At last the best college hockey player in the U.S. is an American—a native and not another over-aged Canadian from Flin Flon, Man., or Kapuskasing, Ont. Tim Sheehy, who centers the first line for Boston College, was born and raised way up there in International Falls, Minn., an icebox (it warmed up Christmas morning to only 35° below) overlooking the Rainy River and Fort Francis, Ont. Unlike the majority of his collegiate rivals, Sheehy did not leave home when he was 13 to play junior hockey against the Bobby Orrs and the Jacques Lemaires. Instead he remained around the Falls, shoveled snow and led his high school team to 58 straight victories and three successive state championships.
When Sheehy was graduated from high school in June 1966, he was confronted with the most difficult decision, of his young life. He could 1) sign a contract with the Detroit Red Wings to play Junior A hockey with their affiliate in Hamilton, Ont.; 2) work for a year and then play for the U.S. Olympic hockey team at Grenoble; or 3) accept a full scholarship from any of the more than two dozen hockey-playing colleges actively trying to recruit him.
"I really wanted to go to Hamilton for one year, just to see how well I could do against the Canadian players," Sheehy said last week. "But when I looked into the situation there were too many obvious problems. For instance, if I had got hurt playing in Hamilton, I would have lost any chance for a college scholarship. There are nine children in my family and I needed a scholarship. Otherwise I could not go to school. I also had to think about the military situation. If I went to Hamilton or waited for the Olympics, I would have been draft bait. Hup, two, three, four. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a protester or a draft-card burner or anything like that. In fact, someday I hope to be a pilot in. the Air Force or the Navy. But I did not want to expose myself to the draft at age 17. The Olympics? Well, I figured I could play in 1972."
So Sheehy slowly began to process the list of scholarship offers. Notre Dame was ready to launch hockey as a major sport and wanted Tim to be its first hockey All-America. "Their program was not quite ready," Sheehy said, "and I couldn't wait for them." He eliminated the University of Minnesota, deciding that Minneapolis was 300 miles too close to International Falls. "I really wanted to get away," he said. Finally the choice rested between the University of Denver, some 1,000 miles to the West, and Boston College, 1,500 miles to the East.
BC had one major advantage throughout the long weeks of decision. The Sheehy family is devoutly Catholic, and Tim's parents wanted him to attend a Catholic college. Boston College plays the toughest hockey schedule of any Catholic school in the country. BC also had developed another edge: Coach John (Snooks) Kelley, a man of Irish charm, who used it on the Sheehy family one weekend in International Falls.
In his 33 years at Boston College, Kelley has won 450 games, but he has always been a maverick. Unlike his confreres, Kelley refuses to recruit Canadian players. No Canadian import ever has played at BC. Cornell, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Michigan Tech, North Dakota, Denver and the other top hockey schools rarely play American skaters.
Nevertheless, Kelley has had only two losing seasons, and BC always is one of the best teams in the East. "I'm not anti-Canadian, don't get that idea," Kelley says, "It's just that I think the American kid can play hockey just as well as the Canadian, boy if he gets the chance. And I'll be around to give it to him, I want to play the kid who used to make sodas down at the drugstore and who caddies during the summer. His kind has proved to me it can play hockey with the best.
"I had been out of New England a few times to talk to kids in upstate New York, but the trip to Minnesota was the first time I ever needed a plane to visit a hockey player."
Tim and his father drove Snooks down the main street in International Falls to a service station, "There was a big arrow over it that read, 'This Is Bronko's,' " Kelley recalled. "Tim's father beeped the horn and out came this big monster of a man. Bronko Nagurski is Timmy's uncle. He came over to me and stuck out his hand and said, 'How are you, Kel?' We talked about football, and I told him that I thought he and Jim Thorpe were the two greatest fullbacks that ever lived. He said to me, 'Kel, I agree.' When we were ready to leave, he told me, 'Kel, don't worry, you'll get Timmy.' "
It did not take Sheehy long to establish himself as a potential superstar. He scored 28 goals in 21 games during his freshman season. Last year as a sophomore he scored 27 goals and helped skate BC to the No. 2 rating in the East—right behind the all-Canadian sextet that Ned Harkness recruits for Cornell every year. This season BC again is trailing Cornell's Canadians in the race for No. 1 in the East. So far Boston College has lost three times and Cornell only once. Cornell was upset by RPI early in December; one of BC's losses was to Cornell. The teams meet again this month at BC's McHugh Forum.
"We know we can beat Cornell," Sheehy says. "We had them in that first game, then we quit. We'll be alive for 60 minutes the next time."
Unlike many young Americans who skate poorly, check poorly and concern themselves only with shooting the puck and trying to score goals, Sheehy combines all the basic elements of the sound hockey player. He is a strong, smooth skater capable of bursts of sheer brilliance. He is a superior checker and an adroit playmaker. He shoots as hard and as accurately as any collegian, and he is deadly when in on a goalie all alone.
Unfortunately, too many American spectators do not appreciate the art of hockey as practiced by Sheehy. Bill Cleary, the former Harvard and U.S. Olympic hockey player, watches Sheehy with an expert's eye, however, and applauds his style of play. "I think other people expect him to score a goal every time he gets the puck," Cleary says. "They just don't see all the things he does that other players never even think of."
Sheehy was at his best earlier in the season in the third period of a game against Cleary's alma mater, Harvard. BC and Harvard both were undefeated, BC Goalie George McPhee was having a bad night and midway through the final period Harvard led 5-3 as BC drew a penalty. Snooks Kelley sent Sheehy out to kill it. Tim won a face-off just inside his own blue line, skated up the right side, stickhandling past two Harvard players, and then approached the defensemen. He faked one defender inside, pushed the puck between his legs, collected it again, took another stride and flicked a 30-foot shot just under the near-side crossbar. BC now trailed only 5-4.
In the final minute of play Kelley pulled McPhee from the goal. There was a face-off to the right of the Harvard goaltender. Sheehy won it, naturally, and moved into the corner. He stickhandled, waiting for a linemate, Paul Schilling, to position himself in front. With the clock ticking away, Sheehy snapped a pass along the ice to Schilling, who was about 15 feet in front of the net. Schilling fired instantly—and the Harvard goalie never saw the puck. The game went into overtime, and BC won 6-5.
Two thousand men of Harvard started to file out of Watson Rink in Cambridge. One Harvardian, with a raccoon coat over his turtleneck sweater, turned to another and shook his head.
"Are you sure that Sheehy is not a Canadian?" he asked.