By Phil Stacey
Keaton Cashin clearly remembers sitting on the bench of the Masconomet Regional hockey team, a freshman who made the varsity but did not play on opening night.
Sitting next to him was fellow freshman Chris Kreider, who also did not play that evening.
"Three of us (freshmen) made the varsity that year; Jay Nichols, who played in the opener, plus Chris and I," recalled Cashin, now 21. "Chris and I were on the bench and he says to me, 'Wouldn't it be great to go to college at a place like Babson and be able to play hockey?'
"Imagine that. Chris thought it'd be great to play Division 3 college hockey — and now he's close to playing in the Stanley Cup final. Unreal."
New York Rangers rookie left winger Chris Kreider may be the darling of the hockey world these days, wowing teammates, coaches, opponents and fans alike with his speed, smarts and scoring ability. He's gone straight from winning a second NCAA championship in three seasons at Boston College into the NHL playoffs without missing a beat.
But he's long been admired by those in his hometown of Boxford who watched him and played with him growing up. To them he's just Chris, a great kid from a terrific family who just happens to excel at the highest level of professional hockey.
"I respect him on so many levels for what he's been able to do. He's such a mature kid who handles everything so well," said Andrew Panella, who has been friends with Kreider since kindergarten and is a former Masconomet teammate. "At least half of everything he's accomplished can be attributed to his maturity. It's amazing he can do it so coolly."
"I saw him the first night he played (in the NHL, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in Ottawa last month)," added Bill Blackwell, who coached Kreider for two seasons at Masconomet. "Right after the game there are 10 microphones jammed in his face, but he's still just that humble kid from Boxford, saying all the right things.
"I mean, can you imagine Chris going out to a restaurant in Times Square with (Rangers all-star goalie Henrik) Lundqvist and those guys? He probably does now, but it's (surreal) to think of it."
Better as a pro
It's not hyperbole to say that Kreider's ascension into the NHL has been unlike that of any other player in the league's 95-year history.
No player has ever made the first two goals of his career game-winners in the playoffs after never having scored a regular season NHL goal. No one has ever scored as many playoff goals (5) as the 21-year-old Kreider without first having played a regular season game.
And no player has ever won an NCAA hockey championship, gone directly to the NHL and captured a Stanley Cup in the same season — something the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is attempting to do. His Rangers are two games away from playing for hockey's ultimate prize after last night's 4-1 loss to New Jersey in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference finals series.
"It's impossible to describe watching this all unfold for him," said Panella, an economics major at Bates College who recently returned home to Boxford from a semester spent abroad in Spain. "Nobody can believe it's happening. Even Chris, he probably can't even think about it; he just has to play and think about it later after the season."
Cashin, who will be playing at Salem State next winter, still has to pinch himself sometimes that his longtime friend and former teammate is starring on the sport's biggest stage.
"It's like, 'That's my buddy on TV.' It wasn't that long ago we were on the power play together at Masco," said Cashin. "I mean, he went from us to prep school (at Phillips Andover, where Cashin also spent a post-graduate year) to college to playoff hockey and already looks like one of the best players out there."
Blackwell feels part of Kreider's "I belong here" attitude has allowed him to succeed every time he's climbed another rung on the hockey ladder. It's a confidence that's not cocky (by nature, Kreider is humble and soft spoken), but rather an inner belief in his own abilities.
"I talked to some people when he was at BC who believed he'd be a better pro than college player, because guys in the NHL are in the right spots that they're supposed to be," Blackwell said. "That's where Chris can really shine; he's unbelievable on the side wall and always finds the open guy with a great pass.
"Plus, he uses his strength to keep other guys away from the puck. His second (Rangers) game against Ottawa, he takes the puck down the side boards and keeps one of their guys on his backside, then finds an open teammate. He can do that because he's so big and strong."
Modest approach, but strong belief in self
Blackwell clearly recalls the change in Kreider from his ninth to 10th grade seasons, when he grew three inches and gained 20 pounds of muscle. "All of a sudden, there was a man on the ice. He was scary good," said Blackwell.
That was evident from the first game of the 2006-07 season, one that would end in a Cape Ann League title for the Chieftains. In the opener against North Reading, Kreider easily took the puck past three Hornets, snapped off a shot and hit the back of the net before the goaltender finally reacted with his glove hand.
"My assistant coach and I looked at each other with our mouths open, as if to say 'Did you see that?' It was awesome," said Blackwell.
That athleticism isn't surprising to those who grew up playing sports with him in and around Boxford. "He was always shooting pucks," said Cashin. "Chris would stickhandle tennis balls around his dog all the time. He even froze his driveway once, just to shoot pucks."
"He's always been passionate," added Panella. "He'd convince me to be a street hockey goalie, and three hours later I was all done and ready to play video games, but he still wanted to go.
"Really, he's so athletic that he's always been good at whatever he's tried. He played club soccer one year for us and I think only played in four games, but still led the team in scoring!"
Panella's parents, Sue and Mark, are close friends with Kreider's folks, Dave and Kathy and are just as excited by what's transpired over the last month. Sue Panella has already been to three Ranger playoff games at Madison Square Garden (a loss and a win vs. the Capitals and the team's Game 2 win over New Jersey), and was wearing her Kreider jersey in anticipation for last night's contest.
"It's really incredible, this ride that Chris is on," she said of the Rangers' first round pick (19th overall) from the 2009 NHL Draft. "I think my husband said it best when he mentioned, 'Just look at Chris and you can tell how much he enjoys what he's doing.'"
Like many of his players who played with Kreider, Blackwell has watched all of the Rangers' playoff games intently, waiting for Kreider's magic to take over.
He marveled at the breakaway goal that the 2007 Salem News Hockey Player of the Year scored in the second round against the Washington Capitals, giving his team a Game 1 victory in that series as the sellout crowd of Madison Square Garden serenaded him with chants of 'Kreider! Kreider!'
"He opened up the gap on that breakaway after initially thinking about going off (the ice) for a line change, but then saw the opening and took it," said Blackwell. "And the funny thing is, he scored on a slapshot, which you never see him do. He has those great wrists and can fire a snapshot, but doesn't really take slappers. So what does he do? Score on one to win a playoff game."
It takes a lot — more than a lot — for any born-and-bred Boston sports fan to root for anything that has a 'New York' before it. But there are exceptions to every rule, and with Kreider making a Broadway-style name for himself in the 2012 NHL playoffs, a lot of North Shore fans find themselves rooting for the Blueshirts.
"If Chris stays hungry like he is right now — and I know he will," said Cashin, "then great things are going to happen in his future. You can already see it happening."