Catching Up With ... Rejean Stringer
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
For most of his four years at Merrimack, Rejean Stringer was haunted by the Boston University Terriers. Hockey East's traditional powerhouse compiled a 9-4-2 record against Stringer's Warriors, perhaps no worse than BU treated the rest of the league, but still...
Stringer thought he might get away from that when he became a pro. But as a member of the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the American Hockey League — the top affiliate of the San Jose Sharks — Stringer has not been able to escape the shadow of the Terriers.
"They tease me a lot," said Stringer about two current teammates, former BU stars Doug Friedman and Jon Coleman.
"Friedman's an old, old-timer, so I'll ignore him."
At least Stringer has something to hang his hat on: that weekend of harmonic convergence in March of 1998, when the maturation of the players, an emotional coaching situation, a freshman goalie named Tom Welby suddenly performing magic like Marcus Welby, and the nature of David vs. Goliath combined to lift Merrimack to a thrilling three-game quarterfinal win that put the program into the Hockey East Final Four for the first time ever.
"That was huge. Playing against those guys — [Chris] Drury, [Tom] Poti — that are in the NHL right now, it was big for the whole Merrimack program," says Stringer, who had two goals and five assists in the series. "A lot of the time Merrimack has been in D-I, BU has just handed it to them. To be underdogs, in their building, that's what I'll cherish the most.
"Maybe they took us too lightly, and once we saw a little light, things started rolling for us. After we beat them that first game, we knew would could do it. It was just a weird weekend, when you get all the bounces. They hit crossbars and posts, we had a freshman goaltender come in and play unbelievable. It was totally unexpected."
The only unfortunate thing? Coleman and Friedman were already gone.
"The [two] years I did play against Coleman, they beat us, so there's really not much I could say now."
Oh well. But there's no mistaking what a landmark weekend it was for the Merrimack program — its finest moment in Division I. But more than just the weekend, it exemplified how far the program had come in general, and raised the bar for the future.
Ron Anderson is no longer around to see that future. He had already been told he was being let go, and he coached his last game the next weekend at the FleetCenter. The feel-good story of the time was that Merrimack, inspired by its coach and his lame-duck status, rose to the occasion and gave Anderson a big going-away present. Stringer says Anderson wasn't universally loved, but there is truth in the notion that they rallied behind him that weekend.
"Some guys didn't like him ... whatever. But I think it was just a bad situation, the whole thing," says Stringer. "If things go bad, it's usually the coach that gets axed. Guys have different opinions about it, but once it happens, there's nothing you can do. You just have to go out and play well.
"I think once we [started] doing well, people looked for a rallying point. Obviously, of course, it kinda was. Coach Anderson was a super guy. He would do anything for his players. When it started happening, guys wanted to do well for him, because we talked about it. It was just kind of a Cinderella story."
Stringer's last season at Merrimack was spent playing for current coach Chris Serino. And no matter what your feelings were for Anderson, no one disputes Serino's credentials, least of all Stringer.
"I have so much respect for him, the way he treated me," says Stringer. "When he came into that program, the things he did for us, he just wanted us to feel comfortable.
"Of all my coaches, he's the guy that taught me the most. My first few years, defense wasn't a priority, especially my third year. We won a lot of games 7-6. I think last year, [Serino] really taught me the defensive aspect of the game. You can be a player without it, but you'll never make it all the way to the NHL if you're not playing both ends of the rink."
Players like Stringer and his college roommate, Kris Porter, paved the way for Merrimack to land a higher level of recruit. With little Division I tradition and a run-down home rink, it would have been easy to go elsewhere, but then there wouldn't be the lingering pride in knowing how much they helped.
"I knew they were struggling, and I knew I'd get a lot of ice time," says Stringer. "But I also knew Kris Porter, and knew he was a great goal-scorer. I like to pass the puck. And there were other guys from Saskatchewan that were coming.
"When I got there, we were on a tight budget. There were only certain sticks you could use. The rink was awful. A lot of times I'd rather play on the road. But it's gotten better every year."
Stringer also sees Serino, who, upon arrival, was able to push for immediate aesthetic and functional improvements to Merrimack's Volpe Center rink, as someone to lead the program to another level.
"Changes are happening that are going to help the program," he says. "It got so much better with the new locker room. Guys wanted to stay around the rink and stay there and be there. Before that, guys just took off. Serino pushes hard to make things better. I think the next couple years will be some giant steps.
"[Our class] got the ball rolling. When we got there, things were rough. The fact that we got them to the Fleet Center, we lifted the plateau a lot higher. We did a few things, set a few records, so I think we got things going in the right direction."
Now with Kentucky, Stringer has found another good, growing organization to be in. He has five goals and 12 assists in his first 22 games, including a hat trick against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on October 10. After spending most of his Merrimack career setting up Porter, it was a different experience.
"I played four years and never got a hat trick," said Stringer. "I guess I didn't have Portsie to pass the puck to, so I was just shooting, I guess. It hadn't happened since juniors. I was kind of shocked, but I'll take it.
"There's a lot of grinding and hitting [in the AHL]. In the [International Hockey League], there's a lot more room. Here, guys finish their checks. Whatever you get, you've gotta earn."
Just like at Merrimack.
"Being here is a bit different. College is pretty laid-back; I don't think you have as much pressure.
"But I would do it all over again, for sure."