By Tim Schmitt
LEWISTON — What makes a guy a good hockey player can also make him a bear off the ice. Hockey players need to be tough. Strong. Proud.
Les Reaney is all of the above.
As a staple on the top line of the Niagara University men’s hockey team that won last season’s College Hockey America regular-season title, Reaney didn’t beat teams with finesse — he went through opponents to get loose pucks before looking for linemates Ted Cook and Sean Bentivoglio.
Reaney was the league’s co-freshman of the year two seasons back, an honor he shared with Cook. He was among the nation’s leading scorers at the midpoint of his sophomore season.
And most assumed he’d be an integral part of the Purple Eagles’ run at an NCAA bid this year when the CHA Tournament came to Dwyer Arena.
Instead, when his teammates rushed the ice, mobbing goalie Juliano Pagliero after a heartstopping 3-2 win over rival Bemidji State, Reaney was nowhere to be found.
He was fresh off his first game for the Stockton (Calif.) Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League, a 2-1 win over the Fresno Falcons on bobblehead night at Stockton Arena.
Before we go feeling sorry for Reaney, the crowd at Stockton Arena was over 8,000 on Saturday, easily more than twice the combined attendance for the CHA event.
Still, it’s hard to think Reaney wouldn’t have relished skipping over a camera cord or two and holding the league’s trophy above his head at Dwyer on Sunday. These are the guys he’s gone to war with for nearly three full seasons; his buddies and classmates.
Word is that Reaney simply couldn’t keep his weight down while at Niagara, and coach Dave Burkholder first dropped him to the fourth line, then sat him two different times in an attempt to light a fire under the star. The first night he sat, I asked Reaney why he wasn’t playing. He told me he wasn’t sure and to ask Burkholder.
As expected, the coach said it was simply his decision and he expected Reaney to come back stronger the next time out.
Reaney — who hails from the tiny town of Ceylon, Sask., population 105 — didn’t take the benchings kindly. Soon after the second, he signed a two-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers, and became the third prominent college hockey player this season to spurn his team for a pro contract.
The difference is the two others — Minnesota’s Kyle Okposo and Denver’s Brock Trotter — will probably start next season on NHL rosters. Okposo was called up by the New York Islanders on Tuesday and played nearly 15 minutes. Trotter had a goal and an assist for AHL’s Hamilton a week ago and has already cemented himself as a regular.
Reaney, meanwhile, has already been dropped from the AHL’s Springfield Falcons to Stockton. He never dressed in Springfield.
It’s not that Reaney doesn’t have the potential. As one expert said at the CHA Tournament: “He was an NHL talent on the fourth line. That should tell you something.”
Hopefully, both sides will eventually look back at the split as a turning point. With Reaney out of the lineup, the Eagles got back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. And it’s possible the center will take his conditioning more seriously and eventually live up to the tremendous potential he showed.
But either way, the potential for a special moment was lost. At one point, Burkholder referred to Reaney as a diamond in the rough.
In the end, it turns out that Reaney was only rough.