ITHACA, N.Y. — As the clock ticked down in last March’s season-ending setback at the hands of eventual national champion North Dakota in the NCAA Tournament, the seniors on the Cornell hockey team savored their last moments wearing the Red uniform. The underclassmen watched the third period come to an end and started to think about next season.
One player, however, wasn’t sure what to think. Forward Vinnie Auger awaited a decision on whether he would be granted a medical redshirt, giving him an extra year of eligibility. When the final horn sounded in Grand Rapids, Mich., Auger didn’t know whether his career was over, or if he’d be back for another campaign.
“In the beginning of the season, I thought everything was going to be fine,” Auger said. “And at first everything was fine. But, then I was denied the redshirt because I didn’t have enough classes left to take. I had to go through an appeals process that took awhile, so I didn’t know if I’d be back or not until late May or June.”
The senior was eventually granted the additional season because of a variety of injuries — mainly to his back — that have kept him out of action for parts of his last three campaigns, including virtually all of his sophomore season.
For Auger, who is, according to junior co-captain Kyle Knopp “probably our most talented player,” the ailments have limited his ability to build on the big numbers and the incredible potential that earned him Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors in 1994, and induced the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche) to select him in the National Hockey League draft that year.
“It’s been really frustrating,” the forward said. “Sophomore year was really hard and last year was also hard because I had a broken thumb and my back went back and forth, feeling good and feeling bad. I never really got comfortable out there on the ice for too long.” This season has brought changes for Auger. Instead of lining up at center, as he has in the past, Auger has been playing left wing on a line with Knopp and sophomore center Ryan Moynihan.
The combination has looked potent thus far, as all three members tallied in the Red-White scrimmage and Auger and Moynihan lit the lamp against Ryerson in exhibition action.
“Vinnie has definitely stood out so far,” said sophomore forward Doug Stienstra. “He’s playing really well, and it looks like he’s playing with a lot more confidence out there.”
“I like playing left wing a lot,” Auger said. “I really like playing with Ryan and Kyle, and I think we’re doing well. It’s not really a big adjustment for me. It took a couple of practices to get comfortable, but now I’m fine with it. I think this line can be really effective and we can put points on the board.”
The changes for Auger have not only come on the ice, however. Thanks to all his experience, he has taken over the role of elder statesman.
“Vinnie’s a leader both on and off the ice,” Knopp said. “People see when he’s turning things up a notch and they get excited and play harder themselves. In the dressing room, he relaxes people because he knows how to deal with things. He’s been around for four years, so he knows not to get too excited or too emotional. Vinnie is laid back in the dressing room, and guys feed off that.”
The fifth-year performer agrees that he has become a team leader.
“I think the younger players look up to me because I’ve been here so long and they expect me to know more about school and hockey. I try to teach the other guys what I’ve learned.”
After watching ex-teammates such as P.C. Drouinand and Brad Chartrand continue their careers after leaving Ithaca, Auger hopes he can follow in their footsteps, whether it be in the Colorado system or abroad.
“I’ve been talking with them [the Avalanche] for the past few years,” Auger said. “They really haven’t had the chance to see me play because of all the injuries, so this year will determine what happens for me. If I get hurt again, I can put a cross through a career with them. But, if I put up good numbers and stay healthy, I can still play. Europe may be an option, or the IHL or AHL. I really haven’t decided yet, but Europe is probably my best option.”
Where would he like to play?
“Anywhere,” Auger said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter. Wherever I can get a job is where I want to play.”
But right now, the forward is not looking ahead to next year. He is focused on the 1997-98 campaign — particularly on staying injury-free.
“I hope this year will be different,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten off to a pretty good start. I’ve been working out every day with the team, lifting with the team, and I haven’t missed a practice yet, so I’m just feeling great. This has to be the year that I get it done. It’s my last year — I don’t think they’re giving me any more.
“I’d better make it a good one.”