Bright Lights, Big Dance

The first two seasons of Jeff Gould’s career at Mercyhurst could be classified as a nightmare.

Injuries relegated the Lakers’ senior assistant captain to nothing more than a spectator for the majority of each season. In fact, Gould played a combined 21 games in the two campaigns.

Last season, the Sarnia, Ont., product finally emerged at full strength after back-to-back injury-plagued years. As a junior, he played in all 36 games and recorded 24 points for the Lakers during their first year as a Division I program.

With one last chance to make an impact for Mercyhurst, Gould entered his final campaign in western Pennsylvania determined to make his remaining days count. Sure enough, the senior broke through with an outstanding regular season, as he scored 32 points for Mercyhurst.

“When I first came in, I was obviously excited to start playing,” Gould said. “But the second game of my career, I’ll never forget it. I separated my shoulder, and that got the ball rolling the wrong way. [Prior to his sophomore season] I got in great shape, and then I broke my wrist and it started all over again. Then I played six or seven games and I tore up my knee.”

Saturday’s MAAC tournament final represented the most pivotal point in Gould’s career. A win over Quinnipiac would allow the Lakers center to move on to the NCAA tournament. A loss would send the senior out with the bitter memory of coming up just short for a shot to play on the nation’s biggest stage.

Two nights after igniting Mercyhurst into the finals with a two-goal effort against Canisius College, Gould delivered once again in the conference final. With a goal and an assist against the Lakers 6-5 win over the Braves, he earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors.

Finally, after a long four years that was filled with many ups and downs, Gould obtained some sweet redemption both from the team and individual standpoints.

“All year, he’s been our MVP,” Mercyhurst hockey coach Rick Gotkin said. “And by saying that, I don’t want to take anything away from Eric Ellis, Louis Goulet or Peter Aubry. Jeff doesn’t have the flash or dash of some of the other guys, but he’s been Rick Gotkin’s go-to-guy on and off of the ice all year.

“He’s quietly done a tremendous job for us,” added Gotkin. “I’m happy for all of our players, but especially for him because he had some injuries early on. He’s an absolutely tremendous person, and he’s been rewarded rightfully so.”

Said Gould: “I had to battle through, but the last two years I played every game. If I could turn back time and play every game, that would be awesome. But I have no regrets. This feels great right now.”

Everything that transpired over the course of the weekend still seems difficult for Gould and the Lakers to imagine. When he arrived as a freshman, Mercyhurst was a Division II program in jeopardy of dropping down to Division III because of a numbers crunch.

Now, three years later, the Lakers are heading to the pinnacle of college hockey. Sure, they will probably draw a national name in the first round — likely Minnesota or Michigan — and probably will be forced to travel to the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich. But right now, the opponent or the location comes second to the fact that the Erie, Penn., school is set to clash with the elite next weekend.

“When we entered at the Division I level, we knew that we were going to have to play big schools,” Gould said. “When we go into these games against established programs, we have to play with a little fear, but we can’t be intimidated at the same time. You have to stick to your game plan and not worry more about what the other team is doing.”

“Whether we face Michigan, Minnesota, St. Cloud or whoever, we can’t get caught up in the awe of the other team,” he added. “We have to respect them because they are a great team, but we have to play Mercyhurst hockey.”

Win or lose next weekend, the Lakers certainly owe their assistant captain a debt of gratitude. After all, Gould spearheaded the potent Mercyhurst offensive attack and displayed the veteran leadership that was to be expected out of the senior.

But in the big picture, Gould’s contribution to the program goes far behind goals and assists. His perseverance and toughness provide the perfect example how hard work and dedication can pay off in the long run. As a pioneer during the Lakers’ jump to the Division I level, Gould will always be able to hang his hat on the fact that he played a major role in that transition.

“Anything that I’ve done to help the program, that’s great,” he said. “If I’ve helped to raise the bar for the incoming freshmen, then I feel that I’ve done the job. Now, with the MAAC and the autobid, the league has gotten extremely tougher and there’s a lot more parity. That’s increased the level at Mercyhurst, and now the incoming freshmen for next year are going to have to match the class that is going to be leaving.”

Added Gotkin: “I was thinking back to the days when we were in Division III, and then the two Division II championship games, and now to be going [to the NCAA tournament in] Division I. Obviously, it’s pretty neat. It’s going to be tough against a Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State or Boston College, but I wanted to have practice on Monday. We’ve had a great season.”