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Bitter rivals BC, BU could be on a Frozen Four collision course

BOSTON — It’s a feud that dates back to 1918, one filled with as much mutual animosity as competitive spirit.

It’s Boston University vs. Boston College, an NCAA hockey tradition like no other.

“I mean, obviously there’s a lot of hatred there,” BC forward Will Smith said. “Off the ice, there’s sort of a respect for one another. But once we get on the ice, we’re enemies.”

Smith was born in 2005, but he knows. They all know. Putting on those jerseys and looking across the ice at their crosstown rivals creates some kind of hockey alchemy, wherein all the battles and brackets and Beanpot tournaments are downloaded into their hearts.

“It’s pretty special just being able to be a part of something that’s been going on for so long and the history of the guys who played in those games,” BU defenseman Lane Hutson said.

The Terriers have won five national championships, their last one coming in 2009 with a team that featured Kevin Shattenkirk and Nick Bonino. The Eagles also have won five national titles, their last one coming in 2012 with a team that included Johnny Gaudreau, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, among others.

“It’s Alabama vs. Auburn or Michigan vs. Ohio State. It has that feel to it,” BC coach Greg Brown said. “Just two schools that have been very successful programs and they’re so close together, so the kids are usually very familiar with each other before they even get to the school. It just sets up for a great rivalry.”

Within the context of the rivalry, it’s clear all losses aren’t created equally. BC’s lone real blemish on the season was a crushing one — an opening-round loss to BU in the Beanpot, Boston’s hallowed college hockey tournament. For BU, falling short in this season’s Hockey East championship game was a disappointment. Getting smoked 6-2 by BC was a whole different level of anguish for coach Jay Pandolfo.

“We’ve got to get past it,” he said. “It’s not the end of our season. Can’t dwell on it. Can’t feel sorry for yourself. But this will hurt for a bit.”

Pandolfo understands all this. He played for BU for four seasons. He has coached the Terriers for the past two seasons. He played in the NHL for 15 years and watched how quickly the rivalry could turn NHL teammates into antagonists when the college hockey postseason arrived.


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“It’s always been a great rivalry no matter where the teams are at,” he said. “This year is special because of how good both teams are, the level of talent on both teams, so I think that brings it up another level.”

Boston College (31-5-1) is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division I tournament, which begins Thursday. The Eagles, whose first game is against Michigan Tech on Friday at 2 p.m. in Providence, Rhode Island, are a deeply talented squad powered by sophomore forward Cutter Gauthier, who achieved NHL notoriety by refusing to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers after being drafted by them, and a remarkable freshman trio led by Smith.

Boston University (26-9-2) is ranked No. 2 in the country and has the next NHL franchise player on its roster in Macklin Celebrini, the 17-year-old consensus first overall choice in this summer’s draft. The Terriers’ first-round opponent is RIT (Thursday, 5 p.m., at Sioux Falls, South Dakota).

They’re seeded on opposite sides of the bracket, like two kaiju stomping through the countryside en route to a potential showdown in the final. It would be the first time the archrivals have met for the national championship since 1978, when the Terriers came out on top.

“It’s there. It’s always been there,” Pandolfo said of the rivalry. “I just think this year it’s elevated again, just with the amount of talent that’s there.”


The phenom

Macklin Celebrini is the kind of NHL prospect for whom teams deconstruct their rosters in an effort to maximize their draft lottery odds. If he doesn’t quite have that “generational talent” tag applied to the likes of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, scouts have uniformly called him a franchise-altering player while making him the No. 1-rated draft-eligible North American skater.

“It’s been a pleasure to have the opportunity to coach him,” Pandolfo said. “Just his mindset being around him every day, understanding why he’s as good as he is.

“It’s because of the preparation. It’s how hard he competes. Never takes a drill off in practice, never takes a rep off, never takes a shift off. He comes to the rink every day trying to improve on something. He’s never just going through the motions. He’s never going on the ice just to go on the ice. He’s going on the ice to get better.”

That work ethic and intense preparation tracks back to Celebrini’s childhood.

“I think Macklin’s had two elements since he laced up skates. The first is his hockey IQ: That at a young age he’s so aware of his surroundings and the game,” his father, Rick Celebrini, said in 2022. “The other is compete. Since he was a toddler, he’s been relentless.”

Macklin credits his father with developing him as a player: how to prepare for games, how to stretch, when to sleep. The advice wasn’t just parental, but professional: Rick Celebrini has been a well-regarded physiotherapist for 30 years, assisting everyone from the Canadian Olympic team to the Vancouver Canucks to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, for whom he is vice president of player health and performance.

Not every 16-year-old prospect has Draymond Green cheering for him at junior hockey games.

Whether it was the Warriors, Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash or the Canucks’ Sedin twins, Rick Celebrini wanted his sons to see first-hand how elite athletes prepare.

“The way they approach training is something every young athlete should see,” he said.

Pandolfo said Celebrini prepares like an all-star.

“He pushes our group in practice with how competitive he is, every day,” he said. “In the first few practices, I think guys could tell right away that this guy’s not going to give you an inch. He’s going to push it. And I think it’s helped our team.”

Celebrini has 59 points, including 31 goals, in 35 games for BU. He is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top Division I men’s player, not only because of his offense but the totality of his game.

“It’s his competitiveness all over the ice. I think a lot of times with younger players that are that talented offensively … I’m not saying they cheat the game, but sometimes they’re not as responsible defensively at that young an age,” Pandolfo said. “He’s just so detailed on both sides of the puck. He defends just as hard as he wants to go on offense, and I think that’s why he’s as good as he is.”

Celebrini has surpassed expectations for his freshman year. It was a season of scrutiny, as the hockey world wanted confirmation the consensus No. 1 pick was the real deal. That he handled the pressure with aplomb was a sign of the 17-year-old phenom’s remarkable maturity.

“I think that comes from his upbringing, from his parents being around pro sports,” Pandolfo said. “Being around the Golden State Warriors and that championship. Being around that environment and watching how they do things, learning that way. I think he learned a lot through those guys’ eyes. It’s been very impressive.”


The freshmen

The Terriers have the fourth-youngest roster in the country this season, with an average age of 21 years, 4 months old.

“Yeah, Macklin makes us pretty young,” Pandolfo joked.

Their inexperience goes beyond their star player. BU’s roster boasts 10 freshmen, including Macklin’s older brother Aiden and Tom Willander, two 19-year-old defensemen drafted by the Canucks.

Pandolfo said the balance between his veteran players and the freshman class has worked to the Terriers’ advantage.

“For the most part, our core group of guys from last year are back,” he said. “They have that experience, so I think they can help the freshmen class that are making an impact for us this year.”

The Eagles are even fresher: 20 years, 9 months on average, making Boston College the youngest team in the nation.

“They know playoff hockey is a step up in intensity,” said Brown, who like Pandolfo is coaching at his alma mater. “They’ve played in a lot of big games over their careers, so we don’t have to remind them too much. I think they’ll be ready.”

Like, for example, one of the best trios in all of hockey over the last year.

Will Smith, 19, was drafted fourth overall by the San Jose Sharks in 2023. Ryan Leonard, 19, was taken eighth overall by the Washington Capitals. Gabe Perreault, 18, was selected 23rd overall by the New York Rangers.

They’ve been frequent linemates since clicking together with the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad in 2021. They’ve since starred in the U-18 world junior championships, winning gold in April 2023, and the U-20 world junior championships, winning gold again in January.

They were reunited at Boston College, thanks to a little courtship.

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Greg Brown credits youth, well-rounded play for Boston College’s success

Boston College coach Greg Brown attributes the Eagles’ 1-seed in the NCAA men’s ice hockey tournament to the team’s all-around play and poise of their freshmen.

“Smith and Leonard were committed here and they worked hard to get Gabe to join them and he did,” Brown said. “We’re very happy that they all came together and that chemistry … they didn’t have a break-in period when they got to school because they’d been together at the program. So I think they hit the ground running right from the start and they’ve continued to generate offense throughout the season.”

Smith said by having his longtime linemates with him at BC, the chemistry has stretched off the ice as well.

“We’re in class together all day, and then to get to come to the rink and play in front of all these fans,” he said. “I get to live with Gabe. We’re all very tight, so it’s pretty cool.”

Smith said there was no awkwardness in having freshmen walk into the locker room and earn the opportunities they have.

“Obviously, there’s a respect for the upperclassmen. Our captains have been nothing but unbelievable this year and just supporting us,” he said. “When they need to stand up and say something, they do. They’ve been awesome to us.”

Brown said the trio had the proper amount of humility when joining the team this season.

“They carry themselves in a humble way, so the locker room was no problem even though they have, obviously, the talent level,” he said. “But I think it was an adjustment on the ice. You could see in the early games, which were heavier than they were used to while playing in junior hockey. So they had some adjustments. They knew they had to play quicker just getting used to playing against a lot of older guys.”

Brown said there’s a unique challenge in trying to manage freshman phenoms. They’re all wired differently. There’s a delicate balance between being patient with them or pushing them — and then, in the latter case, how hard to push them.

“It’s a different adjustment. Some of them, it’s their first time away from home, some of them, the classroom is very hard. They’re back in a classroom after being online for a while, so you never know what the adjustment is and how quickly it’ll happen,” he said. “But if they’re good kids and they work hard, then they do make that adjustment and the best hockey does come out. You just don’t know if it’s going to be immediate or not.”

Suffice it to say, the Eagles’ freshmen trio figured it out. Entering the NCAA tournament, Smith leads the team with 67 points in 37 games, including 23 goals. Perrault is third with 57 points in 32 games, while Leonard has 54 points in 37 games.

“They’re a big part of our team, even though they’re freshmen,” Gauthier said. “They’re young, but they’ve been obviously big contributors. We wouldn’t be where we are without those guys.”


The outcast

Under normal circumstances, the focus this season would have been on Gauthier leading the nation with 32 goals in 35 games, nine of them game winners, as a Hobey Baker finalist. It would have been on his contributions to the U.S. winning world junior gold and his critical role in trying to help Boston College to a national championship.

But this season has been anything but normal for the 20-year-old after he riled up Philadelphia Flyers fans by saying he wanted to play for their organization, then changed his mind.

“He looked at us at the draft and told us that he was built to be a Flyer, wanted to be a Flyer,” Flyers GM Danny Briere said. “A few months later, he told us that he didn’t want to be a Flyer.”

The entire saga between Gauthier and the Flyers remains mysterious. Briere claims the team never got a clear answer from him about no longer wanting to play in Philadelphia. Gauthier said the reasons are between “myself, my family and my agent.” The end result saw the Flyers trade Gauthier to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Jamie Drysdale and a second-round selection in the 2025 NHL draft in early January.

The reaction to Gauthier’s change of heart was anything but sympathetic. Fans showed up in Flyers jerseys to Boston College games. Comcast Spectacor chairman and Flyers governor Dan Hilferty offered a vitriolic farewell, saying, “I don’t really feel bad for Cutter when he comes to Philadelphia. It’s gonna be a rough ride here and he earned it.”

When asked about Hilferty’s comments, Gauthier said, “Kind of tough to see. But that’s on them. That’s not on me.”

Gauthier said he received “thousands and thousands” of direct messages on social media, including some death threats. Nearly three months after the trade, Gauthier is happy to report the noise has quieted, something for which his coach is thankful.

“It was dicey there for a little while. Fortunately, it’s died down,” Brown said. “The stuff that was going around online was insane. We understand that some Philadelphia people have animosity or some venom toward him because they want him to be on their team. But we know he’s not a bad person. He’s a great kid. So you have to separate their misunderstanding of him not wanting to be in Philadelphia to the person that he is.”

Gauthier said support from his coaches and teammates helped him immeasurably.

“The guys have been nothing but the best,” he said. “They knew it was a personal matter and they’ve been nothing but supportive since day one. They asked me if I’m doing OK with all the hate and all the stuff that was going on. It was truly special of them to take the time out of their day to reach out to me and see if I was doing OK and I really appreciated that.”

As the stats and accolades indicate, Gauthier has thrived despite the controversy. Brown believes that’s a testament to his character.

“The impressive part with Cutter is his hockey stayed at an extremely high level,” Brown said. “He did not let that affect his game in any way. So even though he was getting bombarded online, he was able to separate himself and play excellent hockey during that time.”

It’s all about staying focused. Remembering the task at hand. Closing out the outside noise.

The same things, Gauthier said, Boston College has to do as the No. 1 overall seed seeking an NCAA championship, a feat accomplished only once in the past 10 tournaments (Denver, 2017).

“It’s tough to think about. Obviously, it’s right in the near future, but the only thing we can do now is control what we can control. We can’t get too ahead of ourselves,” he said. “If we don’t play the way we’ve been playing all season long, we won’t get there. Still a lot of hockey left.”

And an archrival waiting on the other side of the bracket, ready to add to college hockey’s most legendary feud.

“Both teams are having a great season this year, so if it happens, then it’ll be another chapter between them,” Brown said. “It’s an intense rivalry, but there’s also a lot of respect.”

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