Sophomore forward Kirk Lamb first made a significant impression on Princeton head coach Don Cahoon following a big home win over Harvard in 1996.
Shortly after the final buzzer, Cahoon headed to the locker room to congratulate his players on a fine effort. A cacophony of celebration greeted Cahoon and assistant coach Len Quesnelle as they turned the corner from the goalie’s lounge into the main room.
There, to Cahoon’s amazement, was 18-year-old recruit Kirk Lamb in the center of the fray, slapping players on the back, congratulating them and beaming as if he had just netted a hat trick in the victory.
“That was the only time in my 25 years of college hockey that I can remember a recruit that came into the locker room after a game and participated in the revelry like that,” Cahoon said. “I remember turning to Len and saying ‘I want that kid in my locker room!’” It was a scene that Cahoon has witnessed time and time again in the Tigers’ past two seasons. Lamb has been the consummate teammate since matriculating to Princeton. His reward comes this Sunday, Dec. 20, when he finally pulls on the orange and black home jersey to join his teammates in pitched battle against the Northeastern Huskies. Lamb is finally eligible to compete for the Tigers after a one-year-plus-nine-game exile imposed by the NCAA.
Kirk Lamb has all the credentials of a top recruit. He was the leading scorer in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 1996-97 and a first team all-star. He earned MVP honors for the Bonnyville Pontiacs one year after being named the club’s rookie of the year.
The skills that lifted Lamb to those honors were only just beginning to become evident in 1995, when the Calgary Hitmen recruited Lamb to play major junior hockey in the Western Hockey League.
“At the time, U.S. college hockey wasn’t really something heard of in my town,” said Lamb, a native of Cold Lake, Alb., located roughly 180 miles northeast of Edmonton. “I only knew of one kid who had gone to play hockey in the States. The Western Hockey League was where everyone wanted to be. I knew that playing for Calgary would affect my college eligibility, but I thought that I was good enough to play in the WHL.”
The Hitmen watched Lamb struggle through recovery from a leg injury for nine games before deciding that he should return to Tier II hockey at Bonnyville to play himself into shape. They promised to call him up after Christmas. Unfortunately for the Hitmen, Lamb only had coal for their stockings come December.
“The Hitmen did call me, but by that time I had seen college scouts talking to (Pontiacs and Princeton teammate) Darren Yopyk and could see more scouts in the stands,” said Lamb, then too young for in-person contact from coaches under the NCAA rules. ” I decided to wait until the end of the year to see if teams were interested in me.”
Lamb made an immediate impact for the Pontiacs. A player who was an afterthought to most coaches up until his midget season had become a go-to guy. Harvard, Yale, Wisconsin and Princeton took particular notice.
The next season was even more momentous. Lamb came into his own as an offensive force, netting 41 goals and adding 67 assists to pace the circuit. Some schools may have been put off by the fact that he was destined to sit out a year and nine games (one for each outing with the Hitmen), but not his most ardent suitors.
“If anything, the schools that talked to me told me that my (limited) eligibility wasn’t a problem unless I thought it was a problem,” Lamb said. “I think they wanted to be sure that I could deal with it.”
Ultimately, the Tigers won the recruiting war. Lamb made his campus visit during the Brown-Harvard weekend and stayed with then-sophomore Scott Bertoli. Ironically, Cahoon benched Bertoli for the Brown game on Friday night. The host and his recruit sat in the stands and watched as Princeton battled the Bears to a disappointing tie.
Bertoli was back in the lineup the next night. Harvard paid the price as he netted a pair of goals and two assists a 6-2 rout.
“I remember Kirk coming down into the locker room after the Harvard game and telling me ‘Great game, I don’t think you will be sitting out any more,’” Bertoli said. “It was like he was one of the guys. He has been like that ever since. He goes out his way to talk to people between periods and after games. He’s a jokester; everybody on the team really gets along with him.”
Lamb’s quick wit and gregarious nature quickly endeared him to his new teammates in the fall of 1997. While his classmates, including forwards Shane Campbell, Chris Corrinet and Ethan Doyle, set about battling for regular spots in the lineup, however, Lamb had to find other motivation.
“The first couple of months were all right,” said Lamb. “I was busy with schoolwork, working out. I thought everything would be fine. It started to get a little monotonous around November. I hadn’t played a game in eight months, I was away from home for the first time and I knew I had over a year left before I could play.”
Some players are unable to cope with fifth-line status. Lamb, whose teammates say has as good a pair of hands as anyone on the roster, was skating with little-used extra forwards Chris Patrick and Alan Riley. The trio never practiced on the power play and only saw penalty-killing duty when regular penalty-killers were unavailable. Rather than focus on preparing for any given opponent, Lamb worked on the individual aspects of his game.
He logged extra ice time before and after practice, working on his shot and skating. He came down to the rink on weekends when the team was on the road to fire pucks at goaltending hobbyist Matt Conte, a member of the rink crew.
“I felt more left out on the ice than off it,” Lamb said. “I did not go on a lot of road trips because I didn’t think I wanted to get on a bus for five hours and watch two more games. But off the ice, I always felt like I was part of the team.”
Junior forward Benoit Morin is the only Princeton skater who could really empathize with Lamb’s plight. Morin lost a year of collegiate eligibility after playing three major junior exhibition games in 1994 for the Shawinigan Cataracts. Not surprisingly, Morin and Lamb have become good friends.
“It is never easy to be in a situation where you have to sit out,” Morin said. “There were some days where (Kirk) looked a little depressed, but, in general, he did a good job focusing on the things that he needed to do to improve.”
The Tigers finished the 1997-98 season with a flourish and Lamb was there to witness it all. He joined his teammates on the ice after the ECAC tournament championship win over Clarkson to receive his commemorative watch, then joined his buddies for a post-game celebration in downtown Lake Placid. He also flew out to Ann Arbor for the Tigers’ NCAA date with the University of Michigan.
When the team banquet rolled around in April, the good-natured Lamb continued playing the role of loyal teammate. He and assistant coach Mark Dennehy worked until the last minute on a highlight video from the season. Once at the banquet, Lamb and Campbell provided a moment of levity by slipping butter onto the shoe of an unsuspecting Patrick.
Lamb returned to campus this year knowing that the countdown was under 10. Surprisingly, he found it even harder to cope with the reduced wait.
“This has been the toughest three months of them all,” Lamb said. “Last year, I didn’t really mind watching the playoffs and the spring just sort of flew by. This year, practice was different. I didn’t have games to judge myself and I wasn’t really playing well in practice. I was the fourth guy on a line with Brad Meredith, Syl Apps and J.P. Acosta, because I was the only extra forward.”
His teammates, however, have attempted to repay Lamb’s enthusiastic support with their own efforts to pick up his spirits. Players ticked off the games one-by-one, culminating with a round of heartfelt congratulations after the conclusion of game number nine, against Yale.
“It will be nice for (Kirk) to finally get a chance to contribute,” said Apps, one of the team’s co-captains. “We have all been aware that Dec. 20 is when he will be able to play and especially aware of it in the last couple of games. Now he is set to go.”
Apps, the consummate competitor, marvels at the determination evidenced by Lamb in the last year and a half.
“I can only imagine what it was like for him,” the senior said. “You go through all those highs and lows. When you play hockey, you do it for the games. It has to be tough when you can’t even play.”
So what will the Tigers see from their newest forward? At worst, Lamb adds to the Tigers’ enviable depth at forward. The coaches are otherwise cautious, understandably not wanting to put any undue pressure on Lamb to perform.
“We hope that Kirk will step in the lineup and have a positive effect,” Cahoon said. “But there will be an adjustment period for him. It is doubtful that he will turn things upside down for us. Hopefully, he will grow into the player we think he is capable of being.”
Lamb’s skills — soft hands, ample game sense, a scorer’s mentality and strength on the puck — draw comparisons to Bertoli, whose averages better than a point per game. Lamb’s AJHL credentials put him in the same class as Michigan freshman Mike Comrie, Tiger graduate Casson Masters and Providence sniper Fernando Pisani. Lamb probably will not see time on one of the top two lines or on the power play initially, however. He also has to grow accustomed to the pace of games, which is rarely, if ever, replicated in practice.
“I think Kirk will be a real good player for us,” Bertoli said. “With the puck, he is unbelievable. He will score his share of goals and he is a great passer. He is similar to me in the respect that he likes to slow the game down and look for a play.”
Not surprisingly, Lamb is elated to contribute in any way that he can. He spent his first few days of eligibility practicing with senior Jason Given and Campbell. Suddenly hockey was fun again, and Cahoon observed that the Alberta native produced his best effort yet.
“I’d like to add offense to the team, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” said a pragmatic Lamb. “I think I can handle myself in our zone. Whatever coach thinks I should work on, I’ll do it.”
If nothing else, Lamb has learned through observation as the Tigers matched a school record for wins last year and raced out to a 7-1-1 start this season.
“You can never take a night off in this league,” Lamb observed. “You might not win every game, but you can’t have a failure to work hard be the reason. The minute you lose that effort, 7-1-1 turns into 7-10-1 pretty fast. Look at Halpern and Apps — they never take a night or a shift off. The same is true of (Yopyk).”
Lamb finally controls his own destiny. Whether he gets into the lineup is Cahoon’s call, but the 5-10, 190-pound forward knows that his effort in practice has meaning once again. He looks forward to a new perspective on the locker-room scene.
“The guys and coaches were great about it all along,” Lamb said. “They were all so understanding. There were times when I would come to the rink and I’d be moping, depressed. They never got on me for that. It made it a lot easier to get through.
“I can’t wait to win and know that I played a part and lose and know that it was in part my fault. I know it sounds strange to say that you look forward to losing, but that is what makes athletes tick — that feeling of responsibility that comes with being part of a team.”
Win or lose, on the scoresheet or merely an inconspicuous member of the lineup, you know what reaction to anticipate once Lamb steps off the ice at the end of his first few games. There will be plenty of back-slapping and good will flowing in the locker room.
Only this time Kirk Lamb will be on the receiving end.