A Reasoner to Believe

That’s what it read at the top of the special insert, tucked within the tabloid-sized issue of The Heights, in mid-April of 1998.

A plea for the Eagles’ best player to return for his senior season in the wake of a national championship game appearance, it depicted Marty Reasoner, clad in the Boston College home whites, waiting out a stoppage in play. It could have been from any game that season, but it was most likely taken in the 3 1/2 week period between the Hockey East quarterfinal round in early March and the NCAA Tournament Final, in Boston, on the first Saturday of April.

It was a magical ride that reversed the fortunes of a sagging program, led by veteran head coach Jerry York, who had already claimed a national title with Bowling Green. He’d come back to his alma mater four years before, but in the space of two years, BC went from bottom feeder in the conference, to budding national powerhouse.

And Reasoner was at the head of the charge, the best player on a stacked squad that would enjoy a four-year run of success.

For a brief period at the end of his junior year, Reasoner pretty much owned the BC campus as far as the legacy of its athletes was concerned.

The basketball team was in shambles after the departure of head coach Jim O’Brien and star player Scoonie Penn to Ohio State following a 1997 Big East Tournament title. The football team was in full-on rebuilding mode following the revelation of a gambling scandal under Dan Henning, having gone 4-7 under new head coach Tom O’Brien the previous Fall. Nobody cared too much about the baseball or lacrosse teams.

Hockey, being an integral part of the New England experience, particularly at the college level, was it. Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass was about to become an epicenter thanks to the native of suburban Rochester.

He finished the 1997-98 season with 33 goals and 73 points in just 42 games. Paired on a line with a true freshman named Brian Gionta, Reasoner helped the Eagles end the year 22-8-5, good enough for second place behind rival Boston University in Hockey East.

Thanks to BU tanking it in the opening round of the playoffs, BC only had to beat Merrimack and Maine to win the league’s playoff title and gain a first-round bye in the 12-team national tourney.

For his efforts in leading the resurgence, Reasoner was named a Hobey Baker finalist for college hockey’s best player. His main competition was someone else with a familiar name — Chris Drury, in his senior year at BU.

Reasoner enjoyed a monster game as BC routed Colorado College, then was a key contributor for a national semifinal victory over Ohio State before a crushing overtime loss to Michigan (and winning goaltender Marty Turco) at the Fleet Center only miles away from campus brought the magic to an end.

Faced with a choice to take what glory was his and run, or come back for another crack at the national spotlight, Reasoner chose the former. He was a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in 1996, and gained enough of a profile to make the decision an easy one.

What did he really have left to accomplish after earning 1996 Hockey East Rookie of the Year…1998 HE Tournament MVP…1998 NCAA Tournament First Team…1998 NCAA East First-Team All-American?

All the effusive praise in The Heights, and the collective will of Eagles students and fans outside of Newton couldn’t sway him. In the Fall of 1998, Reasoner was in camp with the Blues, a bona-fide NHLer.

Looking back 13 years later, that decision was probably not the best, though its consequences eventually could have landed Reasoner in Philadelphia at Monday’s trade deadline as a depth move.

Given how he was clearly on the way up with one more season of eligibility left, it’s puzzling and a little bit sad for someone who has tracked his career from the eighth floor of Edmonds Hall to the Flyers press box, to see it end up this way.

Sure, he’s carved out a solid 12-year NHL career. That’s more than hundreds of players coming from juniors, college or Europe could ever hope or dream for. But he’s largely walked a path of most resistance, on the fringes of respectability because of leaving school early.

Since his initial 22-game stint with the Blues in 1998-99, Reasoner has made his bones as a third-line grinder, someone with passable face-off skills and short-handed acumen. In other words, nothing special, but just one step ahead of mediocrity where the team which employs him finds enough value within to keep him on the roster.

He spent three years ping-ponging between the Gateway to the West and the American Hockey League in Worcester before being traded to Edmonton. He’d put together solid career-high numbers with the Oilers in 2002-03, but was just expendable enough to be dealt back to Boston at the end of the 2005-06 season, missing out on that club’s miracle run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Two more years back in Northern Alberta followed, then two seasons down in Atlanta. Since last Summer, Reasoner has gone from the Thrashers, to not playing a game during a month-long stay in Chicago, to the Florida Panthers. Despite his cap friendly salary and rumors of interest from the NHL’s top clubs in Vancouver and Philly, he stayed while the front office put on a near fire-sale yesterday.

I can’t help but think how much differently the story would have played out if he just stayed for his senior year at BC.

His influence on Gionta would have been even more pervasive with another whole season on the top line. There might have been a Beanpot victory in there, and almost certainly his extra offensive prowess would have gotten the Eagles past Maine in the national semifinal in Anaheim (which in fact was a 2-1 overtime loss), and it would be a fait accompli that BC beats conference rival New Hampshire in the national title game.

He could have gone out a veritable God and fully restored glory to the hockey program that had to wait three more years to win it all. Finishing what you started is a valuable lesson.

Drury, already a national championship winner in his freshman year who ended up winning the Hobey Baker as a senior, went straight into the lineup the very next season with the Colorado Avalanche. He stayed for Jack Parker and boosted his profile. In just his third season, he was tagged as an underrated part of a veteran-laden Avs Cup-winning squad and has been widely regarded as a clutch leader at all four stops in his 13-year NHL career.

All the same, it might not have been glorious. The 1999 Hobey Baker winner, Jason Krog of New Hampshire, was a straight-up stud and scoring machine. He also won in his senior season, and went out a loser to bitter rival Maine in the national title game.

Playing on the Whittemore Center’s Olympic 200-by-100 ice surface, he recorded 85 points in 41 games, leading all of American college hockey in scoring, but was an undrafted free agent who only ended up playing two full NHL seasons (2002-04 with Anaheim). Suiting up everywhere from Long Island to Vancouver and dozens of stops in between, mostly in the minors, Krog has been one of the AHL’s top scorers since 2000.

Reasoner has the hands of a scorer. I’ve watched enough games to know that. It’s just that they’ve been shackled and largely unused after over a decade because those hands were needed just 12-15 minutes a night on the penalty kill and in the face-off dot.

He’s been at it so long, that I think he would have been a solid depth acquisition for the Flyers. Again, very much unspectacular but steps ahead of Jody Shelley, Dan Carcillo, Darroll Powe, Nik Zherdev and even Blair Betts. He’s been largely healthy over the last five years as well. As of Monday, he ranked 20th in the NHL in overall face-off win percentage at 54.3 percent, and is connecting at a 55.5 percent for his career as of January 1.

But it’s all for naught at least as this season goes, as another cruel joke on the long NHL road was played on the 34-year-old less than 24 hours ago when the Panthers stripped away a third of their roster but somehow elected to keep a valuable bargaining chip.

Nonetheless, an unrestricted free agent who’s making only $1.2 million this year has to look appealing to a general manager that loves to snag veterans without giving up anything in return.

The book may not yet be written yet on Martin Reasoner in this city, but I would rather have him add value to a stacked Flyers club as the 30-goal scorer he was, than as the 10-goal man he is.