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An hour from his roots, 17-year-old leads Boston U. into Frozen Four

You want the blue bloods of college hockey?

The NCAA men's Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center will deliver as Thursday's semifinal matchups of Boston University vs. Denver and Boston College vs. Michigan will feature teams that have combined for 28 championships.

You want star power?

That will be on display in downtown St. Paul too, with at least 50 current or future NHL draft picks, likely including nine first-rounders.

For Tom Ward, coach of the powerhouse prep program at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, one player among those star-studded rosters will command his attention: 17-year-old Boston University freshman forward Macklin Celebrini.

"I'd like to see a player that's better than him in this [NHL] draft class," said Ward, a former Gophers player and assistant coach. "I haven't seen him yet, but I'm biased."

Ward's bias might come from the fact he coached Celebrini when the Vancouver, British Columbia, native played for Shattuck's prep team as a 15-year-old sophomore. In 52 games while playing against 18-year-olds that season, Celebrini scored 50 goals, contributed 67 assists and made Ward a believer.

"He reminds me a lot of Jonathan Toews when he was here," said Ward, who's coached at Shattuck since 1999 except for a three-year stint as a Buffalo Sabres assistant. "Very similar to Zach Parise. Very similar in the way they go about their business. Very serious, very motivated to be a good teammate and win games."

That's heady company for Celebrini. Toews led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles as a captain and an outstanding two-way center. Parise was one of the NHL's top two-way forwards during long stretches of his 19-year career.

NHL general managers and scouts are believers, too, because Celebrini is expected to be the first name called at the league's 2024 entry draft.

The old college try

Because Celebrini is Canadian, many hockey observers thought he'd take the traditional major junior route in his development. He chose the road less traveled, and so far it's paid off.

"For the last couple of years, I've been thinking more and more about college hockey," Celebrini said. "I felt like college hockey was the right path for me, playing against older, more mature players. I thought that would help me best to develop."

Only two years after that standout season at Shattuck, Celebrini is producing at a high level as the youngest player in college hockey. He's led Boston University into the national semifinals against Denver at 4 p.m. Thursday, while Boston College and Michigan meet in the 7:30 p.m. semifinal.

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A solid 6-0 and 190 pounds, Celebrini is tied for second nationally with 64 points on 32 goals and 32 assists. He's a Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalist along with Boston College forward Cutter Gauthier and North Dakota forward Jackson Blake, and he could hear his name called during Friday's ceremony.

A more sure thing will come in June in Las Vegas, where Celebrini is the consensus choice to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft.

"Macklin's a special player," Boston University coach Jay Pandolfo said. "We're not where we are today without Macklin Celebrini."

That was apparent to Pandolfo during training camp when Celebrini showed teammates how competitive he is, ticking some of them off.

"He doesn't give an inch," Pandolfo said. "For a 17-year-old to push a group of older players like that, it's pretty impressive and says a lot about his character and how much he cares."

Momentum-shifter

The Gophers experienced Celebrini's competitive nature in the Sioux Falls Regional final. With Minnesota up 2-1 early in the second period, Celebrini flipped the game's momentum with his deft passing. First he drove toward the Gophers net, stickhandled the puck between his legs and spun around to feed Shane Lachance for the tying goal. Four minutes later, Celebrini's backhand pass from the corner found Jack Harvey for the go-ahead goal. The Terriers went on to win 6-3.

"That was an NHL player, a big-time player," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said.

On his spin-o-rama assist, Celebrini was just happy it worked.

"You might call it lucky," he said. "First of all, I just tried to get it in the zone. I saw someone coming on the back side — didn't know who, didn't know where. I just threw it back post, and fortunately enough it landed on Shane's stick."

Now two wins from a national championship, Celebrini is taking a businesslike approach in St. Paul.

"We've got a job to do this weekend," he said. "It's kind of cliche, but everything else will take care of itself. We're focused on Thursday, first of all, and playing the best hockey for 60 minutes and then not looking past that."

Ward, for one, doesn't see that as a problem with his former player.

"There's no moment that's too big for him," he said. "He's interested in being out there in those moments and helping his team win."