There were 10 teams — and approximately 280 players — that had their season canceled due to COVID-19. Alaska’s Max Newton was one of those players.
Newton, 23, is a senior who was set to captain the Nanooks this season. Instead, he found out in November that the administration opted to have the program sit out the year. Suddenly, he was left scrambling. Should he stay? Should he transfer?
“We weren’t expecting it,” Newton said. “With everything that was going on, it’s always in the back of your mind, but we were so far into it, at that point, we all had a lot of confidence that we were going to be playing. The news just got dropped on us and it was stressful at that point. For me and a lot of other guys, you’re trying to figure out what the best option is for you, whether it’s to stay there and play a fifth year or to move. I looked to move and play this year.”
Newton entered the NCAA transfer portal and began the process of talking to new teams.
Last season, Newton played with Logan Coomes at Fairbanks. Coomes was a graduate transfer from Merrimack, who was among seven players let go after Scott Borek’s first season with the program to make room for his new recruits. Coomes helped make the connection between Newton and the Merrimack staff.
“Logan recommended him to us and he recommended us to him,” Borek said. “Given the way Logan’s career ended here, that was something I really appreciated. That says a lot about Logan, realizing that he left here after my first year. It says a lot about how much he cares about the program here and I appreciate that.
“Max is extremely mature,” Borek continued. “He’ll be great for our room, because we’re still a young team. On the ice, he plays hard and he plays the right way. He gets over pucks. He’s a really good addition for us this year and hopefully next year.”
Despite being a senior, “next year” is still an option for Newton, who can take advantage of an extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA due to COVID.
“It’s nice to have in your back pocket,” he said. “With limited games this year, it’s an attractive option for me. Hopefully next year it’s more normal.”
In addition to Coomes’ recommendation, Merrimack stood out for Newton because it’s a chance for him to prove himself in Hockey East.
For the Warriors, he has something most of their roster lacks: experience. Moreover, he should be able to provide some scoring punch to the lineup. Last season Newton had 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) for the Nanooks, which would have made him Merrimack’s leading scorer with Tyler Irvine last season and the returner with the most points on the roster.
“Having the opportunity to play in Hockey East was super attractive,” Newton said. “Once I looked into it more, I felt like it was a really good fit. It’s a new experience for me and talking to the coaching staff about Merrimack was exciting. They were talking to me consistently over the few weeks that this process was happening and once I talked to Logan, obviously he played here and he had nothing but good things to say about Merrimack and the staff, so that sold me.”
Newton, of course, isn’t the only player from the Alaska schools that have transferred; numerous players have followed the lead, looking for a place to play after UAF and UAA shut down their seasons. For UAA, it might be permanent.
Newton arrived in North Andover two weeks ago and now that an insurance issue has been sorted out and he was able to go through Hockey East’s COVID protocol, it’s expected that he’ll make his Merrimack debut this weekend against New Hampshire.
“Merrimack is a skilled team,” Newton said. “I’ve been around a little bit and from talking to the coaches I know we’re on the younger side. I was going to be a captain with Alaska so I think I have some leadership qualities that I can bring to the table. The big thing for me is just trying to acclimate myself as quickly as I can. I want to get to know the guys, understand the system and focus on hockey.”
On top of the offense and leadership he’s bringing, Newton was also the second-best faceoff player in the nation last season, winning more than 62 percent of his draws.
“I take a lot of pride in that part of my game,” he said. “It all started back when I first got to Alaska. Early in my career, I wasn’t getting into the lineup and I wanted to find a way to be in the lineup. I figured being a top guy on faceoffs was something that could set me apart. That gave me a huge leg up. It’s something you have to work on consistently. I usually spend about 10 minutes per day before or after practice just keeping it consistent. Understanding the opponent is huge too, so I watch a lot of video because every guy you’re in there with is unique.”
Borek confirmed this week that junior forward Logan Drevitch will miss this weekend against UNH and will be out “for a while.” Chase Gresock is also questionable. With those two out of the lineup, Newton will likely slide into one of their top-six roles.
“If it was just Logan out, that would be an easy move to make,” Borek said. “With Greasock out also, it affects two lines. We’re working with different things. We had Max in Logan’s spot for now. I’m happy with (Liam) Walsh and (Patrick) Kramer’s lines and I hesitate to break those up to fix something else. Max will go in for either Logan or Gresock.”
Borek said it’s likely Newton will center Alex Jefferies and Ben Brar. Jefferies, a freshman, is currently Merrimack’s leading scorer and was a fourth-round pick of the New York Islanders.
“(Newton) has a very quick first couple of steps,” Borek said. “He’ll bring a little pace to (Drevitch’s) line. Compared to Drev, he might be more of a shooter. Drev looks for other guys and Max is more of a north-south attack guy. It will be a different look for that line. Frankly, that’s the way we’re leaning. He’s a senior, he’s played a lot of college hockey and it doesn’t force us to break up other lines if he goes there.”