“I saw a kid get his neck sliced open one time,” Zach Sanford says in the same, cool monotone as always.
“That’s gross!” Alex Tuch bursts out, turning on his teammate. “That’s absolutely disgusting.”
“It actually happened twice,” Sanford continues, now solely addressing Tuch. “One kid was a broken stick, the other was a skate.” He nods and faces forward again. “I’d probably say that.”
“Ohh!” Tuch exclaims, before launching into a few of his own crazy stories from the ice, though none come close to his partner’s. Sanford doesn’t add anything else, other than briefly mentioning one of Tuch’s shootout celebrations at the Minnesota Wild’s development camp this summer, which went viral on YouTube.
After firing his shot in the net at the last possible second, Tuch spun around the goal and came back up the near side. He gave his dueling weapon a subtle twirl before slipping it back in his holster in a style that even Clint Eastwood would respect. He almost pulled off the impression without breaking into a wide grin, but halfway through an exaggerated strut down the ice, staring at the opponent’s bench, he lost it.
It’s hard to fault Tuch for smiling. It was a great shot, and a better reaction. YouTube commenters can argue all they want about whether the shot or the attempted save was legal—all that matters to the rest of the world is that the whole sequence was awesome.
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It’s easy to toss around words like “awesome” when talking about Tuch. He’s a guy who works hard and does everything a Division I athlete is supposed to do, but he’s also an outgoing dude who’s not afraid to have fun. Everyone has always seen that he’s special on the ice.
Besides standing at the same height as Tuch, Sanford could not be more different. He’s the guy on the other end of the great-athlete spectrum, the one who somebody will invariably say leads by example but doesn’t stick out in a crowd. The two serve as an embodied duo of an introvert/extrovert pair, a real-life Joy and Sadness, escaped from Riley’s mind. And yet, this pair is the one that Boston College will turn to for a resurgence of its offense this season.
It was never fair to expect anyone, let alone a couple of freshmen, to replace BC’s 2013-14 spectacular scoring line of Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold, and Kevin Hayes. The latter two needed three seasons of NCAA hockey experience before they really broke out in their senior seasons, and even Gaudreau’s stats had been relatively modest his freshman year. It was clear that the unavoidable loss of Johnny Hockey would leave a hole, but when a perennial hockey powerhouse enters a season ranked No. 4 in the country, the expectations are inevitably high.
“We knew that we had to come in and be high-skilled forwards,” Tuch said. “We had to come in and take that big role.”
Both Tuch and Sanford stepped up. They contributed on separate lines before Winter Break—Sanford on the first line with Ryan Fitzgerald and Austin Cangelosi, and Tuch on the second with Chris Calnan and Adam Gilmour. In the first game after BC’s two-week Christmas hiatus, with the team sitting at a non-spectacular 10-7-1, York pulled one of his usual shuffles to the lines, putting Tuch and Sanford together.
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The Eagles went on a 9-1-1 stretch in their next 11 games, getting back into a place where they could contend. Even during that stretch, the two really broke out together at the same time. They faced off against No. 2 Boston University, who had already beaten the No. 17 Eagles at Kelley Rink two months prior. The rivals’ rematch at Agganis Arena was a chippy game from the beginning. The two teams combined for 11 first-period penalties, six of which resulted from a fight that involved Tuch.
Whenever you see a guy as outspoken and passionate as Tuch, there’s always the chance it can spill into unbridled aggression. Tuch had already had the experience of playing with kids up to five years older than himself, and he hadn’t been scared knocking them around.
“You know, if somebody ticked him off, he would definitely get physical if he needed to,” said Scott Montagna, Tuch’s coach for the Syracuse Stars, a program Alex played with for several years as a teenager. “I’ve seen him absolutely light kids up in youth hockey.”
Tuch isn’t someone that would just lose it out on the ice, but it helps to have a consistently level-headed player like Sanford around. The Eagles’ young guns kept calm in the aftermath, whereas the Terriers drew a few more penalties—two of which led to a 5-on-3 goal for Tuch’s freshman roommate, defensive star Noah Hanifin, and another that allowed Tuch to sink a goal of his own during a 4-on-4. Tuch and Sanford each went on to score another goal in the game, propelling BC to a 4-2 victory.
Production from both the offense and defense faded down the stretch as the stakes rose, but the talent was still there. After all, the biggest criticism about the top offensive lines last year wasn’t that they couldn’t be explosive. There were the times when BC lit up the red light before an ongoing sieve chant had finished. Rather, it was a matter of inconsistency—the Eagles had extended stretches without putting much pressure on goal.
“I think a big thing, especially for our line, is going to be to play with speed,” Sanford said. “Last year, at times, we didn’t play as fast as we could.”
Of course, it’s not all about speed. Size also matters, and even though everyone looks bigger when they step onto the rink, it isn’t a complicated illusion—each person gets the two-inch boost from the slice of steel and plastic beneath the boots. It’s not quite the jump that a 5-inch stiletto makes for a girl normally hovering around 5-foot-1, but it’s a noticeable difference. Throw in a full suit of padding and a huge set of gloves, and a normal-sized kid becomes a dude you don’t want to cross.
Then there are guys who are just big, regardless of where they are. Tuch and Sanford both stand at 6-foot-4, which not only makes them the tallest on the rink, but would almost qualify them to suit up as forwards on Jim Christian’s basketball roster this season. The former entered at a sturdy 220 pounds last season, making him York’s biggest player since BC’s scale had defenseman Brian Dumoulin weigh in at 225 in 2011. Sanford entered his freshman year at a skinnier 190, but has put on 10 pounds since then.
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But perhaps what’s more important than either size or speed is the idea of a critique coming out of Sanford’s mouth. We rarely take the time to really listen to soft-spoken introverts, and when we do, it’s probably because we’ve just eyed the big stick in their hands. As great of a player as Sanford is, he’s not the type to impose himself upon others until he’s comfortable.
Take Sanford’s freshman year at Pinkerton Academy, the New Hampshire high school he attended for three years. The best player on the team was Teddy McCarron, a junior that went on to play for a season at Merrimack. The two played on the same line, but McCarron didn’t always move the puck around well. It was the type of play that deserved a wake-up smack from a teammate, but Sanford was just a freshman, and he kept his mouth shut.
About a third of the way through the season, Casey Kesselring, Pinkerton’s head coach at the time, finally heard something new. As Sanford came off the ice, he spat under his breath, “Pass the f—king puck.”
“I was like, OK, Zach feels comfortable now,” Kesselring said.
Sanford became the best player on the team over the next two years, but his demeanor didn’t change. He wasn’t cocky, and he didn’t say much. After Sanford left Pinkerton and moved on to the Islanders Hockey Club in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, Kesselring heard the same process repeat: a month or two of, ‘Oh, you know, he’s doing all right,’ before he started getting calls from coaches and scouts saying, ‘Hey, listen, Sanford’s really starting to do well.’
“That’s what he does,” Kesselring said. “Once he figures it out, watch out, ’cause he can play.”
BC’s offense shouldn’t simply be looking for the improved play of a comfortable Sanford. It needs him at the leading role he is meant for, whether he wants it or not. That leading role doesn’t always mean picking up your teammates and trying to make them feel better. Sometimes, you have to be honest with what you’re dealing with—in addressing the addition of 5-foot-10 freshman Jeremy Bracco to the first line, Sanford kept it real.
“I know Bracco’s gonna slow the game down a lot,” he said. “But if me and Alex can keep playing with speed and just buzz around, I think we’ll have a great year.”
Acknowledging and addressing potential and actual weaknesses is how this team is going to patch up the troubles it had with inconsistency last season. Saying ‘Hey, we’re already No. 1, we can coast,’ is part of the reason women’s hockey has no new hardware to admire this season. It’s not a mistake men’s hockey is looking to repeat.
However the Eagles do in this season and beyond, Tuch and Sanford will eventually go elsewhere to have success. Both have been drafted and both have continued to improve, meaning their teams would be crazy not to sign them once they feel ready to make the leap, which will probably be before they’ve had a full four years on the Heights. They’ll prove that they don’t need to be part of an odd pair to be successful, adapting to bigger and better competition as they always have. But for this season, these two opposites may be the perfect combination to send another banner up to the rafters.
Images by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff