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Boosted by California quartet, Colorado College primed for breakout NCAA season

 

California Guys

Things are looking up at Colorado College.

The Tigers reached the NCHC final four for the first time in six seasons this past April and posted their most wins (17) since the 2012-13 season.

And they’ve added two more California-born and –trained players to a roster that already had a pair of contributors. The four – goaltender Ryan Ruck (Coto de Caza), defenseman Chad Sasaki (Cypress) and forwards Jack Gates (Oceanside) and Brian Williams (San Diego) – give the Golden State the second most players of any state (Minnesota has five) on the CC roster.

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“All four of them are very impressive young men,” Tigers coach Mike Haviland said. “They’re outstanding in the classroom, they’re great in the community and they’re great teammates.

“Chad and ‘Rucker’ have just come in, but when your older guys come in and say, ‘Wow, they’ve really fit in.’ You know they’re great guys and great teammates. You’ve got to take your hat off to their parents. They’ve done a great job.

“They’re all going to really help us.”

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Gates and Williams arrived in Colorado Springs, a bookmarked destination of California players over the past couple of decades, two falls ago. They’ve gone through their share of ups and downs with injuries, but when they play, they’re solid contributors.

“(Gates) is a terrific teammate,” said Sasaki, reunited with his former Anaheim Jr. Ducks teammate. “He’s been very helpful to me since I got here. On the ice, he brings a ton of energy and enthusiasm every day. He can play an up-tempo game, and he’s a lot of fun to play with.”

Gates began playing with the SDIA Oilers and the San Diego Jr. Gulls before making the long commute to Anaheim with a handful of teammates for his Midget 16U years.

“We had this system where whatever parent was driving would stop at various exits along I-5 to pick up and drop off players,” Gates said. “Those were long drives, but in the end it was worth it.”

Gates knew of Williams, who is two years older, from their days growing up in San Diego. The two often train together and will lace up the roller blades occasionally in the offseason for old times’ sake.

“He brings a lot of energy,” Gates said of Williams. “He’s physical, and he’s fun to play with. He’s a very reliable player.

“He’s a hard worker, and he loves to go in on the forecheck and make big hits.”

sasaki

Haviland said Williams adds another ingredient: “His shot. He’s got a great release and an unbelievably hard shot.”

Gates appeared in all 37 games as a freshman, a season in which he had six points while playing in the bottom six and killing penalties. A shoulder injury limited him to six games last season.

“Gates, for being a smaller player (he’s 5-foot-7), plays like he’s 6-foot-5,” Ruck said. “He screens the goalie, tips the puck and does everything he needs to.”

Williams, who originally committed to the University of Massachusetts and spent parts of five seasons in juniors, played in 26 games as a freshman and, due in part to injuries, just five last season. Interestingly enough, he had a two-goal game against NCHC rival Miami in each season. Gates set him up on two of the four goals.

“The first year, I got the first goal of my college career and had my first multi-goal game against them,” the former SDIA Oiler, Jr. Gull, LA Select and Jr. King said. “Last year, it happened in my first game of the season, and it just happened to be against them again. There’s nothing particular about them, I guess it’s just a weird coincidence.”

Williams’ teammates lauded him for his continuous sense of humor, and the two newcomers have front row seats for it.

“We have the California corner in the locker room,” Ruck said. “Brian Williams has an unbelievable shot, is a good skater and he’s hilarious. He’s comic relief at times. He helps keep the locker room stress free.”

Speak to Ruck for more than a moment and it becomes pretty clear the masked man has more than a fair measure of California cool in him.

“All of the California guys, but Ruck in particular, are super relaxed,” Sasaki said. “Anyone would enjoy spending time with them.”

While laid back, Ruck honestly assesses situations and makes the best of them. After a leading role at Northeastern University for his first two seasons, he battled injuries and was overtaken by NHL prospect Cayden Primeau the next two. He played so sparingly that he was granted another year of eligibility upon graduation.

Not a trace of bitterness exists, however, about his NCAA journey. As he likes to joke, “I’m sure you haven’t talked to very many 25-year-old college players, have you?”

CC Hockey vs Minnesota

On a more serious note, Ruck said coming to Colorado College was a relatively seamless decision.

“After I got hurt my junior season, I continued to struggle with injuries,” said Ruck, who played roller hockey only until he was 14. “I lost my starting job to an unbelievable goalie in Cayden Primeau. He was so much younger than I am, but I learned so much from him.

“It was time to turn a page. I was going to go on a few visits, but the first time I came to Colorado, I absolutely fell in love with it. It reminds me of California in a sense – 300 sunny days a year and everyone’s so friendly.

“As soon as I saw the campus and the rink, I knew it was where I wanted to go. And the coaching staff here is unbelievable. They’re so friendly and open. You can tell they truly care about who you are as a person.”

The fit was ideal for both sides, Haviland said.

“He’s won a Hockey East title and he’s played games in the NCAA Tournament,” the coach said. “We were looking for a goalie and were fortunate enough to get him. He gives you that veteran presence in net. He’s looking to continue playing and he needed a place to play (after just 12 games in the past two seasons).”

The 6-foot-2 Ruck, who played for the LA Selects, brings a nice mix of athleticism and technique to the Tigers’ net.

“He’s very technically sound,” Haviland added. “But he’s a big guy who’s athletic. When you think he’s out of a play, all of a sudden he’ll make some saves out of nowhere.”

While Ruck’s move happened quickly, Sasaki had to wait five years after committing to the Tigers.

“He played a lot of junior hockey (four seasons) – he’s won a championship and seasoned himself in junior hockey,” Haviland said. “That’s helped him step right in and play very well.

“He’s a very, very smart player who goes about his work every day. I think he’s going to be a warrior and a guy you can with because he’s not the flashy guy, but he does everything right.”

The wait was hard at times, but Sasaki has no regrets.

“I don’t think the timing could have worked out better,” he said. “It was tough at times going through juniors. You can get impatient and want to go to school, but I think had I come in at any point before this in terms of hockey and overall maturity, I don’t think I would have been quite there. I came in as prepared as I could be.”

Gates said it would be a mistake for foes to underestimate Sasaki’s game because of his size (5-foot-7, 150 pounds). After all, Sasaki left the Wenatchee Wild as the BCHL team’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen.

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“He’s very quick and very smart,” Gates said. “He’s very shifty. He’s not the biggest defenseman, but his hockey IQ and puck-moving ability make him a very good playmaker. I think he’s going to play a major part for us because of how smart he is and how quick he is.”

They took different paths to Colorado College, but the California quartet is grateful to land where they did. The feeling is mutual.

“Whatever role each of them has been put in they’ve accepted,” Haviland said. “It’s a tough thing sometimes to accept that, but how they’ve handled that speaks to their character.

“We’ve very fortunate to have all four.”

CALIFORNIA CONNECTIONS

Colorado College has a long tradition of recruiting players from California. Several have gone on to big things in hockey.

• Forward Guy Hildebrand (1969-73) – Averaged more than a point per game in three of his four seasons at CC and finished with 94 points in 91 games. Played a half dozen seasons of pro and semi-pro hockey after that.
• Defenseman Eric Sanford (1980-83) – The defenseman brought some offense, scoring 33 points in 76 career games at CC before beginning a brief pro career.
• Forward Berk Nelson (1996-2000) – The power forward played 101 games at CC.
• Forward Justin Morrison (1997-2001) – The state’s first draft pick on this list scored 112 points and played in 159 games. Blessed with 6-3 height and excellent skating ability, he played 10 seasons of pro hockey.
• Forward Noah Clarke (1999-2003) – The first California-born and –trained player to play for the L.A. Kings had an excellent career at CC, topped by a 70-point eruption in 2002-03. His 164 points are 14th in program history, and his 113 assists are 11th. He also played in 164 games, incredible durability for a smaller player. He went on to play in 21 NHL games during his 10 seasons of pro hockey.
• Forward Alex Kim (2000-02) – After two seasons at Miami, Kim scored 73 points in two seasons at CC before launching a lengthy pro career that took him throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Like Morrison and Clarke, an elite skater.
• Forward Nick Tsiantar (2001-03) – He played in 26 games over two seasons at CC before finishing his college career at UMass Boston in Division III.
SterlingCup_ross-dettman_chicago-wolves• Forward Brett Sterling (2002-06, pictured right) – The one-time Atlanta Thrashers draft pick was a huge scorer at CC, piling up 108 goals (third all-time) and 184 points (11th all-time). An All-American in 2005 and 2006, Sterling was a Hobey Hat Trick finalist in 2005. He was the AHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2007 and played 30 NHL games in his 12 seasons of pro hockey.
• Defenseman Brian Salcido (2003-06) – The first California-born and –trained player to play for the Ducks, who drafted him in 2005, Salcido had 69 points in sophomore and junior seasons at CC. He played 12 years of pro hockey, including a two-game stint with the Ducks in 2009 and was an AHL All-Star twice.
• Forward Andreas Vlassopoulos (2005-10) – Career ended prematurely because of a severe knee injury, but he was a disciplined, versatile forward who could score (60 points in 99 games).
• Forward Dan Quilico (2006-10) – Played 21 games during his four seasons at CC after a productive BCHL career in Trail.
• Defenseman Joe Marciano (2009-13) – Excellent defensive defenseman who played 152 games for CC and went on to a four-year pro career. Like Sterling and Vlassopoulos, he also played for the U.S. NTDP.
• Defenseman David Radke (2015-17) – He played 10 games at CC from 2015-17. He finished his college career in Canada at the University of Waterloo.

Colorado College photos/Casey B. Gibson; Sterling photo/Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

— Chris Bayee

(Nov. 6, 2019)