Three years and six months. That is the time Northeastern senior forward Liam Pecararo spent between Division I college hockey games. Three lost years of NCAA eligibility, fighting through bureaucratic red tape—the dreaded “Clearinghouse”—before finally getting back to what he does best: dangling, dishing and sniping for the Northeastern Huskies.
“It was a little tough mentally,” said Pecararo, who transferred out of Maine after the 2014-15 season and was denied eligibility from the compliance officers until this past summer. “It was hard, not being able to show I’m still there, still capable.”
Very few players could have returned to a top-flight program like Northeastern after such a long gap, but Pecararo is no ordinary player. “Liam’s talent is National Hockey League good,” said his long-time youth coach Tim Lovell. “It’s high-end NHL skill.”
Northeastern coach Jim Madigan compares him to one of his very best. “There’s some similarities—not bodywise—to Dylan Sikura,” said Madigan, referring to the 2018 NU grad now playing for the Chicago Blackhawks. “Very skilled, can make plays, high-end hockey IQ.”
Pecararo had almost become a myth, an elite scorer that people may have heard about, but few had seen. Stories of his deft playmaking would emerge from the summer leagues in Foxboro, the kid that outshined NHLers Adam Gaudette, Noah Hanifin and Ryan Donato when they played together as teens for Boston Advantage. “They all played U-14 together,” said Lovell. “I think his skill set is the best of the group. Hanifin’s and Pecararo’s are pretty comparable, but Pecararo’s might be better. Cerebrally, as a genuine playmaker, he’s really good.”
How did all that talent end up on the wrong side of the glass? It began with a coaching change at the University of Maine. Liam had been recruited by Tim Whitehead, the earliest commit of his tenure. But when the 18-year-old prospect arrived in Orono, Whitehead had been replaced by Red Gendron as head coach of the Black Bears. It was a classic case of oil and water. “Wasn’t the best fit for me,” said Pecararo.
“Red and Liam never met eye-to-eye,” said Lovell. “Liam didn’t fit into the scheme.”
So the kid bolted the Maine woods and returned to Waterloo of the USHL, where he had wowed Division I scouts as a teen. “Here’s a kid who was a top-10 scorer in the USHL as a 17-, 18-year-old,” said Northeastern coach Jim Madigan. “There’s not too many players who have done that in their careers.” Pecararo regained his scoring touch in the USHL and Madigan reeled in the prize prospect as a transfer. But navigating the waters of a Division I NCAA transfer is tricky business, fraught with compliance issue tripwires. Pecararo, who only prioritized his business on the ice, fell victim to the system.
“There was some problems at school, so I had to sit out for a semester,” said Pecararo, recalling his hockey nightmare. “That got escalated to another semester because of the same problem with the NCAA Clearinghouse, transferring credits and things like that. I felt like I was just missing each time. In my head, it is a ticking clock, you know there’s only a certain amount of opportunities you’re going to get.”
After two seasons in hockey’s twilight zone, playing summer league, U-20 with Lovell and practicing with the Huskies, Pecararo finally got back into the Division I show, barely in time for his final year of NCAA eligibility. But the transition was not seamless; Liam’s game had rusted after three years removed from college competition.
“It took awhile to get the ‘shinny’ out of him,” said Madigan. “Thursday nights in the pro-am league, skills drills down in Foxboro, it’s not real hockey because there’s no physical contact. It’s shinny hockey.”
So coach and player worked together, managing ice time and nagging injuries in what amounted to a one-season college career. The older and wiser Pecararo figured it out both on and off the ice. “He’s learned to be a good student-athlete,” said Madigan, “doing the right thing on a daily basis: extra time in the study hall, getting tutors; that’s where he’s matured.”
By the start of the new year, it turned. Rewards are now coming in for both Liam and his Huskies. Northeastern made its move north in the Hockey East standings, puncturing the top 10 of the national rankings, all while Liam regained his deft scoring touch. In February, he reveled on Garden Ice, hoisting Boston hockey’s Holy Grail—the Beanpot. It was a case of unfinished business for Liam. He was in street clothes when the Huskies claimed their historic 2018 Beanpot. “Having to watch the guys last year win it, not being able to embrace that experience, was on my mind,” said the native of Canton, Massachusetts. “You kind of dream about it as a kid growing up, going to the Beanpot on those Mondays in awe. Not a lot of people can say they’re from Boston, grew up watching it and they own it as well.”
Pecararo finished the month with more fireworks: his first college hat trick and a seven-point weekend at UNH. He found himself face-to-face with one of his original pals from Boston Advantage, Anthony Wyse, a defenseman he had just tormented with five power-play points. “He wasn’t happy,” said Pecararo with a chuckle. “He gave me a smirk and a stick jab.”
The 5-foot-11 puck wizard is crossing off a legal pad’s worth of hockey highs in this precious season, having found his stride as the campaign roars into March Madness. The Madigan era on Huntington Ave has seen the Huskies earn three NCAA appearances, two Beanpots and a Hockey East Championship, but no deep run into the national tournament. That all might change behind this newly polished gem.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he goes on a run and scores 10 points in five games, playoff games that you hope will get you to the Hockey East Championship game and continue through the NCAA Tournament, ” said Madigan. “He’s playing his best hockey now, at the most important part of the season. I’m expecting him to take another step in his evolution as a player.”
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.