Back From The Brink

Among the many volumes of essential sports reading on Niagara associate head coach Jerry Forton’s cramped bookshelf, one title stands out as emblematic of the state of Purple Eagle hockey at the midway point — A Season On the Brink by John Feinstein.

What had started out as a campaign of great promise (a sweep of Vermont, a competitive showing against Maine, a near-sweep of Clarkson — all on a grinding opening month-long road trip) turned to crisis shortly before a series against Western Michigan when six veteran players were suspended for violations of team rules of conduct.

Head coach Dave Burkholder acted swiftly and decisively in dealing with the situation, but shortly thereafter a secondary ripple of unanticipated events rocked the Purple Eagles when they dismissed talented forward Aaron Clarke (one of the players involved in the above-mentioned suspensions), and then lost perhaps their most important player, starting goaltender Jeff VanNynatten, to injury for two months.

“When you have 29 players and four coaches, you expect one or two unforeseen events during the season,” Forton said, looking back on the first half of the season. “Our message to the team was that this has the potential to make us better. Better as coaches, better as a team, and better individually.”

Forton’s ascent through the coaching ranks bespeaks someone who pays more than lip service to the culture of building team chemistry. His path has been unconventional in that he gradually transitioned from a full-time law practice in Buffalo, N.Y., to his true passion of coaching hockey, where he has been instrumental in helping Niagara to compete on a yearly basis against the nation’s best programs.

“We’ve never won at Niagara based on having top-20 talent,” Forton said. “But our talent level is close enough, and there are an indefinite amount of intangibles that come into play in the game so that we can use them to our advantage and win against those top teams.”

Now would seem a time when the Purple Eagles will have to rely more than ever on team play as they approach the final chapter of the season without VanNynatten in net, a lack of balanced scoring from key veterans, and a lineup that on any given night skates eight freshmen. After recent disappointing showings against Massachusetts-Lowell and Canisius, frustration is emerging from the Purple Eagle locker room. Niagara needs to regain a sense of confidence and commitment before the season slips away.

Through it all, though, Forton has remained optimistic.

“We certainly have the opportunity to be every bit as good as last year,” he said, referencing Niagara’s strong finish in 2004 that lead to an NCAA appearance.

His assessment of Niagara’s second-half prospects is in keeping with his keen problem-solving nature, a skill that Forton first developed through his law practice and then honed in the everyday minutiae of helping to administer a Division I program that has shed its underdog persona and supplanted it with the expectation of winning.

“We’ve had our greatest success with players who are truly appreciative of the opportunity to play for Niagara, and are not concerned about being somewhere else,” he said in describing his role as Niagara’s coordinator of recruiting.

Forton points to senior Ryan Gale as a perfect example of a player fitting the Niagara mold. Gale was not heavily recruited by more established programs when he came out of juniors, but he has steadily added dimensions to a solid base of skills.

By his junior year, Gale was having some of his biggest games against ranked opponents and when he continued that play into the new season, Burkholder and Forton took notice by moving him to Niagara’s top line. Gale responded immediately to the promotion and has embarked upon a scoring tear that ranks him fifth in the nation in goals.

The Lewiston-Queenston bridge into Ontario stands in full view from Niagara’s campus, beckoning Forton and Niagara’s other assistant coaches Albie O’Connell and Jeff Weber in their relentless pursuit to fill the next recruiting class. Forton realizes that as the talent pool of Division I players has grown, the gap between the haves and have-nots has narrowed, especially in the CHA, which boasts a winning record against ECACHL teams this year.

Niagara’s rise to prominence has been closely tied to its recruiting acumen. Forton approaches this task with the discipline of an experienced trial attorney immersed in the discovery process.

Besides recruiting, Forton arranges all team travel, a thankless task given Niagara’s aggressive road presence. The Purple Eagles must make their bones in nonconference play on the road, and that can mean only one thing — getting on the bus, a lot.

There isn’t a detail to the road that Forton hasn’t sweated, including having enough food and fluids to pound down for a bruised and tired hockey team on the long ride back to western New York . Forton laughs at the balancing act he performs daily in the pursuit of coaching college hockey, but boils down his responsibilities to two crucial tasks.

“Teaching and communicating,” he said, “Those are the two most important aspects of coaching. … Burky and I have developed a very strong relationship. Things may, and do often get heated in our discussions about certain aspects of team performance, but I think our strength is that we have developed the ability to read and react very quickly to situations.”

Nine years have passed since Forton made the fateful decision to forgo the security and stability of a career in law and stay close to the game of hockey. He has weathered the storms that come with the territory and seems prepared for whatever challenges lie ahead, perhaps even a head coaching position.

“I don’t need to be a head coach just for the sake of being a head coach,” he said. “It would only interest me if I had the reasonable expectation that where I was going I could approximate what we have accomplished here at Niagara, which is to be in a position to make the NCAA playoffs, and the have a realistic chance at beating anyone in the tournament.”