Rookie of a Lifetime

Ryan Thomas

Eric Tufman’s hockey journey began on a day off from school when he was just seven years old. Living in Abington, a Philadelphia suburb, Eric, a friend of his and his mother decided to go for a skate, just for fun. Ever since then, the freshman forward says, “I’ve [fallen] in love with the game.”

After playing hockey in and around the Abington area his whole life, Eric jumped at the opportunity to come to UMass Boston and play for a team that, two years ago, went winless and last season, the team’s first under the tutelage of current head coach Peter Belisle, won only five games. Tufman came to the team touted as a forward that could score and as a player who was “such a good anticipator,” and someone who’s “got a knack for the net,” according to Belisle. “He’s so good in the corners, at protecting the puck, and cycling the puck with his two line mates,” his coach says.

After the team’s first game of the season (a 4-3 loss) against Colby College, a lackluster game in which Tufman was a non-factor, Belisle decided to make him a healthy scratch for the team’s next game against a then-nationally-ranked Bowdoin College team. Thinking back on it, Belisle remembers the decision being funny actually. “I didn’t know if it was gonna wake him up, or send him into a tail spin,” he says.

For Tufman, it was to the former, waking up and putting together what has been possibly the best season ever by a UMass Boston freshman hockey player. “Thank God it woke him up,” Belisle says. “We always knew he was a great talent.”

When Tufman found out he was benched, he said he wasn’t sad; he was upset. Upset at himself. “I was embarrassed,” he said. “That’s never happened to me. I deserved everything I got and I don’t think [Pete] would have been a good coach if he played me.”

The way in which Tufman responded to Belisle’s decision can’t be fully described statistically. Sure, he finished fourth in the ECAC East scoring race, adding up 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 24 games. Of course, his 14 points on the power play are fifth-best and his eight power play goals are third in the conference. But what cements Eric as a rising star in this league is something that Michael Jordan and David Ortiz are familiar with: Game-winners. Tufman finished the season third in the ECAC East with four game-winning goals, the latest one coming against Division III powerhouse Middlebury College, and described by him as the best moment in his still young hockey career.

After UMass Boston had surrendered a two-goal lead at home to Middlebury, igniting celebration from the visitors and tying the game at three goals a piece, Tufman did his magic, and Belisle contributed the play-by-play. “[Matt] Atsoff goes in and plays the body, gets the puck, sends it out to [line mate Kris] Kranzky. [He] shoots it, Tufman makes a beautiful play …takes the puck and, instead of whacking it right back into the goal, he holds it, goes all the way around the goal and scores.

“That’s a typical goal from that line,” Belisle says. “Atsoff going in, Kranzky taking the shot, and Tufman finding the rebound and getting in an area where the puck is gonna come to him.”

To Eric, it was a great feeling and a great win for his team, something he’ll never forget. But that’s just the thing about Eric. He deflects praise sent his way onto his line mates and his team. “Matt [Atsoff] and Kris [Kranzky] have been just great,” he says. “Our line has a lot of chemistry to go along with it.

“I’ve always been a creative player and always understood the game. I could always anticipate stuff, I always had that knack, but my line mates …have been terrific.

“It just seems that we have everything in that one line. We have the speed, we have the grittiness, we have the size. We just complement each other in every aspect of the game and we back each other up.”

Living in the same apartment together, Kranzky, Atsoff and Tufman have become a force on and off the ice. They spend so much time together that the level of trust between the top line trio has been the difference-maker. Eric has had an exceptional experience at UMass Boston so far, whether regarding his team’s chemistry or the increasing amount of fan support at the Clark Center Ice Rink.

Needless to say, Eric will be sticking around, and the thought of playing together with his line mates gives him thoughts of a national championship. It’s a big statement, and he understands that, but the prospect of two more years together makes the forward excited. “When we’re on top of our game, not even just our line; when our team’s on its game, we’ve shown we can play with anybody. Just to even think that we have two more years together… it could be a scary thing.”

It’s scary, but in a good way. The target will get bigger on his back, and the rest of the league will soon, if they don’t already, know whom Eric Tufman is. Not to worry though, because Belisle can just bench him again; we all know how that worked out.