Since he was a little boy, Patrick Joseph Alber has always aimed high. Whatever goal he set for himself, he would attack it with determination until he reached it.
Whether it was becoming an Eagle Scout or playing hockey at a high level, Alber doggedly found his way around obstacles.
His college hockey career reads like a Hollywood script. Alber, nicknamed “Patch” as a kid, was being recruited by Division 3 schools but had aspirations of Division 1.
Enter Boston College coach Jerry York, who had seen Alber play at Northwood Prep School in Lake Placid and, after that, with the Boston Junior Bruins in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
York offered the young defenseman a walk-on role with the Eagles in 2009. Alber parlayed that into a regular shift at midseason of his freshman year, a more important role his sophomore season, and a full scholarship for his final two years. He has been a part of two national championship teams, scoring his first collegiate goal against Miami in the 2010 NCAA Frozen Four semifinals.
One of the best feel-good stories in college hockey nearly was derailed last Dec. 29 at the Mariucci Tournament in Minneapolis when Alber suffered a displaced lateral meniscus in his knee while warming up playing soccer. York believed Alber’s BC career was all but over because the Jan. 1 surgery required at least a three-month recovery.
However, Alber refused to accept that. He worked with BC trainer Bert Lenz and strength coach Russ DeRosa, and will be back in the lineup Friday night when the No. 2-seeded Eagles face No. 7 Vermont in the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals.
“I don’t know what he brings to our team, but I guess I didn’t really notice it until he was gone,’’ said senior defenseman Patrick Wey. “There is something he brings. Obviously, I missed him on the ice and I missed having him around.
“Here we are at the most fun and important time of the year and here he is, back in the lineup. It’s great for him, he deserves it.’’
As loved as he is by his teammates, if he has a flaw, it’s that he’s not very good at telling jokes.
“I think he’s sort of aware of that,’’ said Wey, laughing. “He can be very self-deprecating, and for good reason. He’s not a great joke teller and he’s aware of it. He’s funny in his own way.’’
BC captain Pat Mullane said Alber has a great sense of humor but his looks are deceiving.
“He turned 24 [Monday] — he’s the oldest kid on the team — yet he looks like he’s 12,’’ said Mullane. “He tries to make jokes and they’re not very funny. We give him a hard time for that.’’
According to Mullane, no one was more surprised than he that Alber has been able to do what he has done at BC. Alber was an undersized defenseman on a team stacked with talent.
“I remember when I met him for the first time,’’ said Mullane. “Everyone was like, ‘Who is this Patch Alber kid?’ That year, we had [Chris] Kreider and [Brian] Dumoulin and [Philip] Samuelsson and Kenny Ryan. So many big-name guys. But he has made a name for himself.’’
Alber was determined to stick.
“It’s fun to watch,’’ said Mullane. “Freshman year, he worked really hard. He didn’t play [the first half of the season], but with the injury to Pat Wey, Patch stepped in and did a remarkable job and he has improved immensely.
“I’ve lived with him for the last three years and we talk about it all the time. He was thinking about going to a Division 3 school because no one was really looking at him. It’s crazy he’s become one of the best defensemen in Hockey East. It’s great to have him back in the locker room.’’
York said Alber’s eye-on-the-prize attitude after his injury has been an inspiration.
“It’s been a great experience for the whole team to watch,’’ said York. “He hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity over the years because of some of the players who have played alongside him, but he’s been a really valuable guy for us.
“To take him out of the equation all of a sudden — his speed, his enthusiasm just to play hockey — it left a void on our team. He’s an Eagle Scout; that is such a hard thing to accomplish for a young kid growing up now. Maybe that gave us a little inkling into what kind of character he was going to have, that stick-to-it-iveness.
“He is so well-respected because of what he has overcome to play at this level and to play well at this level. Now, to overcome this injury and come back, he just kept saying, ‘Coach, I want to come back,’ and he made it.’’
Alber credited his doctor as well as the BC staff for putting him in a position to return.
“I had a great surgeon [Dr. Robert Nascimento at St. Elizabeth’s],’’ said Alber. “And Bert and Ross, I thank them for getting me through it.’’
Hard to believe
One person who had a hard time coming to grips with Alber’s grand plan of going to BC was his mother, Debbie. When he called to tell the family he had earned a scholarship, it was met with skepticism.
“My mom actually didn’t believe me when I told her,’’ said Alber. “She also didn’t believe me when I told her I committed to BC. She wanted to hear it from Coach York. For all of us, I think never in a million years would we have expected to be in that situation.’’
“It was a real, real surprise to us,’’ said Debbie, reached by telephone in Clifton Park, N.Y. “It was one of those ‘that happened really, really fast.’ He was hoping for Division 1 and was being recruited by Division 3.”
When she learned her son had been offered a walk-on role, she thought he was kidding at first.
“I was ecstatic, and then the tears came,’’ she said.
The scholarship was even harder to fathom.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be real.’ It was so exciting,’’ she said. “He has worked so hard to get where he is. He loves playing with the team.
“He always sets goals, which are usually a little more than he might be able to make, but he makes them. He set his goal in his mind that he would be back [this season]. He has always strived and pushed himself as hard as he could. It’s really been a Cinderella story.’’
Alber said it has been the realization of a dream.
“I came in with really no expectations,’’ he said. “I obviously never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get playing time or a scholarship.
“I’m just really happy and lucky that Coach York gave me a chance and I made something out of that chance. I really wasn’t expecting such a great program as BC to ask me to be on the team. For me, it was kind of surreal.’’
Back in 2001, Alber and his father, Larry, went to the NCAA Frozen Four in Albany. BC beat North Dakota for the championship. He was 12 at the time and remembers daydreaming about what it would be like to wear the Maroon and Gold.
“I watched the game and thought, ‘Wow, this is one of the best teams in college hockey, I can’t imagine what it would be like to play there,’ ’’ said Alber. “It was awesome. Back then, I would have never imagined playing at this great place.’’
For Alber, dreaming big paid off.