Located 25 miles north of Boston, the idyllic town of Boxford, Massachusetts is known primarily for two things. The first is how Boston Bruins great Ray Bourque raised his family there during his playing days. The other is the annual Apple Festival in October.
With no stoplights and next to no commercial development, one thing the town of 8,000 is not known for is producing future NHL stars.
Boxford is the hometown of New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider. And if the Rangers can defeat the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, Kreider's legend will only expand throughout the hockey haven that is Northern Massachusetts. Either way, he's become the town's most famous local product, leapfrogging Doug VB Goudie, a commentator for the local Fox TV affiliate.
"It's incredible. All my friends and family know he came through our program. So I feel like a celebrity just knowing that they know I know him," said Andrew Jackson, the hockey coach at Masconomet Regional High School, where Kreider played for two years. "There's not a more deserving guy. His combination of size, speed and skill is something to watch, it really is. It's pretty cool."
Jackson was an assistant on the staff of then-coach Bill Blackwell when Kreider played at Masconomet. In their first year at Masco, the coaching staff inherited a strong freshman class led by Kreider. But the 14-year-old's high school hockey career didn't get off to the best start.
In a decision the Masconomet staff still laughs about, Kreider began his freshman season on the junior varsity squad.
"It's kind of a running joke we have. Goes to show what we know, we had a future NHL first-round pick," Jackson said. "He immediately jumped right in after that."
The Chieftains went 4-14-2 that year, with "the Kreider kid" being the lone bright spot in a difficult season.
"Every coach we played asked, 'Who is number 4?' He wore number four with us. He was probably a second-line player as a freshman," Jackson said. "He was still growing into his body in his freshman year. All of a sudden …"
In the summer preceding his sophomore year of high school, Kreider sprouted, growing roughly six inches without losing any of his speed. It was the first encouraging sign for what would be a breakout season.
Masconomet went 17-4-2 during Kreider's sophomore season, reaching the regional semifinals, the furthest the school had been in the tournament in years. But Kreider was more than just an athlete at the regional public school. Starring in hockey, soccer and lacrosse, he was also active around school and maintained a 4.3 grade-point average.
"He was like a role model when he was 15. He did all the right things, kids looked up to him both on and off the ice. He was extremely polite. He's what you want your program to represent," Jackson said. "He was awesome."
After being named an All-League player as a sophomore, Kreider left the public school and went nine miles down the road to Phillips Academy Andover, the prestigious prep school that includes presidents, entrepreneurs and Nobel Prize-winners among its alumni.
Transferring to Andover forced Kreider to repeat his sophomore year, but he flourished, performing on the ice while being ever-present on campus. In addition to playing hockey and lacrosse, Kreider was active in the Russian club and the architecture club. He even took yoga five times a week as an elective and still occasionally wears his "Varsity Yoga" T-shirt.
"He was not just a hockey kid. He was a member of the community in so many different ways. He's one of those very special kids. He really is," Andover hockey coach Dean Boylan said. "He was certainly an outstanding talent. We knew that when he arrived, but I would certainly be lying if I told you I expected him to be a No. 1 draft pick in the NHL."
After starring at Andover for two years, Kreider amassed enough credits to graduate as a junior and go straight to Boston College, where he won two national championships under legendary coach Jerry York.
"There's NHL skating and then there's elite NHL skaters. He's in that elite category," York said. "We've had a lot of NHL players. They're all a little different from each other, but he's that rare combination of size and strength and skating ability."
This season, Kreider has been a key contributor in the Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup Final. New York has gone 7-3 in the postseason since Kreider returned from a hand injury and the wing led all Rangers forwards with eight points in the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens. That scoring surge included the game-winner in Game 1, an assist on Rick Nash's Game 2 winner and the tying goal with 29 seconds remaining in Game 3 to force overtime.
Kreider was also involved in the collision in Game 1 that forced goaltender Carey Price out of the series.
The Rangers dispatched Montreal in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. And with every play Kreider makes in his chase for a championship, his hometown nestled in the thick of Bruins country grows more enamored.
"I see some of my kids now wearing a Kreider Rangers T-shirt. I'll see them with a Rangers shirt and I'll say, 'That better be a Kreider shirt or take it off,'" Jackson joked. "It's really cool for the community. He's truly a role model for the guys from a small town."