It’s a long time since St. Lawrence reached the 1988 NCAA final, and seems just as long since its last ECAC tournament title, in 1992.
From 1986-1992, St. Lawrence won 20 games or more every season except 1989-90, including back-to-back 29-win seasons. In that span, St. Lawrence won three ECAC Tournaments and was runner-up in two more.
But the Saints started to decline in 1992-93, finishing sixth, tenth and ninth in succeeding seasons before a third-place finish last year, as shown below. This year, St. Lawrence is struggling to make the playoffs:
PL YEAR G W-L-T PTS GF-GA || G W-L-T GF-GA
3 1986-87 22 15- 7-0 30 109- 73 || 35 24-11-0 180-114
T1 1987-88 22 18- 4-0 36 124- 70 || 38 29- 9-0 200-112
2 1988-89 22 18- 4-0 36 99- 56 || 36 29- 7-0 169-96
5 1989-90 22 12- 8-2 26 87- 74 || 32 13-15-4 113-123
T2 1990-91 22 15- 6-1 31 101- 79 || 35 21-13-1 147-121
T2 1991-92 22 15- 6-1 31 104- 66 || 34 22-10-2 160-111
6 1992-93 22 12- 8-2 26 89- 77 || 32 17-12-3 133-116
10 1993-94 22 8-14-0 16 75- 95 || 31 10-21-0 99-134
T9 1994-95 22 10-12-0 20 83-110 || 33 15-17-1 116-150
3 1995-96 22 15- 4-3 33 107- 74 || 35 20-12-3 145-134
Perhaps it can be chalked up to normal cycles, but St. Lawrence, a Division III institution using its one-sport exemption to play Division I men’s ice hockey, has found it more and more difficult to keep up with ECAC counterparts that award scholarships, like RPI, Vermont and North Country neighbor Clarkson.
“The parity now is unbelievable,” said St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh, whose arrival at St. Lawrence in 1985-86 marked the transformation of the Saints into a national power.
“If people go back to 10 years ago and all of a sudden step into the present, they’d be like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ The days of Dartmouth, Brown and Princeton being automatics are long gone, and I don’t see them coming back. I think all these teams are good, solid, quality programs.”
To stay competitive, last year the school administration authorized the allotment of 18 scholarships per year for the program. Now, with the first recruiting season as a scholarship school under his belt, Marsh says things went well.
“I think the kids we have are some really good kids,” said Marsh. “They’re young — we’ll be a fairly young team — but I think it’s going well.”
Marsh said he has seen immediate benefits from the ability to award scholarships.
“It’s certainly made us more competitive,” said Marsh. “And we’ve lost some pretty good kids too. We’ve gone after some really good kids academically. We lost some to the Ivies, lost some to BU, and that type of thing. But that’s going to happen, you’re still going to lose players to other schools.
“But I think in the overall mix, we’ve been dealing with some pretty good solid kids.
“I think it’s pretty important with a school like St. Lawrence, where we are (geographically), being a non-Ivy, and so forth, to be able to be as competitive as we can. You look at Vermont, RPI, Clarkson, it’s hurt us.”
But, as Marsh is quick to point out, there are new challenges upon the program now. For example, the administration will be keeping an even closer eye on the type of player that’s recruited. If the school is dedicating $20,000 a year to a player, it wants a top-notch individual.
“I think the trustees and the higher-ups have to look at this, and I know they’re going to look at this through a microscope,” Marsh said. “How we deal with these grants, and more importantly, how we protect the integrity of the grant. I want to bring in the best kids I can.
“(The administration is) going to want to know how I spend it. We can’t bring in a guy that’s a (problem). So what if he gets 75 goals in juniors, if he’s gonna be a pain in the ass downtown, we’re going to hurt our own cause.”
Along with the responsibility to bring in a quality person, Marsh said it’s also the responsibility of the player to live up to his end of the bargain. Marsh says that fact is too often lost these days.
“I want to protect the integrity of the scholarship in every aspect of the scholarship,” said Marsh. “Kids come in today — and every program will tell you — and everyone is well aware of what their rights and privileges are. What we’re trying to say is, ‘You do have some responsibilities that go along with this.'”
Responsibility isn’t exactly a new concept to Marsh, the 1989 and 1996 ECAC Coach of the Year. Marsh is accustomed to ensuring discipline on his team. He’s a stickler for it, and comes down harshly on players who make “mistakes.”
Last year the school suspended Joel Prpic for getting into a fight in March in downtown Canton, the result of which left forward Derek Ladouceur unable to play for a weekend. This year it was sophomore goalie Clint Owen who was suspended for the first month and a half of the season for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, and the team suffered without its 1996 All-Rookie Team member.
“We’re not in the classroom, but we are still in the business of education,” Marsh said. “Obviously, you have to win or you won’t be in education any more, so it’s a double-edged sword, but at the same time, I’m not about to treat my guys like a piece of meat.”
Owen responded well and came back to help St. Lawrence pick up the pace a bit, though an injury to him and others — like Jason Windle, Prpic and Troy Creurer — set him and the team back again. Regardless, Marsh thinks the point was made.
“It’s obviously more than your average (situation),” Marsh said. “It was a pretty stiff suspension. (But Owen) is a good kid, and maybe it’s something that down the road is going to help him. He’s come back, he’s worked hard, he’s humble.
“You can see how things are when things are going tough for a kid. A lot of kids could have blamed somebody else, a lot of kids could’ve gone sour, got real sullen either toward me because I’m the resident (jerk), or whatever. He didn’t do that. To his credit he took it like a man and dealt with it. He did the things we asked him to do, met the conditions, and that was that.”
In fact, Marsh is more upset these days with the local upstate New York media for not just forgetting the incident already.
“The reporters here won’t let it go,” said Marsh. “Every time they mention his name, they bring it up. It’s become part of his name, like some sort of Indian moniker.”
Without giving away the nature of the transgression, Marsh said he never tried to hide the fact that it was a severe incident worthy of a long punishment. “Owen got suspended and we dealt with it honestly,” he said. “I’m not going to run around and lie to people. He’s got to deal with it like a man, but it’s over.”
What’s not over is the season, and St. Lawrence still believes it can make a run. The talent should be there. But players like Paul DiFrancesco and Derek Ladouceur seemed to take a while to get over the loss of go-to-guy Burke Murphy.
“I don’t think it was a conscious thing without Burke,” Marsh said. “But, sure, losing a player of that ability affects you where over the long period of time you just got to work that much harder for goals. I mean Burke might have been the best shooting-percentage forward I ever saw. He was very selective and really buried his chances.
“We have guys working hard. We’re in the 40-shot range a lot. We’re not a bad team offensively, our special teams is OK.
“What we’ve been guilty of is momentum swings. If a team scores against us … we give up goals in bunches.”
Even if things don’t materialize this year, and the breaks never start going the Saints’ way, and the injuries never stop happening, Marsh can look down his roster and know the tools are there for the makings of another long run at the top of the standings.
And thanks to the ability to offer scholarships, Marsh’s toolbox has gotten that much bigger.