Colgate has watched several strong teams led by strong goaltenders come through Starr Rink during its 75 years of existence. Guy Lemonde led the Raiders to their first 20-win season and NCAA tournament appearance in 1981. Dave Gagnon’s 1990 Colgate club advanced all the way to the NCAA finals during a 31 win year. And Shep Harder backstopped the Raiders in their most recent appearance in the tournament against Michigan in 2000.
None of these goalies can claim to be a part of back-to-back 20-win seasons wearing the maroon and grey, however. Steve Silverthorn set that bar for consistency this year, and sits poised to gobble up a host of Colgate records while making a case as the school’s greatest player ever between the pipes.
Silverthorn’s start with the Raiders was unassuming at best. The Owen Sound, Ont., native played in only five games during his freshman season with a 5.63 goals against average and .808 save percentage. He began his sophomore year behind then-junior David Cann, receiving sporadic playing time early in the season.
Following a 31-save performance during an overtime upset of fourth-ranked Cornell, Silverthorn began to attract the attention of Colgate’s fan base. The lanky 6-1 goalie showed potential, and looked ready to capture the attention of the rest of the college hockey world the following year.
“It takes time to adjust,” said Colgate coach Don Vaughan, who has watched Silverthorn mature from the recruiting trail through the present day. “I think people really miss that at times. He got his feet wet a little bit in his first year, got a little wetter in his second, and then just took off and earned the position.”
Sure enough, Silverthorn’s junior campaign proved one for the record books and led the Raiders to their most successful ECAC season in 14 years. He won 18 games, posted a .927 save percentage, and recorded a Colgate single season-best 1.82 goals against average.
“Getting used to the game was the biggest improvement,” said Silverthorn. “You have to understand how much you actually have to do versus what you think you have to do. Last year I learned how to read plays better and figure out when you have to move and when you don’t have to move. That’s been the biggest thing for me.”
Many who watched Silverthorn couldn’t identify the secret to his success. He rarely made flashy saves, sometimes struggled with controlling rebounds, and occasionally seemed slow at the beginning of games.
“It’s been a lot of work,” he said. “I’ve never been the most talented guy. That makes things better, I guess, because it makes you have to work hard. It’s the constant work that helps you improve the little things like strength and endurance.”
Some, including Silverthorn himself, credited his improved numbers to a style of Colgate hockey which relied on solid defense first.
“From our freshman year to this year we’ve improved dramatically defensively,” he said. “Those are team numbers, and it shows how committed we are to the defensive aspect of the game.”
Of course, modesty has always been Silverthorn’s M.O.. Quick to credit his teammates in victory, he rarely shies from taking responsibility for his squad’s defeats.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” he admitted. “When you lose, you look at yourself and what you did wrong. When we lose I magnify everything I did a lot more and think, ‘If I hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have lost.'”
“I really admire that in him,” said Vaughan of his goalie’s demand for perfection. “It’s genuine, too. He’s serious. When we lose a game 5-1 like we did against Northeastern where I thought we couldn’t have played any worse in front of him, he’s taking the blame. I didn’t see it that way, but in his mind he did.”
So if not pure talent, wherein lies the secret to Silverthorn’s blossoming into one of the NCAA’s elite goaltenders? Vaughan believes the answer rests not in the senior’s legs or glove, but in his heart.
“I think his best aspect is his competitiveness,” praised Vaughan. “Here’s a guy who never gives up on a shot in practice. You expect that in a game, but this guy wants to stop everything. Even when the guys are just joking around with a 3-on-0 at the net, he never gives up. That’s made him a better goaltender.”
Silverthorn refuses to let desire for individual improvement translate into a need for individual accolades, however. Going through his final year in a Raiders uniform, such an urge may seem incomprehensible to ignore.
Silverthorn’s 2.20 career goals against average will demolish Colgate’s previous best of 2.83 set by Harder. A record achieved between 1962-64, Kurt Brown’s .917 career save percentage, stands in danger of being topped as well, as Silverthorn currently boasts a .913 percentage with at least four games remaining. With four shutouts during the 2004-05 season, Silverthorn recently claimed the first spot on the Colgate chart with a total of seven career blankings.
The record which the unselfish netminder might revel in most, however, is career wins. With 21 victories so far this year and 52 overall, Silverthorn needs only four more to become the winningest goalie in school history, an achievement which for Colgate’s number 40 would far exceed any mark involving save percentage or shutouts.
“The other night at Princeton we gave one up on him,” said Vaughan of the Feb. 12 game on in which the Tigers scored their lone goal with just 91 seconds remaining. “The team felt terrible about that. We took a late penalty, couldn’t get our guys off the ice, and they scored with a minute left to go in the game.
“[Silverthorn] didn’t care. I’m sure in the back of his mind he would have liked to have had the shutout, but we won 3-1. I was upset, the guys on the team were upset, but Steve took it all in stride.”
The night before, Silverthorn blanked Yale, but his team failed to score as well, forcing the Raiders to settle for a tie. Colgate’s goalie found nothing positive about a shutout which resulted in only one point against the ECACHL’s last-place team.
“The 0-0 tie against Yale was not good,” he said. “There’s no aspect that made that good. Any time we win it’s better than personal things.”
Despite rumbles of improved goaltender numbers thanks to a change in the style of hockey over the last four years — 10 current goalies post a goals against average of 2.00 or less, while six years ago only two could claim the same feat — many around the ECACHL and the NCAA recognize just how important Silverthorn has been to his team’s back-to-back 20-win seasons, the accomplishment which may go down as his greatest.
“You can tell with a goalie when the puck is looking like a beach ball or looking like a golf ball,” said Rensselaer head coach Dan Fridgen. “To him right now, the puck’s looking like a beach ball.”
Will Silverthorn go down as Colgate’s greatest goaltender? The numbers answer in the affirmative. But one gets the sense that until the final horn on the 2004-05 season sounds, and even after, Silverthorn will be the last to care.