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Road to the NHL: Brian Flynn

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – While plying his trade at the University of Maine, Brian Flynn quickly earned the respect of his peers with his pure talent and determination.

Coming off a productive campaign with the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s New Hampshire Junior Monarchs in 2007-08, the Lynnfield, MA native arrived on campus in Orono, ME as a recruited walk-on under the tutelage of former Black Bears head coach, Tim Whitehead, beginning in 2008-09. Wasting little time showcasing a flair for making plays and lighting the lamp, Flynn seized his opportunity to suit up for the two-time NCAA champions, finishing second on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 25 points in 38 games during a remarkable freshman campaign that also included a seven-game point streak in the latter stages of the season.

“Right off the bat, Brian came into a situation where we’d brought him in, but we didn’t know what level he was going to play at or where he’d fit on the team. That first season, he came in playing on the wing with [two-time Hobey Baker Award finalist and current Detroit Red Wings forward] Gustav Nyquist and another kid named Spencer Abbott, another great college player who spent some time in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks organizations. We put those three guys together, and they ended up being the top-scoring freshman line in Hockey East that year. There was no denying Brian’s skill out there. When we recruited him, we knew he could help us, but we just didn’t know how much. It didn’t take long to find out,” offered Whitehead, who coached Flynn throughout his four-year stay in the Pine Tree State. “To put it into perspective, he did so well in that first year, and rose up so quickly, that I gave him a scholarship for that second year right away. I didn’t want to lose that guy.”

With a scholarship in hand, Flynn’s game continued to blossom during his sophomore year, particularly on offense. For a second straight season, the financial economics major ranked second on the team in scoring behind Nyquist, torching the opposition for 19 goals and 47 points in 39 games. Five of those markers even came in a single tilt alone, as Flynn paced the Black Bears to an 8-4 win over UMass Lowell on February 19, 2010, tying a school-record for goals in a game, while also setting a school mark with seven points on the night.

“Brian is just so consistently competitive. He’s the type of guy you can always count on to bring it every night. In his case, it’s not so much about rising up, but you know that you can turn to him if your club needs a lift in a game. He really can make plays with the best of them and he meshes well with any type of player. At Maine, he had a knack for scoring big goals at key moments every year,” praised Whitehead, who saw his former charge earn Hockey East Player of the Week honors twice in 2009-10, while also being named Hockey East Player of the Month for February after putting up 10 goals and 15 points during that span.

“You saw glimpses of Flynny being clutch in the NHL playoffs last season, especially in Game 1 against Ottawa. I go back to that big game-winning goal he scored against Andrew Hammond at the Bell Centre. He was able to kick the puck up to his stick in a tight area under pressure and tuck it in coming out of the corner. It was his first career playoff game, too. He’s got that skill level in him. He’s uber-talented. He really is,” added Whitehead, who still pays very close attention to Flynn’s progress in the NHL ranks. “For me, it wasn’t all that surprising to see him come up big like that. It was more a sense of pride that he’d been given that opportunity in Montreal, and that he could step up in a pressure situation at the highest level and help his team win just like he did with us.”

Following a team-leading 20-goal campaign with the Black Bears in 2010-11, which culminated in Flynn being presented with the Len Ceglarski Award as Hockey East’s most sportsmanlike player, the Pomfret School product was named a team captain – alongside fellow Bay Stater Will O’Neill – for his senior season at Maine in 2011-12.

“The guys really loved Brian. That was the first thing [that went into the decision]. He was definitely willing to take the hits to make a play. He’s a guy I could count on to echo the coach’s message, to make sure that he set the example for the next Brian Flynn coming into the program. In university, you’ve got to go to class and you’re in the community a lot. At Maine, like most big hockey programs, you’re under the microscope with every move you make, so it’s a lot like pro hockey in that regard. Brian was able to do all of those things in a very calm way. He went about helping the team every time he stepped on the ice. He earned that captaincy,” confided Whitehead. “That’s why I think he earned so much respect, because he didn’t go about things in a boastful way. He was more of a quiet captain, leading by example and bringing it on the ice. He’d make that open-ice hit at the right time in a game to spark the team, he’d score goals, set them up and kill penalties. He was always willing to work. That persistence and that dedication set him apart.”

Flynn continued to impress his former bench boss that season, particularly when he assumed a brand new role up front after Nyquist signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Detroit in March 2011 and elected to forgo his senior year, leaving the Black Bears short-handed offensively.

“Flynny really would take another step every year, and in typical Brian Flynn fashion he did it again as a senior. Nyquist had signed and we’d also lost a kid named Tanner House, our first-line center at the time. Brian played on the wing with him and Nyquist the year before. With those guys gone, I needed to move someone to center. Flynn had played the off-wing for three years already, but sure enough, he makes the move to center and he picks up right where he left off,” mentioned Whitehead, referencing the 18 goals and 48 points Flynn racked up in 40 games that year en route to earning Hockey East First All-Star Team honors and helping the Black Bears secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament. “It’s impressive that a guy can not only make a switch like that, but actually excel. He became our best face-off guy half way through the year, and he was great defensively, too. That’s impressive for a guy who put up over 150 points in his career there. His growth, not just statistically, but in the defensive aspects of the game was astounding. He positioned his stick and played the angles well. He was blocking shots. He got the puck deep at the right times. He was excelling at all the little things that win games.”

That included scoring the overtime-winner against the rival University of New Hampshire Wildcats in front of 38,456 fans at the 2012 Sun Life Frozen Fenway event at historic Fenway Park in Boston.

“Those types of games are right in Flynny’s wheel house. At Maine, he always played well in big games. You could tell he always wanted the puck on his stick at key moments. That was a big thing in his career. He’s the type of guy that can play in those big games and you’re not worried about him being overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all,” mentioned Whitehead, whose squad posted a 5-4 victory over UNH on the strength of Flynn’s tally 89 seconds into the extra frame. “I think about games like that, and I remember back when Brian came in as kind of an unheralded player. Back then, scouts and coaches had no idea who he was. By the time he left us, though, they were all asking about him. That’s the development right there. It was impressive to see him go from that unknown who was never drafted to someone people really wanted to know more about. There was tons of interest come his senior year, and he ended up signing with the Buffalo Sabres back in March 2012. I know one of their scouts, Toby O’Brien, was particularly high on him.”

And, with good reason. In addition to being a force at both ends of the rink, Flynn was a dependable soldier, too. After missing the second game of his freshman season on October 18, 2008 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Canadiens' No. 32 never missed another game with the Black Bears, playing in 152 straight contests.

Three-and-a-half years later, Whitehead couldn’t be prouder of Flynn’s accomplishments since departing the college hockey powerhouse. Not only did the versatile forward steadily establish himself in Buffalo before being dealt to the Canadiens at the trade deadline in early March, but he also managed to secure a two-year contract with Michel Therrien’s troops that will run through the 2016-17 season.

“In Brian Flynn, the Canadiens have a great competitor. You saw it in the playoffs. He’s just relentless. In short, he can do it all. Power play. Penalty kill. He can play center. He can play right-wing, off-wing. He’s also quite a skater with good vision of the ice. Bottom line, he’s a very well-rounded player. It’s been fascinating to watch him at the pro level. The great part about him being in Buffalo was that he had a chance to play, but now he’s got a chance to play with an elite team in Montreal and he can see and be involved in big games. I’m really excited for him. I think you’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg in his case,” concluded Whitehead, who spent 12 seasons coaching at Maine before moving on to Kimball Union Academy, a prep school in Meridien, NH, following the 2012-13 campaign. “At 26, he’s got a huge ceiling ahead of him because he’s in great shape, he’s a good athlete and he’s hungry. The talent is there, but the determination and the drive is also there. That’s what’s impressive about Flynny. That’s what’s allowed him to climb the ladder.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for

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