Recently named National Division I Rookie of the Year after a stellar first season at Merrimack University, Parisian-born Stephane Da Costa, 20, has emerged as one of the most talked about collegiate free agents. Currently training with the French national team ahead of next month’s World Championships in Germany, Da Costa is pleased with his first season in college hockey, which culminated in 2-1 series loss to Boston University in the Hockey East Quarterfinals.
“The season was pretty good,” he said. “We made the playoffs and did some things that haven’t happened at Merrimack for a long time. It was great to be honored as Rookie of the Year but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. They really made me feel comfortable.”
Da Costa, who registered 16 goals and 29 assists for a total of 45 points in 34 games this season, took a unique path to Merrimack. Far from a hockey hotbed, France has only one player currently playing in the NHL: Chicago’s Cristobal Huet. Defenseman Phillippe Bozon played a total of 144 games for St. Louis in the early 1990s, but that is the extent French hockey’s pedigree in North America. Da Costa, who started playing at a young age, was encouraged by his parents to come to America to improve his chance of success.
The Frenchman spent the 2006-07 season, his first in North America, with the Texas Tornado of the NAHL, where he scored 40 points in 50 games. The following season, he moved to the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, where he would spend the next two years. In 2007-08, Da Costa scored 37 points in 51 games. 2008-09 was Da Costa’s true breakout year, scoring 67 points, 31 goals and 36 assists, in 48 games.
It was Da Costa’s performance in the USHL that caught the attention of Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
“Coach Dennehy was the first who noticed me when I was in the USHL,” said Da Costa. “He did a great job of recruiting and really made Merrimack feel right.”
Da Costa does not hide the fact that hopes to play in the NHL, citing how important it would be to both his family and his country. Before he can reach that point, however, Da Costa needs to overcome reservations at the professional level about his size, which is listed at 5’11, 180 lbs, although he plays much lighter.
According to an NHL scout, in an interview with the Eagle Tribune of North Andover, MA, “If Da Costa were to step on to an NHL team, he’d get shoved off the puck and get beat up all night. He wouldn’t be able to do it. If he commits himself to adding some weight and strength, watch out, because he’ll turn some heads.”
In response to the criticisms about his size, Da Costa is defiant.
“I can’t worry about what other people say,” he said. “I’m working hard to get bigger and stronger every day.”
Citing his status as a collegiate athlete, Da Costa declined to reveal if he has spoken with or received any feedback from NHL clubs, but did say he was looking forward to playing in the World Championships.
“I’ve been training in France and I’m really looking forward to playing for my country,” said Da Costa, who has previously represented France at junior level. “I just want to do whatever I can to help the team. It should be a fun tournament.”
It is expected that Da Costa will make a decision regarding his professional future after the conclusion of the tournament, but as time passes, it seems more and more likely that he will stay in college another year.
Whichever path Da Costa chooses for next season, it is likely that his long-term future lies in professional hockey.