This Week in the ECAC Northeast: Jan. 31, 2002

The Name On The Front of The Jersey

Johnson & Wales headed into this season with some high expectations, and for good reason. They had a stellar recruiting class for the second year in a row and the players who laid the foundation of what is now a respectable — and still growing — winning program were upperclassmen and, most importantly, they were producers. They had depth and the ability to score in bunches mixed with solid defense and good young goaltending. And in the beginning everything was going right. JWU stormed out of the gates, winning their first four games and doing so in impressive fashion. Everyone was happy.

But somewhere in the next 10 or so games versus the likes of Bowdoin, Colby, RIT, Utica, Cortland, etc. — all the toughest teams JWU could schedule, something changed. It was a stretch that coach Lou Izzi knew would be difficult but one that he hoped would improve the overall team and bring the guys together, making them a tougher opponent in the long run. A beast began rearing its ugly head, and that beast’s name is selfishness.

“I have no regret about the strength of our schedule. If you want to become one of the top programs, you have to play them to kind of see where you’re at. It will still be very important to us in the long run [to have played those teams],” said Izzi of the tough stretch. “But it really affected guys because they weren’t putting up the stats that they’re used to.”

And that is where the trouble started.

According to the coach, the team concept was beginning to fade away from the Wildcat lockerroom. The troubling aspect for Izzi was that, from his perspective, it was predominantly the older players, the very players who are supposed to embody the team- first mentality, who were the culprits. And he felt that after the St. Thomas game, JWU’s third straight loss to close out the semester, it was time for a change.

“It all came down after the St. Thomas game,” said Izzi, “Freshmen and sophomores began to get more playing time. The roles of some of the older guys were diminished and they didn’t like it. Guys were putting themselves ahead of the team. You can’t have some guys who play for the name on the back instead of the name on the front of their jersey.

“It’s really hard to tolerate guys who are worried about lines, minutes, etc. What happened was that we had an internal issue that became a team disciplinary issue. Chemistry is important. If you have guys playing for themselves you’re not going to get over the hump.”

Izzi would not go into details about the particulars of exactly what it was, whether it was one specific big incident or a number of smaller incidents, that led to his decision. Rumors of a staged walkout by certain members of the team at a team meeting were neither confirmed nor denied. All he would say was that it was “A lot of the stuff people have been hearing is not true. We had an internal issue that became a team disciplinary matter for us.”

In that sense, it is unclear exactly what it was specifically that led to the end result. What is clear is that the coach was concerned about the impact the negative attitude would have on his younger players and thus, the future of the JWU program. The end result was that nine juniors and one senior are no longer on the Johnson & Wales roster, including the team’s now former captains.

“Something had to be done,” said Izzi, “It turned out to be a great decision. The guys we have now have character and passion. We have guys who are all about the team. They are having fun, coming to the rink every night with smiles on their faces in practices and in games. The guys I have right now have proven to me that we’ll be competitive down the stretch. The nucleus is still intact. The team concept is working now.”

That nucleus now includes four players who were asked back on the team after being cut in the preseason. They will compliment what the coach feels is a solid team, despite the losses of some of their better players, statistically.

“To be honest, I’m not sure how far we can go. But I’m not sure how many other teams could have survived the loss of depth like we have. We’re 3-2 since the decision. The issue is behind us now.”

In that 3-2 stretch, the Wildcats have played some very tough customers, including league rival Lebanon Valley and, in what coach Izzi described as “perhaps the biggest win in our program’s history” against Oswego. The coach is pleased with how the team has played in the games thus far and he thinks the future looks bright.

“Some of our better players are getting more ice time now. Guys like Manu Mau’u (16-19–35) and Chris Thunman (11-17–28) are playing more. We’ve still got guys up front who can put the puck in the net. We have two goalies who I have told are two starting goalies, in my mind.” And, though they only have four defensemen who play now, they are, according to the coach “good, capable defensemen who are starting to blossom with the increased ice time.”

“We’re not going to be the same explosive team but we’re going to have to find way to win games differently. [The decision] bonded us, brought us closer together. Hopefully, good things will happen.”

Observations From the Road

Sitting around on Saturday afternoon, a good idea for a column popped into my head. Why not do a Jack Kerouac like version of On The Road — ECAC Northeast style? While I won’t claim to be the hockey version of Kerouac, I thought maybe this could make for some interesting reading material. I hope you like it. …

I hopped in the truck and set out on a mission simply to catch some good games. No press boxes, no pre- and post-game interviews, no deadlines, nothing to cloud the experience. I just wanted to catch some games as a fan of college hockey.

Time-wise and travel wise, my itinerary was narrowed to the Plymouth State at Wentworth game at 2, followed by the Fitchburg State at UMass-Dartmouth game at 4:30 and, if I could squeeze it in, I’d shoot up to Worcester to catch Worcester State host Curry. I didn’t get to the third game due to extenuating circumstances, but here are some observations from the first two.

Wentworth vs. Plymouth

I left the house at 1:24, got some gas and called a friend and was on route 93 by 1:40 for the “short” 20-minute ride to Matthews Arena for the 2 p.m. tilt. It was fairly sunny with some slightly overcast skies and the traffic moved at a brisk pace. Driving down Storrow Drive in Boston I noticed that the river was choppy and the riverwalk was bustling with people, the normal proceedings for a Saturday afternoon in an Indian Summer day in Boston. People were playing ultimate frisbee, touch football, running, biking, rollerblading, the works, and I was happy to be in Boston for the afternoon.

Until I hit Mass Ave. “The James King Death Car Experience” was my radio accompaniment, courtesy of some college-like Cambridge radio station, and it was “apropos,” as some Cambridge people might say. Did you know that Cambridge is a domestic violence free zone? I do. You know why? Because I saw a sign in Cambridge that said so. You see, I had a brain cramp and went the wrong way on Mass Ave. Good times. So I was late to the game and, to make matters worse, I forgot to take into account the abysmal parking situation in Boston on Saturdays. I ended up parking in what is surely the incarnation of hell that is the parking garage next to the old Boston Arena. Good god is that place a nightmare. Anyway, on to hockey.

I walked in the building just before the start of the second period and quickly made my way to the Wentworth offensive end of the arena. The score was already 4-0 and I realized that my pick in last week’s predictions was a safe one.

What really struck me about the game was Wentworth’s seemingly effortless domination. The game crawled at a slow pace and, aside from Larry Forgue, who was spectacular saving 55 of 61 Leopard shots on the afternoon, including some that he clearly shouldn’t have made, Plymouth was overmatched shift for shift and almost man for man. It should be noted however, that Chris Tortorella and Mike Jackson played solid games for Plymouth. No offense to PSC as Wentworth might be the class of the league this year, but this game was not really a contest. Wentworth has four lines that they roll and every kid in the lineup can play and play with a solid mixture of finesse and tenacity.

What I was most impressed with, other than Forgue’s performance (Forgue could play on my team on any day at almost any level), was the performance of Wentworth senior Tim Yakimowsky. In short, Wentworth revolves their entire offensive game plan around the sniper from Walpole, Mass. Their powerplay is designed to get him an off-wing one timer from the left slot, he lines up at the point on offensive draws and even in five on five play the puck just seems to gravitate towards him. Evidence of this was one particular shift in which he unleashed two wicked one time slapshots that hit the post that he followed up with a mucker type shot that was labeled for the top corner. Forgue answered though and Yakimowsky was held scoreless.

With the score 5-0 after two, I decided it might be a good idea to get a head start on getting to New Bedford to take in the UMD/Fitchburg matchup. I left with at the 15 minute mark of the third. Good decision.

UMD vs. Fitchburg

Traffic through the city moved at a snail’s pace, maybe a fast snail, though, which is better than usual. At 4:30, the scheduled start of the game, I was still on 93, a ways from my destination. My frustration was tempered a bit by a pleasant sunset that saw a picturesque purple haze complimented by scattered wispy clouds across the sky. Yeah, sing it Jimmy. Shortly after taking in this view I realized that my less than par scheduling abilities, combined with the fact that Massachusetts, although a small state, becomes immeasurably larger when you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry, would only allow me to see the second half of the game. I hoped it was the best half. I was right.

I love breathing the air down in New Bedford. Something about it.

Anyway, I walked into Hetland Arena, home of the Corsairs of UMass-Dartmouth, about halfway through the second period. I was struck immediately by the giant contrast between Hetland and Matthews. Aesthetically, historically, seating capacity-wise, the old barn has a distinctive leg up on the assembly line MDC rink in New Bedford. The place was fairly crowded, as it should have been, but I was actually a little disappointed that there weren’t more people at the game.

The action on the ice was intense. The pace of the game and the ferocity of the competition was tenfold that of what I witnessed an hour earlier. I was happy to see that. The game was tied 1-1 upon my arrival. UMD’s Matt Beck just missed an open net as I settled into my seat. I knew I was in store for a great battle.

The game was made interesting by the contrast of each team’s playing style. They complimented each other as UMD is a huge team (three guys are 6-foot-4) that plays an up and down, in your face and physical game, always relying on the simple but effective play. Fitchburg was trying to rely a bit more on the skill of their better players, most notably, Jeff Brodeur, Robert Zapf, Sebastien Corbeil and Greg Horan. It worked for Fitchburg in the early going as they controlled the play, possessing the puck deep in UMD’s zone for a good amount of time in the second period.

Robert Zapf made the score 2-1 on a beautiful goal that had him smiling from ear to ear, literally at 19:19 of the second. Things were looking good for FSC.

The third period saw a dramatic shift in momentum. UMD’s bruising style seemed to wear on the undersized (comparatively speaking) Fitchburg team. Before you knew it, the Corsairs were generating chances with regularity. Freshman netminder Kevin McGowan played his part as well, stealing a would be 3-1 goal by Corbeil right on the doorstep to keep the Corsairs in the game.

The best line, in either game, I saw all night was Frank, Spencer and Beck of UMass-Dartmouth. They scored the goal that put a cinch on the momentum for the Corsairs with just over two minutes to play and they made smart, tough, simple plays all game long.

Fitchburg’s Jeff Brodeur got around a number of UMD defensemen using his blazing speed to the outside, a lesson many of the younger speedsters in college hockey should take note of, to generate some quality bids. But his frustration would soon be apparent as UMD pumped home four straight unanswered goals to take the game 5-2. After Chris Carbonneau’s empty net goal put the game out of reach with 14 seconds on the clock, Brodeur banged the boards with his stick and threw his helmet and gloves off before burying his head in his hands on the bench. In every way it was the essence of defeat.

That frustration level is what makes UMD such a tough squad and one to be feared by the skilled teams around the league. They play a perfect style for beating those types of teams. Big, strong and tough, they get stronger as the game goes on and, with the likes of Tom and Matt Brown, Sean Young, Chris Dussault, newcomer Eric Frank and Sean Young, the Corsairs have the guns to keep up with anyone. Plus, their transition game is deadly. As Assumption coach Keith Hughes put it, “They’re a much better team now than when we played them at the beginning of the year.” That much was apparent.

The best line I saw all night was Frank, Spencer and Beck. They scored the goal that put a cinch on the momentum for the Corsairs and they made smart, tough, simple plays all night.

One role player who I was impressed with was Fitchburg’s Scott Campbell. The sophomore out of Woburn, Mass and Minuteman Regional may develop into a top flite scorer someday but, for now, he is a perfect role player. He is small but quick and makes up for his lack of physical presence with a tenacious attitude that just simply gets the job done. Players like him rarely get any kind of recognition for their play but I figured I would give him a plug because I liked the way he was plugging all night long. Good job Scott.

To sum it up, I was glad I made the decision to get to some games all by my lonesome. I highly recommend people doing the same thing on occasion. There is something almost cathartic about just hopping into the car and driving to games. Sitting in the pressbox and all that stuff is nice, but to see some games as a fan here and there is good for the soul.

Have an excellent weekend everyone. Go Pats!

Until next time …