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Boston University hockey stands out in first round of NHL draft

Boston University hockey made history on Friday night, as the Terriers became the first school to have four players taken in the first 19 picks of the NHL draft. 

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The afternoon before they made history together, four future teammates on Boston University’s hockey team gathered for lunch with their families and friends. Seated around one big table, they spent the next two hours at Pearl Street Grill, an old red-bricked warehouse located a few blocks from First Niagara Center, site of the 2016 NHL draft. “Just talking about it and thinking about it,” said Charlie McAvoy, the only one of the quartet who skated for the Terriers last season. Not the upcoming first round of the draft, mind you, but the prospect of playing together in the fall. “It’s surreal, the class that we’re coming in with. It’s going to be special.”

By late Friday night, once all 30 picks were made, plenty other barriers had been breached. A dozen Americans were called, more than ever before. Same with the eight United States National Development Team players and products, and the three Finns tabbed in the top five, and the trio of St. Louis products who went by No. 11. Now headed to Toronto, Auston Matthews (Scottsdale, Ariz.) also became the first nontraditional market native chosen No. 1 overall.

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But BU scored the double whammy. Among center Clayton Keller (No. 7 to Arizona), blueliners McAvoy (No. 14 to Boston) and Dante Fabbro (No. 17 to Nashville), and winger Kieffer Bellows (No. 19), the Terriers had twice as many commitments and current students picked than ever before. And in matching the University of Minnesota’s 2006 haul—Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, Kyle Okposo and David Fischer—they became only the second NCAA program ever with that many chosen in the first round.

No wonder BU coach David Quinn, watching the proceedings from a suite overlooking the stage, laughs when he says this about the 2016-17 school year: “Only one person who can screw it up and you’re talking to him.”

Much of the credit for building this supposed juggernaut, of course, falls to Quinn and his staff for their recruiting efforts. An alumnus in the 1980s, former first-round pick of the North Stars, and BU assistant coach last decade, Quinn replaced the legendary Jack Parker in 2013. “We’ve been very fortunate here over the last 50 years that we’ve always had great players here,” he says. “It just so happened that all the stars aligned that this year could be, from a draft standpoint, a special year.” And yet, when discussing the reasons behind BU’s upcoming crop, Quinn can’t help but motion to the curly-haired teenager sitting near him in the suite.

Around this time last year, Jack Eichel was riding a jet ski with his girlfriend in the South Florida waters, enjoying himself so much that he almost missed the bus to the 2015 draft at BB&T Center. He remembers the short message delivered by Sabres GM Tim Murray for the No. 2 pick—Buffalo selects Jack Eichel—and how Murray joked that, in the interest of brevity, he would’ve just pointed at Eichel in the stands if the NHL would’ve allowed that. Eligible after his freshman season at BU, which ended with the Hobey Baker trophy and an appearance in the NCAA final, Eichel was all but guaranteed that he’d join the Sabres. Still, he recalls the nerves.

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“Nothing’s set in stone until you hear them say your name,” he says. “It was hectic. A lot of people trying to get a hold of you. Your mind’s racing. You’re trying to relax yourself. I remember going on stage, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Like, now it’s all real.”

And now here Eichel was at his home rink, watching those Terriers chosen one by one. “As an [alumnus] who takes a lot, a lot of pride in going to BU and playing there, it’s great to see these guys going,” Eichel says. “It owns a special spot in my heart.”

The feeling is mutual. Eichel had already committed to BU when Quinn assumed the head job, so his name was often mentioned in meetings with other recruits. “All of a sudden it’s a snowball effect,” Quinn says. “We’ve probably had more success recruiting, when we get into battles than we’ve probably had in the past because of the Jack Eichels. Nobody has come to college hockey with more hype or fanfare than Jack Eichel, just because of the day and age we live in. That’s not to say he’s the best to ever come to college, but I don't think anyone came with more fanfare because of social media. He came to live up to those expectations and then go to the NHL and have the year he had, he’s a guy I know a lot of guys who are 13, 14, 15 look up to. He’s got charisma, a presence about him, on top of being a great player.”

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Today, when new kids commit, Eichel is among the first to call and offer advice about what to expect on campus. “I’m sure they’re sick of hearing from Coach Quinn and Coach Quinn is probably sick of picking on them the whole time,” Eichel says. “I like that. I like that aspect of things. I want guys to know what it’s like. Coach Quinn can only tell them so much. I’m able to tell recruits things they wouldn’t be able to hear from the coach.”

Granted, while Eichel is spending this summer in Boston, hanging with his old classmates, he isn’t running a year-long hotline for future Terriers. (Friday’s lunch, for instance, was the first time he met Fabbro, and Eichel says he didn’t pay much attention to scouting rankings and mock drafts.) Eichel, however, is particularly close with McAvoy, the Long Beach, N.Y., native who finished second on BU with 22 assists last winter. “I just gave him a little idea of what his day would be like today, the whole process and experience of going to the combine, coming to the draft, what’s going to happen,” Eichel says. “Just helping him out and wishing the best.”

As Eichel finished speaking, the Islanders took the stage at No. 19 and announced Bellows’ name, almost on cue. “There’s the fourth BU guy,” Eichel said, pointing to the stage. He clapped. “Four in the top 20. Crazy to think about.”