Bonino helping BU move in the right direction

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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Nick Bonino didn't think his season was going that badly early on. The sophomore was centering Boston University's second line, and the Terriers were 7-2-0 heading into a weekend series against Hockey East rival Vermont at Agganis Arena. Bonino had 5 goals and 8 assists, and all was proceeding swimmingly. Or was it?

Veteran coach Jack Parker, known for his unceasing candor, told Bonino to keep his feet moving. And then he said it again, and again and again.

By the end of the weekend, BU had dropped a pair to the Catamounts, Bonino didn't have a point in either of the contests, and Parker realized his words were not sinking in.

So Parker made a choice. On Monday, Nov. 24, he called Bonino in and told him he would be sitting out the next night against Holy Cross. Freshman Chris Connolly would be moving into the pivot between senior left wing John McCarthy and senior right wing Brandon Yip.

"We had a few talks," said Parker, who has been guiding the BU program for 36 years. "I told him he wasn't moving his feet enough and relying too much on his hands and his head. Because he does have great vision and he does have great hands, he thought that is how he should play."

The wake-up call, though not initially well-received, was a success. Since then, Bonino has 34 points in 31 games as BU enters the NCAA Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night against Vermont at the Verizon Center.

"Once we got him moving his feet again, all of the sudden his game blossomed, and most importantly, it blossomed defensively," said Parker. "He was playing harder without the puck, and I think he's our best defensive forward right now.

"He's developed into a real good two-way player, and most of that happened post being benched. The best convincer is always ice time."

It is not easy to be left out of the lineup. Yip, who has been playing for Parker for four years, said it was a matter of Bonino finding out where he stood, which in Parker-speak isn't always accented with hearts and flowers.

"I think that's one of his strengths of coaching," said Yip. "He'll tell you how it is. He won't beat around the bush if you're doing something wrong and he wants you to do it a certain way, and he'll definitely let you know when you're not.

"If you want to get a point across, the easiest way is to bench a player. You'll feel down and frustrated but once you settle down, it's a good way to let people know how you're doing out there."

Bonino, who was drafted by San Jose in the sixth round in 2007 (No. 173 overall) before his rights were dealt to Anaheim, admits that being sat out was the most difficult part of his career at any level. He never had been benched before, and it was embarrassing.

"I was upset," said Bonino. "At first it's like, 'How could they do this? I can't believe this!' You want to get angry and you want to get angry at the coaches.

"Then you get upset with yourself and ask, 'How could I let myself fall to this point?' I knew that it was definitely time for a wake-up call. I could've pouted about it but I talked to a couple of guys and John [McCarthy] said, 'Just make sure you keep your head up, work hard in practice, and you'll be back in the lineup sooner than later.'

"I'd never been scratched in my life and I think it was the best thing that's happened to me. I guess you could say the coaches know what they're doing."

What Bonino wasn't doing right was not a function of being willful or uncooperative. When it came to skating - or, in this case, not skating - he wasn't aware of it until it was pointed out.

"It's subconscious," he said. "It's nothing I know I am doing and I don't want to be doing it. Luckily, I haven't had to watch video.

"Before the Holy Cross game, that was the real wake-up call. Coach said, 'I'll show you video if you want,' and I said, 'No, I know what I'm doing wrong.' It was good to kind of take a step back. I just worked my butt off in practice and focused on it and I really haven't looked back."

Bonino went on to score three goals in the Beanpot as the Terriers won the championship and he was named Most Valuable Player. During an important three-game stretch from Feb. 27 to March 6, with BU trying to overtake Northeastern for the Hockey East regular-season crown, Bonino had 10 points (4 goals and 6 assists). He had 2 points in BU's deciding victory over Maine in the third game of the league quarterfinals and tallied 3 against Ohio State in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals last Saturday.

"He's a big-game player," said Yip. "Big players come to play in big games and he demonstrates that all year."

If there has been a knock on Bonino, it's that he lacks speed, which is an offshoot of not moving his feet. But Yip rejected that.

"I think it's deceiving, really," said Yip. "Maybe people think he looks slow but he's really not. He's not a step behind or anything like that. He's very strong on the puck and he's got enough speed to do well and excel in this league. He's a really smart player. He knows his position and plays it really well."

Terriers captain Matt Gilroy, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, knows a thing or two about adjustments. When he came in as a freshman walk-on, he was told there was no room for him at forward so Parker converted him to defense. Since then, he has twice been named an All-American and is a strong candidate for a third honor. He said he understands what Bonino went through to get this far.

"Nick came into the season playing great," said Gilroy. "He slowed down a little bit, but down the stretch, the kid can do it all right now. He's been carrying our offense, helping it a lot. Just to think he's a sophomore and how developed he is at both ends of the puck now, he's moving his feet, he's [having] a great year."

At this time of year, with the stakes so high, Bonino is eager to take advantage of the opportunity facing him and his teammates.

"Just with the talent we have, it would really be a shame if we didn't win the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We know Vermont is a great team, and the other two - Bemidji State and Miami - are also great teams. We know if we work hard and play as well as we can, we're going to be a hard team to beat."

The Terriers believe in their ability to continue to move forward - particularly when Bonino is moving his feet.

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at