward those overall athletes, the 6-footers like Alexander Ovechkin and John Tavares who have size and skill to match. But the third- and fourth-line guys are no longer the goons, the enforcers there to entertain the crowds and eat up minutes by punching Sidney Crosby in the face. Now, teams want to get smaller and faster with specialists.

That’s where Cangelosi comes in. With his faceoff and penalty killing expertise, Cangelosi is a perfect fit at the end of the bench to provide a boost late in a game. York figured this out long ago. He’s just glad general managers have wised up.

“Now, the NHL is putting more value on that kind of player,” York said. “It took them a while to understand that.”

And if Cangelosi does make it to the NHL one day, that locker room is in for quite a treat. When preparing for a game, Cangelosi leads by silent example, the way he has been since high school.

“Jerry will probably tell you it took him three and a half years for him to say much,” Pratt said.

Off the ice, though, Cangelosi is just like any other BC student. Like many of us, he sweated out room selection day, when he, Ryan Fitzgerald, Matthew Gaudreau, and Chris Calnan were among the first men’s hockey group to win the Mod lottery and be allowed in since York became the coach. And he enjoys eating out, a lot, according to his former roommate.

“He loves to down his sushi and Cookie Monster,” said Thatcher Demko, the BC goaltender from 2014-16, calling in from the links in his hometown of San Diego, Calif.

Cangelosi confirmed his obsession for Yamato’s and White Mountain’s signature flavor. The guys in his grade would go once a week last year, crushing spicy tuna rolls and ice cream by the pint. He didn’t mention, however, his other secret obsession.

“He’s got good tango skills, he’s got good rhythm there,” Demko said of Cangelosi’s other special skill. “You’ve got to throw that in the article.”

Demko, however, could not confirm if Cangelosi’s dancing skills help him on the ice.

***
On that drive back to Boston, Cangelosi detailed his daily schedule. Now, it’s a lot of early nights and early mornings.

Just a few days after BC’s season came to an end in the Hockey East semifinals, Cangelosi signed with the Albany Devils. As York suggested, Cangelosi loved the opportunity to pick where he got to play. There’s a little bit of bias there, too. The leadership of the Devils’ front office consists of two BC parents: Ray Shero and Tom Fitzgerald. Because of his New Jersey roots, Cangelosi has always been a fan of the red and black, and as he says, why not suit up for your favorite team?

His days are even more structured now. During his abbreviated professional stay, he lived in a Residence Inn near the Times Union Center. A lot of other players there for only a short time, like BC alums Steve Santini and Miles Wood, make it a dorm atmosphere, just like what he’s used to in Chestnut Hill. Every day, he has to get ready for a 9 a.m. meeting, before an hour and a half practice. The day ends by noon, when Cangelosi can get back to his room and return to schoolwork and studying. He’s still on track to graduate this May from the Lynch School of Education.

Like college, the professional season is now over for Cangelosi. His Devils lost to the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Nevertheless, he’ll be ready for Devils training camp Sept. 10 in Newark. But he’s still got a few more days in Chestnut Hill. And, on that drive, he couldn’t help but notice that he was making such good time.

“Just glad I decided to take this route,” Cangelosi said.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor