From Back Room To Top Dog

What do you call a team that, in the midst of a good year, learns it has lost its number-one goalie for the rest of the season? A team whose senior backup can count his career games played on one hand?

If that team is Holy Cross, you’d call it a contender.

That’s the exact situation that faced the Crusaders halfway through their first season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference; now they stand in second place late in the season, with a shot at the first-ever MAAC regular-season championship, not to mention the league’s inaugural playoff title.

And you can credit a fair share of that success to netminder Scott Simpson. A senior from Rochester, N.Y., Simpson spent his first three seasons as a backup goalie for the Crusaders.

But when the team’s top goaltender, Tom Ormondroyd, was tragically forced to end his career due to post-concussion syndrome, Simpson was called to duty.

“I honestly didn’t believe it when I found out I was getting the start,” said Simpson. “I figured that this may be my last career game, because I really thought that Tommy would be back.”

Simpson went so far to call his parents on the morning of the game and have them drive from Rochester to East Haven, Conn., to see that night’s game against Quinnipiac.

15 games later, Simpson is in the top three goaltenders in the country in goals-against average. He has posted two shutouts, against two of the league’s top teams: Quinnipiac and Connecticut.

But Simpson is still the first person to admit that it has not been an easy career.

A bumpy ride, but still hope

When Scott Simpson arrived at Holy Cross four years ago, he wanted the same thing that any other freshman player wants — the chance to play college hockey and get a good education while doing it.

The education part has come natural for Simpson, a political science major who aspires to law school.

But from his first day at Holy Cross, hockey did not come as easy to Simpson as in past years. His first season he stood as the backup to a solid senior netminder. He played a couple of games here and there, but he’ll tell you he didn’t turn many heads.

“I was allowed to compete for the starting job,” said Simpson, “but I didn’t play well and the decision was easy for them.”

The next season, the Crusaders recruited Ormondroyd, a highly-touted goaltender for the then-Division III program. And from early on, Simpson knew that he wasn’t going to get the call.

“I practiced hard and stayed ready,” Simpson added, “but I knew that I wasn’t going to play. That killed me. I was always used to playing, being the number-one guy, and I just couldn’t see myself not playing.”

But Simpson tried his best to keep a good attitude about him, while at the same time, his lack of playing time was eating everything inside of him. He says he’s thankful that his friends and family were so supportive, putting up with what he calls his “whining.”

But as time wore on, the stress started to get at him on the outside, too.

“It was difficult to approach practice in a positive manner. For me, I couldn’t really see life without hockey, so I just practiced hard and believed I would get a chance to play.

“But in the back of my mind, I really thought I might never play again.”

Comically, Simpson called himself the “fastest doorman in the East” — referring to his ability to open the door on the bench for changing players. That’s where he spent all of his games, and his most serious injury to that point was getting hit in the face by the assistant coach’s clipboard.

But, joking aside, Simpson felt he had to make a serious life decision.

Leaving the family

Halfway through his junior season, Scott Simpson decided that his life was passing by, and he didn’t have time to watch it. Hockey, even though he was not playing in games, was occupying a lot of his time. The time that most college students have to enjoy college, to party, to make friends, to spend time on life — those things just weren’t part of his.

“I always felt like the hockey team was a family,” Simpson said, “but after my junior year, I just didn’t feel like I could take the situation dealt to me.”

And that was when Simpson told head coach Paul Pearl of his decision to leave the team at the end of the season.

“Scotty came to me and told me that he wanted to concentrate on other things,” Pearl mused. “He came in the middle of the season so I could try to recruit another guy to take his place. I really thought that was a mature decision.”

“It was a hard decision to make for me,” said Simpson, “and at the time it seemed like the right one.

“After leaving the team, something continued to eat at me, like I realized that I hadn’t accomplished anything. I was afraid I’d never play hockey again and that this was how I’d remember something that is such an important part of my life.”

Simpson wanted to return to the team, but he figured that he had made a decision, and he would have to live with it.

That was when senior captain Mike Ortwein stepped in.

In November, Ortwein asked Simpson to return, saying it would give him something to do; he’d have fun with the team his senior year.

It didn’t take long for Simpson to decide what he wanted: to return and prove that he could work hard and help his team. And Pearl agreed that Simpson could bring something positive back, regardless of the situation.

“I never considered that Scott had quit, because he made what he thought was the best decision,” said Pearl. “I never thought he had done anything selfish. I was delighted to have him back.”

Back in familiar territory

When Simpson returned to the Crusader locker room, he had one objective: to prove to his teammates and his coaches that he would play hard and compete, no matter what the circumstances.

“I wanted to put forth 100 percent of my effort,” Simpson said. “So I practiced hard every day like I was preparing to play.

“Coach Pearl had always told us that any one of us could have to play. To that point I only half believed him, but that didn’t matter. I wanted to be prepared.”

Simpson also used the inspiration of his father, Richard, to give him the desire to compete.

“My father always told me, ‘Nothing worth having ever comes easy,’ and I understand that now.”

Those are words that lead him out on the ice every night.

Misfortune — and a chance

On Friday evening, Dec. 4, 1998, Holy Cross goalie Tom Ormondroyd, already suffering from post-concussion syndrome, sustained another head injury that he knew would have serious effects.

Simpson and many of his teammates realized Ormondroyd’s problem, but perhaps not the severity.

“Coach had told me to stay ready, that I might have to play Saturday night against Quinnipiac,” Simpson said. “And then when I got my chance, I figured it would be for just that game, and Tommy would be back the next weekend.

“But as the days passed, we all began to realize that Tommy wasn’t going to be okay, and I’d have to step into his shoes.”

It was the chance Simpson had waited for, an opportunity to prove himself, not only to his coaches, but to himself. It was also an opportunity to put closure to what he by then called a bad decision — his decision to leave the team.

Simpson played well in the game against Quinnipiac, losing on a late goal. After the exam break ended, he returned a month later and lost his next contest to Niagara. After four games as Ormondroyd’s replacement, Simpson’s record was an unimpressive 1-2-1.

The turning point

Simpson and the Crusaders headed to New Rochelle, N.Y. for a weekend series with Iona. The Gaels entered the series sporting the top scorer in Division I hockey, rookie sensation Ryan Carter.

“We went in there and just played the worst game ever. We didn’t play well as a team and I let in a couple of soft goals that could have been the difference in the game,” Simpson said. “[At the hotel] I was rooming with one of our backup goaltenders. He looked at me and knew I was upset and started laughing.

“He said to me, ‘Heck, you could be worse off. How do you think I feel having had to sit there and watch that game?’

“He totally made me remember how I used to feel when I was in his shoes, and it made me realize that it wasn’t so bad after all.”

Simpson used that laughter to build his confidence as if a house, brick by brick. He realized that there was not going to be anything better than what he had now. He was in a position to control his team’s destiny.

That turned him around.

The next night he made 28 saves, 23 in the final two periods of the game, and the Crusaders went on to a 7-3 win.

“The win at Iona put things in perspective and gave me a lot of focus. I’m thankful to that weekend for saving me.”

Success and the road ahead

On Feb. 12, Simpson posted his first career shutout, a 1-0 win over UConn. The next night, he played a game that he feels could define his college career.

“Saturday night was the best game I’ve played,” said Simpson. “I had everyone behind me — my coaches, my teammates and especially the fans.

“By the middle of the game, the crowd was chanting my name. I was getting chills thinking about everything.”

Simpson went on to win the game, 3-2, and finished with 32 saves. He says that game was a chance to give back to his team all they had given him.

“I believed in these guys and knew they could do it. And this game I wanted to prove to them that they could believe in me.”

Simpson’s success has continued. The next weekend, after losing a close 4-2 decision to league-leading Quinnipiac, Simpson pitched another shutout, his second in as many weeks.

His success is not going unnoticed. The league voted Simpson the MAAC Goalie of the Week for the weeks of February 5-6 and February 12-13, making the former backup the first player in the league’s short history to win the award on consecutive weeks.

Simpson also noted that he has learned a lot in his time between the pipes.

“I’ve gained a lot more confidence, in my play and in myself. I also have learned a new respect for how hard the position is to [play], night in and night out.”

Scott Simpson realizes his mistakes, and is happy to have been given the opportunity to correct them. He also knows that his story can give other players hope.

“The locker rooms here at Holy Cross are separated, and in the back room they put all of the guys who don’t get a chance to play a lot, as well as the goaltenders.

“I know that I’m always going to be a back-room guy. So I’m playing this season for all of the back-room guys out there, hoping that they will some day get the chance that I’m lucky enough to have.”

That’s a chance that Simpson will never forget.