Jan. 10, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com Staff Writer
EAST LANSING - Sophomore defenseman RJ Boyd's path to Michigan State is one of the most unique ever taken by any hockey player who's pulled on a green and white jersey.
The road to East Lansing started in Sarasota, Fla. and included stops in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois and Indiana.
There were plenty of tough decisions to make and obstacles to overcome for Boyd to become the first Florida native to play for the Spartans.
Along the way, Boyd played in youth leagues, prep school, college and in juniors before successfully enrolling at MSU last fall.
"When I first started playing hockey in Florida, I had no clue what the hockey world was like,'' said Boyd, who was born in Palm Beach but grew up in Sarasota. "We didn't know about juniors or college or how about anything worked.
"It's been an interesting experience at every level, and I'm so excited to be at a program like Michigan State. It's been an adjustment and it was overwhelming when I first got here. It's been a lot of work, but it's worth it.''
In order to become eligible as a transfer from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., Boyd had to take 21 classes last year - fall, winter and summer sessions -- at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.
He finished the last week of June, passed all his classes and soon became eligible to play this season.
"He's had a demanding go, from last year in his last season of junior hockey and with all the credit hours he needed to pass before he became eligible,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
"He didn't have much time from completing classes in the summer to jumping into school here.''
After seeing limited playing time early in the season, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound, left-hand shot defenseman has improved steadily in most areas of his game, and is getting rewarded with more and more ice time.
He's more comfortable moving the puck out of his own zone, he's more physical and he's contributed on offense.
Boyd, who turns 22-years-old on Feb. 7, has dressed for all 20 Spartan games and has four assists. MSU (5-12-3 overall, 4-9-1-0 CCHA) plays host to first-place Notre Dame (10-2-0, 14-4-0-0) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena.
"I'm playing more and more each game and I'm just trying to keep things simple in moving the puck, playing the rush and being in position,'' he said. "Those are the biggest things that will build my confidence and lead to more ice time.''
Boyd played on top-level roller hockey teams until he took to the ice when he was in sixth grade. When he got into hockey, he dropped all other sports.
But Boyd was a hockey fan long before he started playing and that was due to his father, Don, who grew up in Troy, Mich., and was a big Red Wings fan.
"We always watched the Red Wings on TV. It was like a big tradition,'' RJ said. "We'd also go up to Tampa Bay to see the Lightning play a lot. My dad is one of nine kids in his family so I have like 38 cousins, half in Michigan and half in Florida.''
Boyd's parents, Don and Karen, are back living on the east coast of Florida in Lake Worth, just south of West Palm Beach.
Six years ago, Boyd was playing midget hockey near Sarasota, ready to turn 16, and wasn't even thinking about college hockey.
But things would change after he met Robert Gagnon, the coach at Cushing Academy, a well-known prep school in Ashburnham, Mass., about 60 west of Boston, near the New Hampshire border.
"I was at a showcase tournament in Boston and the Cushing coach caught with my dad and I in the parking lot after one of the games,'' Boyd said. "He talked to us about Cushing, gave us an application to the school and invited me to come visit.
"It was like the fifth prep school that talked to us, but we didn't know how the system worked. I told my coach about it and he said that Cushing was a great school and that "you've got to go there.''
Two weeks later, at another tournament in Boston, Boyd found time to visit Cushing Academy and loved it.
"It was more laid back than most prep schools. Instead of shirt and tie, it was more jeans and a collared shirt. I thought, `I could do this,''' he said.
Soon, Boyd was enrolled and that decision not only had an impact on him, it set in motion the fate for his entire family.
All three of Boyd's siblings -two brothers and a sister - followed him to Cushing for academics and hockey. His brother, Sam, now 21, graduated from Cushing. Richey, 17, is a senior and sister, Maggie, 16, is a freshman.
RJ and Sam served as captains. Richey is in his second season as captain.
"It was like a shot in the dark for me to go there and it ended up as one of the best things that happened to me and our family,'' said Boyd, who spent three seasons at Cushing and graduated in 2010.
As a sophomore, Boyd said coach Gagnon told him that he had the potential to play college hockey.
"I honestly thought I'd just graduate and go back to Florida and go to one of the state schools (for college),'' he said. "Things started clicking late in my sophomore year and I had a pretty good year as a junior.
"I heard from Boston College and Boston University and some others but nobody gave me an offer. I visited Boston College and saw my first college game and loved it. That's when I really got serious about college hockey.
"I went online and learned about the CCHA and Michigan State and Michigan and others schools in the west like Wisconsin and Minnesota. I found out how big college hockey is at some schools.''
During his senior year at Cushing, Boyd accepted a scholarship to Sacred Heart. A few months later, Boyd was selected by the Florida Panthers in the seventh round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Boyd said he wasn't happy at Sacred Heart, a member of Atlantic Hockey, and believed he could improve his game by playing at a higher level at another school. So he left after the first semester and joined the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League. That season, he was a teammate of Spartan freshman forward David Bondra.
After the 2010-11 season, Boyd was traded to the Indiana Ice of the USHL and played in 50 games last year, all while taking classes at Ivy Tech.
At the time, MSU was looking for a more experienced defenseman to join the three freshman defensemen they were bringing in this season and Boyd caught their eye.
"Coach (Kelly) Miller came down to watch me during tryouts with the (Indiana) Ice and asked me to come for a visit,'' he said. "I loved it and when they offered, I thought it would be a great place to develop.''
While all the MSU freshmen arrived on campus by July 1 for the start of summer school, Boyd had just finished up at Ivy Tech and couldn't get enrolled. Besides, he needed a break from the long grind to become eligible.
So, he came to East Lansing in late August with all the other students arriving back on campus.
"My first week, I was always lost. I had no clue where I was going,'' Boyd said. "(Freshman defenseman) Rhett Holland helped me out trying to get me settled. It was really overwhelming.
"Sacred Heart has one cafeteria. Michigan State has like 15. There is food everywhere.''
Boyd said his primary goal this season was to adapt to the college game, improve his skills and work hard to become a solid, all-around defenseman.
"I want to be a shutdown defenseman who is physical, aggressive and a little mean,'' he said. "I played more of a meaner role in juniors.
"The biggest thing (to learn) is reading plays, playing when I don't have the puck. I thought I did a pretty good job of that in the USHL, but this is a lot different.''
Anastos is looking forward to Boyd giving the Spartans a physical presence on defense.
"He likes to play physical and we need that back there. As he gets used to the speed of the college game and the strength of the players, he'll get more comfortable,'' Anastos said.
"We want to continue to bring him along and keep his game simple. I thought some of his best games have been against Ferris State just before the break and then Western Michigan and for two periods against Michigan (in the GLI).''
Boyd had two assists against FSU in a 3-1 victory on Dec. 15 and one assist against Michigan on Dec. 30.
"We talked about his progress in moving the puck, keeping his play simple and recovering quickly after a mistake,'' Anastos said. "The more he plays, the more he builds his confidence and becomes more comfortable.''