Their names read like a hit list because, frankly, that’s what it is.
Mike Hamilton, Nov. 6 in Orono, Maine; Eric Przepiorka, Dec. 10 in Hanover, N.H.; Pat Gannon, Feb. 13 at the TD Banknorth Garden; Daniel Winnik, Feb. 17 at Agganis Arena.
One by one, these college hockey players fell. One moment they’re skating with their head down, and the next, they’re lying on the ice looking up at the arena ceiling. The time in between may have been a bit more hazy.
They can thank Sean Sullivan for that.
Sullivan, a junior defenseman for the Boston University men’s ice hockey team, has established himself as the big hitter for the No. 4 Terriers this season. Relatively normal-sized at 6 feet, 192 pounds, the Braintree native doesn’t headhunt or pick on the small forwards. He simply skates back, puts on the breaks and pops dudes — at the blue line, end line, center ice, wherever.
“It turns the momentum of the game around a lot,” senior forward Dan Spang said of Sullivan’s bone-rattlers. “Sometimes we’ll be struggling a little bit, and he’ll go out there and pop someone real good, and you can feel it on the bench, on the ice.
“I don’t think anyone really understands how much the guys on the team love seeing him bury guys like that,” Spang added. “It really gets the team juiced up.”
Considering Sullivan doesn’t put up the comparably jaw-dropping numbers (3-10-13, +11), most people probably don’t understand how good of a season he’s having either.
Paired with Kevin Schaeffer on BU’s second defensive unit, Sullivan has never played better while wearing the scarlet and white. He’s played with more confidence, more poise and, of late, more responsibility. Besides providing the Terriers with “one of their anchors back there,” as goalie John Curry said, he’s taken over point duties on the power play and has displayed an increasing knack for offense
His numbers are by far a career best, and his hard-nosed play and durability (he’s played in 108 straight games) should put him in consideration for Hockey East’s Best Defensive Defenseman Award, which will be announced tomorrow.
Most people may know Sullivan for his big hits, but they should also know him as one of the best defensemen in the league.
“He’s got the skills and he already does everything in the offensive zone, the neutral zone and the defensive zone,” Spang said. “He’s really a total-package player and it was only a matter of time until it all came together for him, and we’re fortunate it happened this year.”
Why it didn’t come together in previous years wasn’t a question of Sullivan’s physical strength, but rather, his mental capabilities. During his first two seasons with BU, Sullivan would often lose confidence in himself for long stretches of time. A couple poor shifts here and a bad game there, and he would put himself in a funk he couldn’t get out of.
“He’s not really an ego type of guy,” said BU coach Jack Parker. “He doesn’t think he’s real good, and he’s not a self-promoter by any stretch of the imagination. But sometimes, it’s a matter of having a bad shift every once in a while and having a hard time getting over it. Everybody has bad shifts, and I think he would let it bother him.”
Sullivan said he went through the same process in high school at the St. Sebastian’s School in Needham. But come his junior year – like this season – he started to realize that he could skate with the best defensemen in the league.
As a result, he put together a monstrous senior year at St. Sebastian’s: his 39 points (9-30) led all New England Prep defensemen; he compiled a ridiculous plus-minus of +59; and he collected just four penalty minutes – on what he recalled were roughing penalties.
Three years later, that same confidence level has returned.
“Now playing with Kevin Schaeffer, we’re good friends, we know each other pretty well and we just feel comfortable out there,” Sullivan said. “The confidence level just goes up.”
So has his playing time. Guaranteed a bigger role on both offense and defense, he’s worked to improve both his shot, with assistant coaches David Quinn and Mike Bavis, and his overall play in front of Curry. Yet, surprisingly, the hits he’s become known for weren’t a big part of his game until last season. Now, they’re piling up like the ice left from a zamboni.
For all the punishment Sullivan has dealt out, however, there’s one instance that stands out for him the most. Entering the second intermission in an eventual 7-4 UMass-Lowell win on Oct. 28, River Hawks senior forward Bobby Robins had been “taking liberties” with BU players all night, Sullivan said.
“When we were in the locker room between periods, Zanc [senior co-captain Bard Zancanaro] said, ‘Someone put Robins on his butt,'” Sullivan recalled.
So Sullivan did. On the first shift of the third period, all 6 feet, 1 inch and 220 pounds of Robins came flying through the slot – puck in hand and eyes to the ice. Putting on the brakes, Sullivan stepped up, lowered his shoulder and absolutely destroyed the Wisconsin native, sending Robins somewhere between Green Bay and the Merrimack River.
“I think it was one of the biggest hits I’ve ever thrown,” Sullivan said. “He just got right off the ice after that.”
And right onto the hit list.