Earning Their Stripes

The record books will show that Princeton locked up its first outright Ivy League title on February 16 with a 5-2 win over Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., but there was still a matter to be settled seven days later at Hobey Baker Rink, when Cornell came to town.

“That’s absolutely a big thing,” said Tigers captain Mike Moore. “After we knew that we won the Ivy League championship, we still had an Ivy League game to play against the top Ivy League team that’s been there for the last four years that I’ve been playing.”

“When we started, Cornell was one of the premier programs, and they still are,” said Moore’s classmate, Keith Shattenkirk. “To be able to say that we’re up there with them is a great accomplishment.”

Of course, the fact that the Tigers were wrapping up their Ivy League hockey championship as the Big Red took another step towards the Ivy men’s basketball title just may be evidence that we’ve slipped into some Ivy League athletics version of the Twilight Zone, but Princeton’s 2-1 win over Cornell on Saturday made for a nice summary of just how Guy Gadowsky’s team has been able to enjoy so much success this season.

For starters, there was the Tigers’ big line, and more specifically, there was Brett Wilson.

The junior from Calgary, whose line with classmate Lee Jubinville and sophomore Cam MacIntyre has delivered more than a third of the Tigers’ offense this season, scored the eventual game-winning goal with 5:55 gone in the second period, one-timing a pass from MacIntyre past Cornell’s Ben Scrivens to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead (defenseman Jody Pederson scored in the first period). A huge goal, to be certain, but at its core, it was just another example of Wilson and his mates delivering at a key moment for the Tigers.

“There’s people that like to score goals,” Gadowsky said, “and then there’s people who live to score goals, and Willie’s one of those people who lives to do it. You can be in the top row of the balcony, and you can see his eyes light up when there’s a chance to score a goal. He is one of those guys that will literally do anything to score a goal.”

Then, there was confidence, not to mention mental toughness.

Late in the second period, MacIntyre scored what should have been Princeton’s third goal of the evening, but the puck bounced off the spine of the cage and out of the net before either the goal judge or referee Bill Bredin could see it. The breaks of the game appeared to be going against the Tigers, and a lesser team, one that didn’t believe it was supposed to win — and a Princeton team could certainly be forgiven for thinking such things against Cornell, given the two schools’ respective hockey histories — may well have faltered, left to protect a 2-1 lead in the third period thanks to bad luck (and possibly bad officiating).

However, there were no heads hung in the Princeton locker room, and no lack of confidence shown as the Tigers held off the Big Red over the final 20 minutes.

“I give the guys a lot of credit,” Gadowsky said, “because I think it was pretty obvious to a lot of people in the stands what happened, and I think it was a big letdown: 3-1 is a big difference than 2-1, and I give them a lot of credit for staying up, and not getting down, and they showed some strong mental toughness.”

While Gadowsky is proud of that toughness, though, he’s not taking any credit for it.

“That’s not me cultivating anything,” Gadowsky said. “That’s Mike Moore, that’s Landis [Stankievich], that’s Shatty [Shattenkirk], that’s Hags [Kyle Hagel], that’s Prids [Erik Pridham], and that’s guys like [alumni] Darrell Powe and Pat Nuendorfer. That’s not me.”

The Tiger seniors certainly take pride in that aspect of their leadership.

“One thing we stress is being mentally tough, facing adversity” Moore said. “That’s one thing we talk about going into the playoffs. We’re going to face some adversity, and that just builds our confidence, when we’re able to face some adversity, like bad calls that we think should have gone our way, and being able to stay mentally tough and fight through that.”

All the while, there was Zane Kalemba, the Tigers’ sophomore goaltender, who made 23 saves against the Big Red, including 11 in the third period when the Tigers only mustered three shots on goal themselves. According to Gadowsky, Kalemba’s role in Princeton’s success this season extends far beyond his solid, but unspectacular, numbers (15-7-0, 2.55 GAA, .910 SV%).

“More importantly than the saves he makes,” Gadowsky said, “the way he plays, I think, is a real big factor for us. He’s just so calm. If you just looked at him, and you didn’t look at the fans and you didn’t look at the score, you’d think he was playing a noontime hockey shinny game. He has such a calming effect, especially for a team that has such a young defense, the way he plays is as important as the results he gets. It starts from him.”

For his part, Kalemba may understand the significance of the Tigers’ achievements this season better than anyone else on the team. Growing up an hour away from Old Nassau in Saddle Brook, N.J. Kalemba is the only native of the Garden State on the Princeton roster, and his mask — a tiger-striped design with a photo of Hobey Baker on the right side and Albert Einstein on the left — speaks to his immersion in the school’s culture. As such, he may have the most perspective of anyone in the locker room as to just how far this team has come.

“It’s great to see hockey in New Jersey, and especially hockey at Princeton, getting a lot of support,” Kalemba said. “It’s a testament to what Coach Gadowsky has done in the last four years, bringing in quality players, and just what he expects of us, day in and day out.”

Finally, at the end, there are greater things to come.

There may yet be a Cleary Cup in the Tigers’ future should they find success this weekend at Clarkson and St. Lawrence, or a Whitelaw Cup and trip to the NCAA tournament should they battle past the Golden Knights, Saints or whoever else may cross their path in the ECAC Hockey playoffs. However, with a Princeton education, Gadowsky’s players likely have bright futures awaiting them off the ice, and for Tigers senior Landis Stankievich, a rare opportunity lies in his immediate future.

Stankievich was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in December and will head to Oxford University after he graduates, where he hopes to study philosophy, politics and economics before working on environmental issues.

“I’ve had a few personal successes,” Stankievich said, “and I think a lot of them really come from the same characteristics that make our team great. Off the ice, in school, I just work hard. I may have a few natural abilities in the classroom, but if I didn’t work hard, I wouldn’t be where I was out there. Part of my Rhodes scholarship was definitely dependent on my being on this hockey team, and it being a successful team. I owe the guys in the room a great amount of thanks, and I’m deeply indebted to them and the coaching staff.”

The head of that coaching staff isn’t quite sure of the connection between the Rhodes Scholarship and an Ivy League championship, but he does know that the character of Stankievich and his teammates is a key component of the Tigers’ success, on and off the ice.

“The quality of your team is as good as the quality of your individuals,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t know how good a hockey team we are, but I know that I’ll put these 26 guys up against any 26 athletes in the world in terms of quality, intelligence, and just great people.”

Finally, behind it all, there is Gadowsky himself. While the former Alaska coach is self-effacing when it comes to the culture he has created at Baker Rink, his role in all of this is not lost on his players.

“He can’t be credited enough for turning the program around,” Moore said. “It started there, and it’s amazing to see where we’ve come, and we’re not done yet.”