My senior year in high school, I was hopeful that I could play major college hockey. My stats ranked among the best prep goaltenders in Massachusetts.
Our team, Oliver Ames High School, won every game but one during the regular season, and in the state tournament we lost by one goal to the eventual state champions.
But I faced a major obstacle, in terms of receiving attention from college scouts, in that Oliver Ames did not play in one of the metropolitan Boston leagues which were made up of the historically top performing public and parochial school hockey programs.
Yes, schools like Oliver Ames, and others in the league in which we played, and schools in other leagues geographically beyond the reach of the big city, had an image problem. We had many top notch players who were overlooked.
Yet, while I was overlooked, and an underdog – I was a winning underdog.
Winning underdog mentality is a trait of great competitors, and great teams.
My winning underdog desire and attitude would help create for me opportunity – and when opportunity arose, I would seize it.
Opportunity came my way in the person of Neil Higgins, among the most influential and important mentors in my life.
It was late summer of 1975, and I had been out of high school a few months, and I still didn’t know what I was going to do for college. My dream of getting a full scholarship and attending a Division I college seemed in the far distance and now it was time to focus on going to school – to a school close to home, and one I could afford.
Hockey was still important, but continuing my education was the priority.
I was in a bit of fix, and I was stressed. But I also know that looking for excuses not to compete was an exercise in squandering potential. Champion people, and champion organizations, don’t look for excuses – and champion people and champion organizations play the “victor” not the “victim.”
I wrestled with decisions and possibilities, I did not give up on my dream of playing D.1 hockey, and I was playing in a highly competitive summer league south of Boston, and hoping that college scouts might find their way to the rinks to see some of the games in which I was in net.
As a consequence of that I was still competing that summer, I needed to have my goalie mask adjusted and reconditioned a bit. Now, as for that mask – because my parents cared so much, and sacrificed tremendously financially, the mask I wore was handmade and handcrafted by Ernie Higgins, maybe the best goalie mask maker in the world.
Ernie Higgins made the masks of some of the most acclaimed NHL goalies – including Gerry Cheevers and Bernie Parent – as well as those of college, high school, and youth players.
Neil Higgins is the son of Ernie Higgins.
Neil had been the starting goaltender for Boston College, the school from which he graduated in 1973, following a career at Norwood High School where he set a slew of Massachusetts high school goaltending records that still stand.
When Neil was a junior at BC, he sustained a serious knee injury that hobbled him, and, in my estimation, prevented him from playing in the pros.
Well, again, I needed some work done on my mask. I stopped in at the elder Higgins’s shop in Norwood, and who was there but Neil. What I didn’t know is that Neil was the men’s hockey coach at Massasoit Community College, a junior college in the city of Brockton, which bordered Easton, the town in which I grew up.
What I also didn’t know is that Neil needed a goaltender at Massasoit, and he had heard that I would be stopping by his dad’s business – so he decided to wait around to talk with me.
Neil knew a bit about my skills and abilities. He had valuable and accurate insight as the quality of high school hockey talent found in the more rural areas of Massachusetts. A primary reason for this was because, while in college, during the summers, he worked as a clinician and instructor at youth hockey camps held at rinks outside of metropolitan Boston.
He saw the kids I competed with and against … and he knew many of them could play.
Neil Higgins sold me on enrolling at Massasoit College, and taking on goaltender duties for the Warriors. He provided me opportunity.
I was excited about this junior college opportunity. And I still had, top of mind, questions and thoughts about what it took to play major college hockey. I asked Neil many questions about D. 1 hockey, including whether he thought I was good enough for that level.
He told me that he couldn’t place greatness in me; he could, though, help pull it out of me. And he said for that greatness to be discovered, and for it to emerge, I would have to commit to the unknown, and to listen, to be coachable, and to continue to work hard.
If I did what needed to be done, he said, then there was a good chance that Division 1 hockey school would find me.
Neil Higgins said it would happen. He counseled me to believe it would happen.
When I once said that “No college wants me,” he replied, immediately, and with conviction, “Remove that line from your language.” So I did.
And I listened.
Neil would later say, and he continues to say, is that a powerful trait I possessed, one that was prominent in me, and that I consistently exercised, was that I was a – and he used this term – “sponge.”
I soaked up knowledge. I soaked up knowledge that was offered, and which I solicited and entreated.
Neil told me, and impressed on me, that playing for Massasoit C.C. was not a consolation prize -but a major opportunity, and that this should be the manner in which I treated and addressed playing for Massasoit.
Neil not only was a life mentor, but of course he was a smart and gifted hockey coach – a smart and gifted hockey coach who was also a goalie.
Under his tutelage, my fundamentals and tactics improved.
After practice, after games, Neil and I would go out for pizza, or hit a coffee shop, and we would talk hockey … and goaltending. Over these sessions, he continued to coach and mentor me
Massasoit played in the New England Junior College Athletic Association (NEJCAA). We had a good year, finishing second in the NEJCAA regular season, with only two losses, both to Massachusetts Bay Community College.
While we may not have had a tremendous amount of fine-tuned talent, we did have guys who were tough, strong, fast, and got a lot of fun out of playing hockey – and we played as a team.
In the playoffs we were peaking … I was peaking … and we made it to the NEJCAA championship game, where our opponent would be … Massachusetts Bay Community College.
Before the game, I asked Neil if there would be any college scouts there. He told me yes. I asked him Boston College was going to send a scout, because that would be perfect, since I was a protégé of a BC goalie … you know, he was my coach and mentor … and it seemed like BC would be in my future.
Alas, though, Neil told me that BC was stocked up on goalies. No BC scout would be at the game.
But Boston University and Providence College would be there. BU and Providence were D. 1 programs. Of course, BU was one of the best hockey schools in the nation, with a track record including recently winning consecutive national championships, in 1971 and 1972.
What’s more, the scout that BU was sending was Don “Toot” Cahoon, a former BU standout, now the Terrier assistant coach …and a third cousin of Neil’s.
In the championship game, Massasoit beat Massachusetts Bay, 2-1.
I was fortunate to have made 60 saves in the game It was, at that point, the best performance of my career. I had full seized opportunity.
Within a few days after the game, I received a call from BU head coach Jack Parker. A few days after that call, Coach Parker was at my family home in North Easton to offer me a full scholarship to Boston University.
Without the mentoring of Neil Higgins – without Neil Higgins believing in me, and pulling greatness out of me – I don’t know if I would have had the chance to realize my dream of playing major college hockey, which led to me playing in the World Championships, the Olympics, and the NHL.
It gives him tremendous satisfaction, and fulfillment, and brings a smile to his face, Neil says, when he hears of what I’m doing, and successes I may achieve, for he knows that a considerable amount of this achievement is owed to what he impressed on and taught me as being vital and important: studying and learning, being open to being coached, and putting lessons to use.
I am forever grateful to Neil Higgins and the opportunity he gave me, and the time he spent mentoring me.