LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Dartmouth came into this season with high expectations, with prognisticators thinking ECAC championships and NCAA berths.
The season never quite worked out that way. Despite some nice highlights, the Big Green finished fourth in the league, and finally saw the season end Thursday in the ECAC tournament play-in game.
Nevertheless, with head coach Bob Gaudet’s first recruiting class having played their last game, it was time for some deeper reflection afterward. With that, a better appreciation of just how far the program has come begins to emerge.
Gaudet got emotional at the post-game press conference Thursday, talking about the character of his seniors, and the bond he had with them.
Gaudet returned to him alma mater before the 1996-97 season, after helping Brown’s program rise from the ashes to become a league contender and even an NCAA participant. The expectation became Gaudet would do the same for the Big Green, a program that had fallen on hard times.
Perhaps that hasn’t quite happened yet, but it’s still apparent the program is lights years ahead of where it was.
One of the first things Gaudet did was change the atmosphere on the team. He stressed a community awareness, and brought in players willing to latch onto that. Winning games certainly helped bring more fans out, but it was the new atmosphere that had as much to do with it. The season-ticket holder base at Thompson Arena improved from 300 to 1200, and one of the league’s undiscovered jewels of a building became a hopping place to be.
“[Forward Dan] Casella is up for the [NCAA] Hockey Humanitarian Award, and it’s very deserving,” said Gaudet. “And his classmates are the same way. They do a lot of charity work, working with youth hockey.
“They just ran with it. We let them know it was important. Too many people only see athletes with negativity.”
The group that led the way will be gone next year, seven seniors that leave the program not quite fulfilling their promise, but leaving the program in better shape for them having been there. They are all forwards: top-scorer Mike Maturo, Jamie Herrington, Chris Baldwin, Chris Taliercio, Frank Nardella, Gary Hunter and Casella.
“We had a great group of guys that meant so much to me,” Gaudet said. “I can’t say enough about them. They are so modest, but they did a helluva good job on a day-to-day basis. … It’s a long year, and they kept everyone motivated.”
Gaudet knows the team may have to take a step back next year before it can go forward again, but is not necessarily conceding that point.
“I don’t know what our situation will be,” said Gaudet. “We won’t have seven seniors. We’ll be a lot younger. I hope we can turn it back on quickly.
“Our goal is to win it, but we want to be realistic. I don’t want to give our kids unfair expectations. … It remains to be seen. I’m proud of our guys to get to this point.”
Gaudet will lean more heavily on a defense that will have three seniors in Trevor Byrne, Pete Summerfelt and P.J. Martin. But a big question is whether Byrne will be back. The junior is sure to get an enticing offer from the St. Louis Blues to leave school a year early.
“It depends on St. Louis,” said Gaudet. “He’s this close to graduating, he may not want to give that up.”
One of the biggest on-ice differences for Dartmouth since Gaudet arrived has been the play of the goalies. Gaudet was a former netminder himself, and shoring up that spot, one that was a major sore spot for the Big Green in the past, was essential.
With Nick Boucher, Darren Gastrock and Dan Yacey all capable of being good goalies, the Big Green will need to rely even more on that spot next year considering all the offense that graduates.
“We have all three goalies back and we should be solid up front,” Gaudet said. “We need to be stronger physically. We’ll have a different style.”
Different style on the ice, but certainly not a different approach. Gaudet’s approach has put Dartmouth back on the college hockey map, and that is quite an accomplishment in and of itself.