Just don’t call Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder a nice guy.
To do so would be to state the obvious, yet it provides little insight into how this coach has the Purple Eagles returning to the NCAAs for a second time, a distinction earned by way of a classic see-saw victory over Bemidji State in the CHA Championship.
In an era where head coaches increasingly sound more like corporate executives, Burkholder speaks the language of the game in a simple and direct manner, believing firmly that while every contest tells a slightly different story, there is a defining moment to each.
Mark Messier once described the essence of hockey as “give and go.” Many of Burkholder’s post-game summations follow along the same sparsely elegant logic of this and other hockey truisms. After all, Burkholder played goaltender during his collegiate career, so when he says “a bounce here, a bounce there,” or “puck luck” you get the sense of someone who watches the games as if he were still in the crease. True to that goaltender nature is a coach who rarely gets too high or too low after games, including some of Niagara’s bigger upsets against ranked teams.
But if Burkholder remains on an extended high for just a little bit longer, it would certainly be understandable. After three difficult seasons, he has restored the luster to a program that some say had been set adrift by administrative apathy and the departure of Blaise McDonald, Niagara’s first coach and now current head man at Massachusetts-Lowell.
McDonald will forever be remembered with a mixture of reverence and envy in the annals of Niagara sports history. Niagara is a small institution run by the religious order of Vincentian priests, and until McDonald all of its Division I sports cache had been stored up in the basketball program. Niagara’s hockey program, with its unprecedented trip to the Elite Eight in 2000, changed all that and made clear that it was the only program that dare compete against the nation’s very best on an annual basis.
When McDonald left for Hockey East, many Niagara loyalists felt cheated. It was as if they had been given a glimpse of something big only to have it vanish. Many assumed the administration would allow the program to slide into an acceptable level of mediocrity when it failed to complete construction on Dwyer Arena and other telltale signs that it was wavering in its commitment to hockey.
“No question when you follow a guy like Blaise, and what he built here when he was at the helm, it wasn’t easy,” Burkholder reflected. “It wasn’t easy speaking in front of the community, or in front of the team that was used to the way Blaise did things.
“But I’ve had to change my role … I’ve had to back-off from the players. When I was an assistant here, I wore the “good cop” hat and excelled in that role. But now, all the tough decisions come from my desk, and that’s not going to make you popular at times, but you have to stand pat.”
Jerry Forton, who was an assistant coach under McDonald and continues in that role with Burkholder, has witnessed Burkholder’s maturation.
“He simplifies the game,” Forton said. “He lets what guys do best come out. There was an adjustment period for about a year for him, and now his overall presence with the team and his relationship with them is excellent.”
The foundation of Niagara’s past and current success has been its ability to recruit. The Purple Eagles annually play the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in the CHA and has earned the respect of more established programs for its competitive but clean play.
Burkholder and his staff possess a shrewd eye for talent. Speed along the wings, puck sense at the blueline, and centermen who can create are trademarks of the Niagara program. But there’s more to it than that. Forton explains: “There’s many players with the same set of hockey skills. … We now look at leadership experience and experience in winning as equal components to the equation instead of just hockey skills alone.”
Junior center Barrett Ehgoetz, who led the nation in scoring for most of this year, emulates many of these ideals. Ehgoetz is listed generously at 5-foot-8, 170 lbs., but to watch him play reminds us all that this will never be a big man’s game alone. For Ehgoetz has remarkable anticipatory vision that enables him to position himself at the leading edge of the play, and his fierce competitive nature negates most of his size disadvantages.
By filling the pipeline with talent, Burkholder has created an intensely competitive situation for playing time amongst teammates. Niagara was thought to be a senior-laden team entering this year, but often Burkholder rotated deserving underclassmen into the lineup. Freshmen Aaron Clarke, Sean Bentivoglio and Pat Olivetto have become regular contributors. Sophomores Brian Hartman and Andrew Lackner have gotten more pucks to the net from the blueline and added stability on the power play. Perhaps Niagara’s depth is no more evident than in the second half play of sophomore Justin Cross.
“Just look at what Justin has done for us,” Burkholder said. “He struggled at the beginning of the season … but we asked him to step up and play with Barrett and Joe Tallari and he’s developed into a prominent Division I player.”
And then there’s the development goaltender Jeff VanNynatten. The sophomore has emerged as Niagara’s number one starter at the position and his MVP play during the CHA tournament validated Burkholder’s belief in his enormous talent. Burkholder is not a particularly easy coach to play goaltender for. He will not hesitate to pull his netminder out if he thinks “the guy just doesn’t have it on a particular night.” But Burkholder was instrumental in developing Greg Gardner, Niagara’s cornerstone goaltender during their magical 2000 season, and he seems to have channeled VanNynatten’s exuberance into a more focused and mentally disciplined player.
Niagara’s reward for reaching the NCAAs will no doubt be a first round matchup against a No. 1 or 2 seed. It is unlikely the Purple Eagles will sneak up on anybody the way they did by upsetting New Hampshire in 2000. But that won’t change the way they approach the game. Senior Dave Hominuk, who along with seniors Chris Welch and Joe Tallari represents the heart and soul of the Purple Eagles, anxiously awaits the challenge.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” Hominuk said. “Burky [Burkholder] believed right from the beginning that we could get it done. … He’s come into his own as a head coach and after a few years he’s developed his own style. He’s a tremendous competitor, whether it’s in the classroom or on the ice he expects our best. … Off the ice he’s a very family oriented man and has high values.”
Burkholder’s ultimate achievement has been to migrate and imbue the core values of Niagara as a Vincentian institution into the hockey program. Those values include a 100 percent graduation rate and a commitment to serve those less fortunate in the surrounding community. His sense of time and place is genuine.
“I love the Niagara community,” he said. “My wife’s from here, I’m from here and I hope to be here for a long time. … The year we’ve had this year just puts a stamp on what we’ve been doing as a staff. … We could be a dangerous team to play in the NCAAs. We’ll play aggressively in all of our systems.”