“I’m just so grateful for this opportunity I’ve been given,” said Riley. “Coming into Janesville, obviously I knew what kind of program this was and what opportunity I could get here, but I’m just really grateful for how everything’s gone so far.”
The 17-year-old Riley (6-4/195), perhaps very fittingly, has taken the reigns as the starting goaltender for the youngest Jets team in the franchise’s 11-year history. In October, he was named along with defenseman Casey Roepke to the 2019-20 Preliminary Players to Watch List, assembled by the NHL’s Central Scouting department.
The native of Rochester, New York, is the first ever Jet to commit to Boston College, something Jets head coach Corey Leivermann doesn’t take for granted.
“Being here in a Midwestern city, I think a lot of hockey fans don’t get to see much play from the Boston schools, but when you consider the history of that program and what they mean to college hockey, it’s a pretty remarkable day for Grant of course, and for our team here,” he said. “Jerry York is probably the most legendary college coach of all time, and it’s a pretty surreal moment when his name lights up on your phone and here’s Jerry York calling you about your goaltender.”
It certainly is difficult to overstate the historical success enjoyed by York and his Eagles. York has won more games (1,072) than any head coach in the history of NCAA hockey, and now in his 27th year at Boston College, boasts a jaw-dropping 605-317-86 record with the program. He has won five NCAA Championships (four with Boston College, one with Bowling Green), and was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame last summer.
“I had a lot of contributing factors to this decision,” said Riley. “At my visit, when I met with the coaching staff, everything just clicked and felt right. I’ve got a lot of family in the Boston area, too, so it feels great to know I’ll have the opportunity to play in front of them for four years.”
The Eagles’ list of NHL alumni is about as deep as any NCAA program’s. Current NHL All-Stars Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets), and Noah Hanifin (Flames) played for Boston College. The program has also enjoyed much recent success in advancing goaltenders. All-Star Corey Schneider (New Jersey Devils) and high-end prospects Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) and Spencer Knight (Florida Panthers) were also Eagles.
“That program does so much winning and has a ton of forwards and ‘d’ in the NHL, that I think people forget how great the track record has been for moving on NHL goalies in the last ten years or so,” said Leivermann. “At the end of the day, the fit is there. They’ve got a tradition moving goalies on, and that’s obviously what Grant wants a chance at. It’s a great education, too, and he feels very strongly about that, but he has such a high drive to play professional hockey that wherever he went had to be top tier for both of those things.”
In addition to the 100+ year hockey program with 13 conference tournament championships, Boston College offers top tier academics for prospects like Riley. The school recently ranked 37th of 399 national universities in a 2020 U.S. News survey.
For a student like Riley, who carries a 4.0 grade point average, that kind of academic success moves the needle a lot, too. The same habits that make Riley an NHL prospect are behind his success in the classroom, said Jets goaltending coach Larry Clemens.
“He’s just got such a great attention to detail,” Clemens said. “You want to coach players who want to be better. Everything he does, he wants to be better at. He’s willing to listen, learn, and pay attention to everything he does. He’s just a smart kid in general.”
“Look at the success of any professional athlete and it’s about daily habits,” he said. “What you do away from the rink, when coaches aren’t watching, is everything. Grant does everything the right way. He goes to bed early, he eats right, he does his homework. Kids with high ambitions to play pro hockey take things seriously. He’s a leader in how he prepares, and sometimes I think he may not even realize how much of a leader he is, but it’s definitely incredible to have that kind of professionalism in an ’02, and I think guys recognize that.”
Tendered in February out of the Rochester Coalition program, Riley certainly showed early signs that he could become the next in a long line of success stories from the Janesville crease. Clemens has overseen the Jets’ rise to a top-tier advancement program at the position, with a particular focus on younger netminders. NHL Draft picks Cole Brady (New Jersey Devils, 2019) and Jack LaFontaine (Carolina Hurricanes, 2016) played with the Jets during their senior years of high school, as did Brock Kautz in 2011-12, Logan Halladay in 2013-14, Matt Jurusik in 2014-15, and Jake Barczewki in 2016-17.
It’s all about confidence, according to Clemens, and Riley is yet another example.
“We want to take pressure off our guys whenever possible,” Clemens said. “Let them learn. We try to give these guys confidence, give them the freedom to fail, give them the ability to be free and just play. We tell them not to worry about pressure. That’s been a big understanding we’ve had for a long time with our guys, all the way back to Halladay. It’s okay to fail, it’s okay to mess up, but let’s build your confidence from there and away we go. All these guys have had chances to find themselves, find their game, and then they get advancement opportunities they deserve.”
Fear of failure is completely alien to Riley. While box score hawks might see an .899 save percentage and a 3.39 goals against average and circle a different netminder, Riley himself knows how valuable adversity is for a group that’s trying to steepen its learning curve.
“The numbers obviously aren’t where we want them to be right now, but the way I see it is that the toughest part of the season is over,” Riley said. “And any adversity you face always makes you stronger for what’s to come. Going up to Alaska and losing five games in a row, everyone looks in the mirror after that, and digs deep down to see how we respond to it, both as a group and as individuals. We’ve taken away a lot of positives and are ready for a strong second half.”