No Dumb Jocks

The dumb jock. Chiseled physique meets bovine stupidity. Few stereotypes appear more consistently in our culture.

Four Hockey East players — Maine’s Dan Shermerhorn, UMass-Lowell’s Craig Lindsay, and Merrimack’s Rob Beck and Tom Johnson — are the league’s prime examples that athletes need not be morons and top students don’t all wear pocket protectors.

Those four seniors are eligible for Hockey East’s Distinguished Scholar Award, given annually to student-athletes who earn at least a 3.0 grade point average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale during all semesters in which they play hockey. Last year only Northeastern’s Tomas Persson qualified.

As collegiate athletes, these four face special challenges. Road trips often devour big chunks of time. Workouts and on-ice practices, not to mention the games themselves, typically consume five hours a day. As if the time commitment were not a big enough handicap, the daily rigors of athletic life leave a player physically exhausted and mentally drained just as the available studying hours begin.

These four, all Canadians, have also adjusted to these pressures far from home. When the going gets tough, family support isn’t just a few hours away. Fighting through such difficulties and consistently achieving academic success requires extraordinary dedication.

Dan Shermerhorn: “He’s going to be a success in life no matter what happens to him in hockey.”

Shermerhorn, a preseason All-Hockey East selection, has achieved the greatest on-ice success of the four. Even while struggling with injuries early this year, he warranted praise from Maine interim coach Greg Cronin.

“This may sound ridiculous,” says Cronin, “but a lot of kids who are bright in the classroom don’t play very smart. It’s a surprising fact. But Dan Shermerhorn isn’t like that. He’s like having another coach out there.”

Shermerhorn’s collegiate career overlapped another Black Bear who combined brains on and off the ice. “I had the honor of showing up when Paul Kariya was still around,” says Shermerhorn. “He’s the epitome of a student-athlete. He was only here for my first semester, but I saw him commit almost all of his time to his books. He got his semester done by Dec. 10, when he went to the national team. The rest of us were still struggling through studies right until the 20th and 21st. He picked up a 3.5 GPA or something like that, so it proved to me that it could be done if you just commit your time. ”

Adds Shermerhorn with a laugh, “I don’t think his on-ice activities struggled much.”

Although Kariya’s on-ice exploits may never be duplicated, Shermerhorn has continued Kariya’s legacy.

“He’s a fantastic young man,” says Maine Athletic Director Suzanne Tyler. “I couldn’t be prouder of a player and what he has done in terms of putting his whole college career in perspective. He’s a great player and he’s a great human being. He’s exemplary in terms of his work ethic and his commitment to his teammates and school. I just can’t say enough about my respect for him.”

Shermerhorn, a business administration major, credits much of his academic success to his mother. When he was a youngster in Calgary, Alberta, there were times when he wouldn’t do well in school and she’d make him miss sports. Years later, after an acceptable freshman year that still fell short of his capabilities, she told him, “You can slack through elementary, you can slack through junior high, but this is going to affect every business that looks at you and your GPA in the future. Just bear down.”

“She made it seem like an honor to be an athlete,” says Shermerhorn. “Your social life sometimes suffers because of it, but you’ve just got to make priorities.

“It’s not always fun. You certainly have your days when you need a cup of coffee to keep yourself awake when you’re reading. But it’s all part of how much you want to commit. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not like we don’t ask for it. We don’t have to be athletes.”

As an 18-year-old, Shermerhorn had questioned whether he would make it athletically. Two years earlier, he had promised his mother that he’d get a hockey scholarship, but found no takers even after scoring 60 points, good for 17th place among scorers in the defense-oriented Alberta Junior Hockey League.

“That year was the low point in my career,” he says. “It was probably the only time in my life where I wasn’t sure if I enjoyed playing the game. The year before I’d talked to six U.S. schools. Then I had twice as good a year as I did the year before — that’s from a personal aspect — and figured I should get some offers and at least be talking to some schools. I was really disappointed. I wasn’t sure what life had in store for me.”

Ironically, Cronin, who was then a recruiter for another school, suggested that Shermerhorn switch to a more offense-minded league. He took the advice, led the British Columbia Junior Hockey League with 130 points in 60 games, and soon was headed for Maine.

With 126 points in 144 career games, Shermerhorn hopes that his collegiate success translates into hockey beyond college. That could be complicated by Maine’s ban from postseason play where pro scouts make most of their evaluations.

“We might not have a postseason, but we still have 34 games, and that gives you 34 games to show your stuff. Hopefully in those 34 games I can impress somebody enough to create some interest beyond college hockey.

“I’m certainly interested in that. If you commit 20 years of your life to something, it would be nice to have it as your job. It’s always been for fun and for leisure. Certainly to make some money doing it would be a bonus.”

If not, according to coach Shawn Walsh, Shermerhorn’s future still looks bright. “He’s not only a tremendously consistent student, he’s a sound person. He’s going to be a success in life no matter what happens to him in hockey.”

Tom Johnson: “Tom has shown the character and integrity to get what he wants out of his college years.”

“I had a choice to play major junior in Canada, or to receive a scholarship and get my education paid for and play hockey at the same time,” says Tom Johnson, a native of Burlington, Ontario. “Major junior is the pathway to the NHL, but college hockey is more like an island in between.

“I had a number of friends that I played with who went the major junior route and are in the pros right now. There are about 10 of them, guys like Tom MacDonald (Quebec, IHL) and Eric Cairns (New York Rangers). They actually tell me they wish they’d gone to school and gotten an education because it definitely helps down the road. Some of the guys are worried because they’re playing in the minors and they’re not sure how long it’s going to last. They’re going to make a lot of connections playing hockey, but it’s never as good as getting an education.”

In some respects, Johnson was almost predestined to choose college hockey. His father, a school principal, established clear priorities. Working out and practices were important, but academics came first.

When he arrived at Merrimack, he became an academic influence on a team that already had players like Mark Cornforth, who excelled on and off the ice. Last year the school shattered Hockey East records with a stunning 13 players on the Honor Roll, their fourth straight league-leading year.

“It wasn’t just me,” says Johnson. “It’s been Rob [Beck] and other guys who have influenced players to achieve not only on the ice but off the ice.”

“Here at Merrimack, we look at college first and athletics second,” said coach Ron Anderson. “We want our players to realize their potential in both areas. In Tom’s case he’s demonstrated a commitment to academics and hockey. He comes from an academic background and school is very important to him. Some people may take for granted that kids are doing well, assuming that it’s easy. But it takes both ability and focus. Tom has shown the character and integrity to get what he wants out of his college years. I have to applaud him for his efforts in academics.”

In addition to his normal course load, Johnson, an accounting major, also interns at a local CPA firm. The combination has resulted in his toughest year. “It seems like I don’t have a minute to think,” he says.

“Tommy’s very dedicated,” says teammate and fellow Distinguished Scholar candidate Beck. “Thorough is the best word for him. Not just in school, not just in hockey, but everything. He’s precise. He also brings some leadership to our team. He’s a solid, strong player. He’s a good example for someone who understands that everything has to be done, not just parts of your game.”

After a freshman season in which he scored 11 goals and added 14 assists, Johnson’s point totals the last two years dropped off to 5-14–19 and 6-11–17. He already has six goals and seven assists this year, however, so he may yet rebound to his freshman numbers.

“I’d love for the team to make it to the Fleet Center,” he says. “I think we deserve it more than anyone. I know our record doesn’t show it, but we’re probably one of the hardest working teams in the league. I’d like to make it to the Fleet Center and show everyone else what we’re made of.”

Johnson hopes to continue playing hockey after his collegiate career ends. “I’d obviously like to play somewhere if I could, in Europe if I can get a tryout. I’d definitely like to do that first. But if the hockey doesn’t come through, then I’ll be looking at an accounting career around here.”

Rob Beck: “He led the team in GPA and scoring.”

“In high school I wasn’t a very good student,” says Beck. “Early in my life, hockey was the most important thing. I didn’t realize what my academics could do for me until I got my scholarship and got here. This school really stresses academics. The coaching staff and guys like Quentin Fendelet, Mark Goble, Wayde McMillan and Mark Cornforth were always talking about grades and how important they are for life after hockey.

“I’m here for two things, not one. For school and hockey. And that’s what’s important. Hockey might not always be there so you have to do both.”

Like his teammate and friend Johnson, Beck, a business major, has added an internship to the already breakneck pace of a student-athlete. “I’m getting about five hours of sleep right now,” Beck says. “I’m up at six in the morning when I go in for my internship, so I’m getting in there an hour and a half before even the partners because I have to get a certain number of hours in and I just don’t have the time. But you just have to bear down and realize how important it is.”

After an initial adjustment period, Beck switched his internship to Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays so that he’d be better rested for weekend games. “I try to leave Friday and Saturday for hockey so I can focus around that,” he says. He also tries to avoid bringing books on road trips, having found that mixing the two takes an edge off his game.

A team captain last year, he “led the team in GPA and scoring,” as Anderson put it. According to Johnson, Beck earned the captaincy. He was a natural leader with a strong competitive drive. The players respected his combination of excellence on and off the ice. As captain, however, Beck struggled to deal with the team’s disappointing record.

“Second place stinks,” he gives as his general outlook. “It was hard to swallow when we finished last in our league last year. It was awful. Those feelings just make me sick. That’s what drives me.”

Beck likens himself to Steve Yzerman, who spent most of his career as a top player on weak Detroit Red Wing teams. “He’s on some good teams now, but he’s always been there for that team. I want to finish [strong] like that and leave a solid base for the guys to work with next year.”

What next year holds for Beck remains uncertain.

“My ideal situation would be to play for the Manitoba Moose,” he says. The Moose are a new IHL team in his home province that already has some former NCAA players. If that doesn’t work out, he has already been offered jobs. “Right now I’m keeping it open. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Even if I accept a job, I still want to focus on my studies and the team here.”

Craig Lindsay: “He’s the kind of person we want in our program.”

“Craig Lindsay is what our program is all about,” says UMass-Lowell coach Tim Whitehead. “He’s done the job for us in goal, he works really hard, he’s an excellent student and he’s a terrific human being. He’s the kind of person we want in our program.”

Some fans might be surprised at Whitehead’s praise. Brought in as the heir apparent to Dwayne Roloson, Lindsay’s hockey career hasn’t blossomed the way he and his coaches might have hoped. After a year as Roloson’s understudy, he competed with freshmen Marty Fillion and Scott Fankhouser the following year for the Lowell job, a position that none of them won. With a three-goalie rotation, no one had the chance to either get hot or work themselves out of a slump.

When Fankhouser went to the juniors last year, Lindsay had the opportunity to establish himself as Lowell’s number one, but instead it was Fillion who emerged as a top goaltender. This year Hockey East named Fillion to its preseason All-league team. Lindsay has been left to battle with Fankhouser, since returned from the juniors, for the backup role.

“It’s not exactly the way I thought it would turn out when I came here as a freshman,” says Lindsay. “At the same time, Marty’s a good goalie and Fankhouser’s good too. I guess if you asked me four years ago, I wouldn’t think I’d be watching a game instead of dressing and starting it. It’s frustrating and at times it’s a little embarrassing to be the backup goalie and not to play.”

His former coach, Bruce Crowder, like Whitehead, has a lot to praise for the backup. “It’s a credit to him that he not only has been so successful academically, but that he’s been able to maintain that while other things in his life weren’t going as well as he’d hoped. He’s just a tremendous person.”

Lindsay didn’t always appreciate the importance of academics. As a youngster, hockey always came first. If there was homework to be done and a practice or a game beckoned, he headed for the rink. The homework would still get done, but at the expense of a few hours sleep rather than hockey.

“I remember when I was about 12 years old, [Randy Gregg] played for the Oilers and he was a doctor,” Lindsay says. “They were saying on TV that he was the only doctor in the NHL. At that time it just didn’t mean a thing to me. But now I realize how almost impossible it would be to get a doctorate and play hockey. So now I have a great respect and admiration for him, but back then it was just whether or not he was a good hockey player.”

Lindsay, a native of Mississauga, Ontario, who majors in marketing and minors in English, credits the fifth year in Canadian high school with making his transition to college life easier. “The fifth year is a university prep course where it’s almost university courses, except you’re at home. So when I came here, it was almost the same. I didn’t have to worry about the academics as much as just adjusting to being on my own.”

He tries to make Sunday his big studying day while trying to wrap everything up by Wednesday. That way, he says, “Thursday you can just take it easy and watch the hockey game on TV and rest up for the Friday and Saturday games.” Of course, weekday games and unexpected circumstances sometimes throw that schedule off. Then, he says with a laugh, “The best motivation that I find is last-minute panic.”

He also has gotten a few laughs at the expense of his teammates. Even though he only played 255 minutes last year, he totaled four assists. “I beat two guys in points for the year, so I let them know a few times,” he says laughing. “Hey, I had a three-game scoring streak!”

Lindsay is pragmatic about his future.

“I have to know I’m not going to be making the NHL if I’m not a starting goalie in my senior year,” he says. “So I’ve got to take care of academics. But I’m not really ready to give up hockey and take a day job. The 9-to-5 stuff is still way off in the future. I’m a British citizen, so I’m hoping to go over there and try to play for a few years and just worry about school at nights if possible. I figure I’ll play hockey as long as I’m still getting my education. Then once I’m ready to start my life, I’ll move on.”