It’s all about the response.
Talk to anyone who has been handed a bad situation and fought out of it, and they’ll always remind you that it wasn’t what happened to you, it was how you handled it. A good case in point could be Valley Forge or the Shackleton Expedition. Talk about overcoming adversity.
At about 10 p.m. On November 16 of this season, the Vermont Catamounts were sitting in their dressing room in the Gutterson Field House. They had just been drilled 9-1 by Boston University. It was so bad that night for Vermont that when the Cats came out for the third period, forward Peter Lenes looked around and felt like everyone had already left.
Vermont won the Saturday night rematch 5-4, and in doing so rescued a season that could have gone south right there. The Catamounts were then 1-5-1 overall. They were a young team and they were reeling. Their effort the next night showed their coaching staff that they were capable of responding, they were capable of being accountable, capable of beating a good hockey team.
“Our sports psychologist came in and talked to us the next day, and he told us it’s a new day and don’t dwell on last night,” said Peter Lenes, who that day became an alternate captain to help support the leadership in place. “It was almost so bad Friday night you couldn’t get mad. For them everything worked, for us it didn’t.”
UVM’s head coach, the very composed Kevin Sneddon, was somewhat irate but managed to keep the proper perspective. He could have done what most of us would have done, and that is gone in and ripped his team for being heartless and gutless to lose a game like that at home. However, he knew neither was true. He knew they were a good team and the players were proud athletes who had a bad game. They were a young team finding their way, as he put it, and he held back.
Sneddon started to pick up the pieces immediately. He had the team back the next day and instead of a boot camp type of environment, he lightened the atmosphere. Their sports psychologist Brian Cain came in and got the message across as to the task ahead, but used humor to do it.
Sneddon said after a series of very funny video clips, the team regained its smile, and its passion. The next night they won, and they despite a subpar first half, the lessons learned from October through December have started to bear out in January. After what he felt were bad losses at Boston College, they went 1-0-1 against two nationally ranked and Hockey East opponents; Northeastern at home and at Massachusetts.
“We really hit rock bottom earlier this month against BC, we were soft, we had no accountability,” said Sneddon from his office in Burlington as he looked over the snowcapped Green Mountains. Pausing before he sat back down, Sneddon, a member of Harvard’s last national title team and a disciple of coach Bill Cleary said, “We felt as a staff that we needed to take more leadership. We have to hold these guys accountable. We need to be a lot tougher on them regarding the small details in practice.”
It showed up against Northeastern in a pair of games at the Gut that Huskies head coach Greg Cronin noticed.
“In my three years in Hockey East, we have played them nine times and that was the best hockey they played against us. They really got after it and they had a physical element that was impressive.”
That’s the best compliment a team can get, when it has been acknowledged by an opponent how hard they were to play. They did it again against UMass, where a hellacious forecheck kept the Minutemen on their heels a good chunk of the weekend. Vermont had some lapses and a couple of goals the Cats would have liked back, but were the better team on enemy ice all weekend.
Sneddon knows he has this team focused the right way. Through 15 games in Hockey East, they sit an even 5-5-5 and have games in hand against everyone above them except Providence. While New Hampshire and Boston College have distanced themselves a bit in the standings (what a surprise), Providence and Northeastern sit three points ahead. Lowell is just a point up and plays at Vermont on Sunday, the first of three meetings between them. They also have Providence and UNH twice more.
Now the challenge is to bring what they brought the last four games on a nightly basis: passion, energy, support, accountability. Jamie Sifers and Kenny Macaulay aren’t here anymore; they were great leaders. That job now belongs to Dean Strong, Mark Lutz, Lenes, and Corey Carlson. It is up to them to get the message across: when the game is over, be able to look at your teammates and know you gave an honest effort.
That type of dressing-room peer pressure, where that accountability can be demanded by the upperclassmen and respected by the team, is what separates the elite from the average.
Vermont is on the cusp of making a run. Rookies turn into vets at the break and are expected to play at a higher level. UVM’s kids, especially on defense, have shown that they can play with the big boys in Hockey East. They’ll have to do that Friday night as they host what might be the best team in the country in New Hampshire, a legitimate national title contender.
Their biggest challenge is Friday night.
Their response is important.