Four hours before the game, the tailgaters had already moved into position. Burgers, dogs and sausages sizzled on the grills, sending off aromas that kicked the salivary glands into overdrive.
Indian summer had relegated the dark green logo sweatshirts to the back seat; for now, T-shirts with University of Vermont printed in green letters across the front were in vogue. With the surrounding countryside a pastoral sea of yellow, orange, red and every hue in between — it was peak foliage season — the dominant color in the parking lot outside Gutterson Fieldhouse was unquestionably green. Not just any green: UVM — as in Universitas Viridis Montis, Latin for University of the Green Mountains — green.
Hockey was back at the University of Vermont and it was none too soon.
Nine months earlier, the school had cancelled the remainder of its 1999-2000 season as a hazing scandal mushroomed out of control. Talk of power-play percentages, impact freshmen and storied rivalries turned to topics of a cruder and more embarrassing variety: the “elephant walk,” in which the freshmen walked naked while holding on to one another’s genitals; the similarly unclothed “olive run,” involving carrying olives between their buttocks; unfulfilled threats of having to have sex with sheep; freshmen doing pushups while dipping their genitals into beer and then drinking it. The sordid list went on and on.
Media outlets that wouldn’t have known the ECAC from the CCHA, nor coach Mike Gilligan from Gilligan and the Skipper, descended on Burlington, Vermont, suddenly interested in college hockey.
The story went from the frying pan into the fire when the Office of the Attorney General investigated and it became apparent that the players had lied during the school’s initial inquiry. On January 14, University of Vermont President Judith Ramaley cancelled the remainder of the season because of the cover-up.
For the team’s legion of hardcore fans, it was the final indignity and the toughest one to swallow. An entire semester of games had been stolen away from them. They would have to go 280 days from the final contest of the bitter 1999-2000 season — a 4-4 tie with Rensselaer on Jan. 8 — until the rebirth of Catamount hockey on this summer-like October day.
“It was like withdrawal,” said Dale McCuin, standing outside Gutterson Fieldhouse with her husband, Gordie, and another UVM veteran, Kevin Holmes. “It was bad.”
The trio typified Catamount fandom at its most ardent. The McCuins had been attending Vermont games for 24 years.
“I worked 12-hour shifts at night at IBM and I’d take half a night [off] and come and stand in line at three in the morning for tickets,” said Dale. “And you know what? There were people at three o’clock in the morning already ahead of me.”
Holmes, who could boast that he’d “been here since they had the wire mesh [around the rink] and played in Division II,” described a typical tag-team approach to waiting in line for tickets.
“People would do it in two- and three-hour shifts,” he said. “They’d stand out in the cold and then one of their buddies would come and take their spot while they’d go and get coffee and eats.”
Now, as season-ticket holders, the trio’s days of waiting in line at three in the morning were over. Even so, they gathered outside Gutterson two hours before game time to wait in anticipation and talk about UVM hockey.
“A bunch of years ago we came to opening night and there were two kids, number 10 and number 8,” said Gordie McCuin. “They were skating around the ice and I said, ‘Dale, watch those two kids there. They’re some good hockey players.'”
Of course, number 10 and number 8 were the incomparable Eric Perrin and Martin St. Louis, who played for Vermont from 1993-97. Called by some The French Connection — because they were from Quebec — and by others The Elves — because they were small, wore green and performed magic — St. Louis and Perrin not only set every Vermont scoring record, but may well have gone into the history books as the top twosome ever to play college hockey.
“I’m proud of my call that night,” said Gordie with a big grin on his face. He glanced at his wife. “And I never let her forget it.”
“He doesn’t!” said Dale, laughing. “I can’t believe he waited [six minutes] to mention it.”
Talk turned to Johnny. No last name was necessary. Johnny has become a much more prolific NHL scorer than he was at UVM; explanations were swapped. Comparisons of Johnny to Eric Lindros — favorable almost to the point of good vs. evil — were made.
Johnny. Use of a last name would be redundant. Even a freshman from out of state should know that Johnny is John LeClair (1987-91). There are, after all, prominently displayed photographs of him holding the Stanley Cup outside of Gutterson Fieldhouse.
“John is a Vermonter,” said Gordie. “He plays every night. He’s got the work ethic and he’s an exceptional hockey player.”
Not all of the Catamount fans outside Gutterson could reminisce like the McCuins and Holmes about the LeClair years or even those of the Elves. More than a few freshmen stood in line to get the last remaining tickets that would go on sale an hour before game time, hoping to see their first UVM contest.
But almost every fan shared the veteran trio’s opinion that the cancellation of the season last year was extreme. Too extreme.
“I think they should have booted the people involved and kept the season going with walk-ons if they had to,” said John Gadhue, awaiting his sixth Gutterson season opener.
“There’s not a lot to do up here in the winter if you don’t ski,” explained Gadhue’s friend, Kevin Moss. After a pause, he added with a laugh, “There’s not a lot to do up here in the winter even if you do ski.
“This has always been the place to go on Friday and Saturday nights.”
Holding a distinctly minority opinion was Jason Allen, a local who had also been to five or so season openers.
“They deserved to have that year taken away from them for what they did,” he said. “It was an embarrassment.”
There was no dissension outside the fieldhouse, however, on whether the penalty had been paid in full or not.
“The guys screwed up and they paid the price,” said Holmes. “It was tough on everybody. It was tough on the kids. It was tough on the fans. It was tough on the whole university. It brought a lot of bad attention to us.
“But it’s all done. They all felt bad about it. We all felt bad about it. It’s over. It’s all done with. They paid their price and now we’re going to have a good season. We’re going to do some hockey.
“We still love UVM hockey. We loved UVM hockey last year. We love the kids.
“Oh, I couldn’t wait for tonight. I can’t wait.”
“They learned some lessons,” said Dale McCuin. “We’re here to support them.”
“It’s another year,” added Gordie McCuin softly, a smile on his face. “We’re back.”
Halfway across the parking lot from the McCuins and Holmes, Gadhue perhaps said it best.
“UVM hockey is the whole community,” he said. “Starting tonight, the community is going to fall in love with these guys all over again. It’s all forgotten. I think everybody is just going to go nuts.”
And go nuts they did. When the Catamounts took the ice, the standing ovation was loud and heartfelt. Only the entrance of the rival University of New Hampshire Wildcats cut it short.
“If we couldn’t get up for this game, it would be tough to get up for any game,” said assistant captain Mike Torney.
As it turned out, for 50 minutes the Catamounts gave their fans a lot to go nuts over. UVM led 3-1 in the second period and 4-2 with 10 minutes left in the game. Perhaps it was a bad omen, though, when a New Hampshire resident won the Friends of UVM Hockey 50-50 Raffle worth over $900, announced to a chorus of boos.
Unfortunately for the Gutterson faithful, ninth-ranked UNH came back to tie the game in regulation and win it in overtime, 5-4.
“It would have been a great storybook type of night to knock off a team like that,” said Gilligan. “But we’ve got big games ahead.”
“[The fans] were tremendous,” said Torney. “I hope we gave them a good show. Next time we’re going to get a ‘W’ for them.”
After the trials and tribulations of last year, the Gutterson faithful — faithful when acting otherwise could have been forgiven — will have earned it.