NORTH ANDOVER — Late last summer, Cole McBride thought he was preparing for his first season as a college hockey player. He was moved into his dorm at Merrimack College, he was taking summer classes and working out with the rest of his new teammates.
Then word came down from the NCAA that would change everything.
There was a problem with McBride’s transcript, and according to the NCAA, he was ineligible. The college worked with McBride for months, filing appeals in hopes of allowing the 20-year-old to play, but the NCAA wouldn’t budge. McBride was told that he had to sit out all of last season, and could be eligible to play this season as a sophomore.
“At first I didn’t know how serious it was,” he said. “I wasn’t really worried about it, to be honest. It seemed like nothing was progressing after a while and when I found out there was nothing we could do, I was upset, obviously.”
Out of options with the NCAA, McBride and the team tried to formulate a Plan B. They discussed him going back to the Camrose Kodiaks for another year of junior hockey, but ultimately it was decided that McBride would remain on campus, attending classes and working out with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kamal.
“I tip my cap to him,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “It was a farce that he had to sit last year. He made the most of it. He used his time wisely. He married the weight room and he’s a beast now. I’m really excited about seeing him in the lineup. We have a sophomore who I think will make a huge impact. We expect big things from him.
“He has good hands and he shoots the puck well. He’s heavy on the puck and he’s hard to play against. He’s going to be a shot in the arm for us offensively.”
McBride was a monster his last year in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for the Kodiaks, scoring 37 goals and adding 47 assists (84 points) in 70 games.
He was looked upon as one of Merrimack’s top recruits last season. Now, with a year under his belt in the weight room with added strength, the possibility is there that McBride makes an immediate impact in Merrimack’s top-six rotation of forwards.
“I used it as a positive,” he said. “I settled in with classes and got in the weight room all year. I was in there six days per week, I put some muscle on which is going to help me. I tried to make the time count. Bad things happen sometimes. I figured I could either pout about it or I could make it useful, and I decided to make it useful.”
McBride said his teammates made him feel part of the team the entire time, even though he wasn’t allowed to join them on the ice for practice until January.
Instead, he spent the first few months of his college career lifting weights and skating alone, in an effort to keep the rust from building up.
“Getting back to practice was when I really felt like I was part of the team,” he said. “The guys were great, but the whole first half I’m in the weight room by myself. Getting on the ice for practice was really a positive for me. I’m more prepared to play this year. It stinks that it happened, but I think in the long run it will help me.”
Merrimack began recruiting McBride in the fall of 2015. Associate head coach Bill Gilligan was on a recruiting trip to western Canada and noticed him playing for Boris Rybalka and the Kodiaks.
Merrimack has a rich history of recruiting former Kodiaks, including Karl Stollery, Chris Barton, Clayton Jardine, Jesse Todd and Jonathan Lashyn.
At the time, McBride was talking to a few schools but Merrimack immediately impressed him.
When McBride was recruiting, he had just started coming into his own as a player. A few years before his recruitment, he was playing AA midget hockey, which was a level below the top league in the region.
For some players that can be discouraging. But like last season, McBride took it as a positive.
“I played midget AA hockey because I didn’t make the AAA team and at first I was upset,” he said. “It was probably the best thing for me. I gained so much confidence that year. It was a level below the top league, so I was one of the more skilled guys on that team. Instead of being on a better team in a smaller role, I was in all the important roles on my team. I played a ton and I had the puck a lot, and it really grew my confidence a lot. I can’t really explain it, but I carried that on to the next season and I was so much more confident in what I could do as a player and I think I played more mature after that.”
McBride will finally make his collegiate debut tomorrow night, when the Warriors open the 2017-18 season at Colgate. The Warriors return home for their home opener on Oct. 14 against Wisconsin of the Big Ten.
Merrimack returns the bulk of its scoring from a team that finished in seventh place last season. In fact, the 75 percent of total offense that Merrimack brings back is the most in Hockey East. Added to that is a talented freshman class and a sophomore, Cole McBride, who was forced to sit out all of last season due to NCAA eligibility issue and looked like he could have been an impact player, even as a freshman.
Bringing back a large group of returners has meant the Warriors can hit the ground running — or maybe it’s the ice skating? — with some limited hours on the ice with coaches and captains’ practices taking place for about the last month. Merrimack is looking to build on concepts from last season, particularly what worked in the second half.
The 6-1-3 stretch for the Warriors included a sweep of Boston University. Over that 10-game span, the Warriors averaged 3.1 goals per game.
“It’s always an exciting time of the year to have everything starting up,” said senior co-captain Marc Biega. “There’s always a perception that Merrimack can’t match up with the big-time schools. We want to prove to everyone that we can be at the top of the league. (Last year against BU) was a great example of how we can be there. We know what it takes.”
“There is always room for improvement,” added senior co-captain Jared Kolquist. “The good thing about having a lot of returners is that we can build on concepts from last year and hopefully be better this year. We want to stay in the present, because it’s a short season in college hockey, so if we can do that I think that it bodes well for us. With so many returners there is a lot of familiarity, which is a good thing. The guys we have know what Merrimack hockey is all about. I can already feel like we’re all on the same page.”