Barnstable's Willman took long road to Sabres

PHILADELPHIA – Max Willman almost gave up playing hockey last spring after the conclusion of his high school career at Barnstable High School.

Good thing he didn’t. On Saturday, the Buffalo Sabres selected Willman in the fifth round of the NHL Draft. It was the ultimate reward for a year’s worth of hard work and dedication to getting better, but it all might not have happened had it not been for communication with a prep school coach.

Williston-Northampton head coach Derek Cunha presented Willman with the opportunity to play a post-grad year at his school and entry into some prestigious summer showcase events, including the Beantown Classic.

“Coach Cunha gave me a chance. He put me in some summer tournaments and I took advantage of it,” explained Willman. “It’s overwhelming and exciting. It’s definitely a dream come true. Hard work pays off.”

“One thing he did was he made the most of every opportunity along the way,” Cunha said. “Starting with summer showcases last summer, midget hockey in the fall and then with us during the prep season, he got better and better.”

It’s the ultimate success story. Willman was ready to just head to Quinnipiac University as a regular student like many of his fellow graduates from Barnstable. Instead, he took Cunha up on the offer to play prep school hockey.

“When I graduated from Barnstable, I didn’t have very many options. I was looking to go to Quinnipiac as a student,” said Willman.

A year later, Willman has secured an offer to play college hockey at Brown University and is now a prospect in the Sabres’ system, as the organization attempts to rebuild.

“Some kids level out, but Max keeps getting better. He has a lot more potential for growth,” said Cunha, a Nobles & Greenough grad, who played college hockey at Holy Cross.

It wasn’t that Willman wasn’t a good hockey player when he skated for head coach Scott Nickerson at Barnstable. It was a matter of exposure.

“Exposure is a big thing. Not many [scouts] come down to the Cape to watch public school hockey,” Willman said.

Willman isn’t the flashiest player fans will ever watch, but he is the type of player who just gets the job done. He is tenacious and brings the play to his opposition.

“I have good vision and can see the ice well. I try to make my linemates around me better,” said Willman when describing his game.

He is a versatile scorer that can find the back of the net in many different ways.

"He can beat defensemen one-on-one, shoot and score from the perimeter or bowl his way towards the net," said Cunha. "He really dictates the play. He forces the play and makes defensemen worried about him."

Willman will join a strong recruiting class at Brown that also includes two other locals selected in the 2014 NHL Draft: Deerfield’s Sam Lafferty and Kimball Union’s Tyler Bird.

“It’s definitely exciting with the incoming class. I played with Sam [Lafferty] last summer and fall and played against him in prep school,” said Willman, who was also looking at Providence, Union, Holy Cross and Army.

Perhaps most importantly, in the minds of the Sabres’ brass, Willman is a character guy who will give his all every shift and be respected by his teammates.

“He’s a character guy, he’s a great kid,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said. “He’s the type of kid you want to marry your daughter. He’s a smart kid going to Brown.

“Every scout on our staff all said he was a good hockey player. There wasn’t one guy who said he wasn’t sure on this kid. I like unanimous decisions.”

Another unanimous decision around Philadelphia was that Max Willman was one of true feel good stories of the draft.