‘This was my choice:’ In reflecting on retirement from coaching, Dartmouth’s Gaudet says it was about perspective, priorities

 (photo: Dartmouth Athletics)
Bob Gaudet was a fixture behind the Dartmouth bench since 1997 (photo: Dartmouth Athletics).

When Bob Gaudet stepped behind the bench as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Dartmouth, he never pictured himself as a lifelong coach.

The former Big Green goaltender who grew up in Saugus, Mass., was mostly just looking for a job in a familiar place. Gaudet had finished his playing career at Dartmouth having been to two Frozen Fours (then simply called the “final four,” with lower-case F’s so as not to be confused with college basketball).

He had kicked the can around the pros in Fort Wayne, Ind., but now had returned to the town he had grown to love, Hanover, N.H.

His time as an assistant was short-lived before he headed to another Ivy League school, Brown, in 1983-84. And it was there that he experienced his most testing season in his first with the Bears but from it, grew an appreciation for coaching that lasted him his entire professional life.

On Wednesday, Gaudet announced his retirement from coaching, having led Dartmouth for the last 23 seasons after eight behind the bench at Brown.

For Gaudet, though, he’ll always remember that first season as a head coach.

“I had not thought about coaching, but George Crowe saw something in me potentially as a coach,” said Gaudet. “The worst year of my coaching career propelled me. My first year as a head coach [at Brown], we went 1-25. To think that 30-whatever years later, I’d still be in the business when you’re faced with that your first year…

“They were great kids, but we didn’t have it that year. But four years later, we were in the national tournament.”

More than three decades later, Gaudet said he felt it was time to retire after having ample time to reflect on his career over recent weeks while at home, as are most Americans right now, as the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic.

“You don’t always have the time to step back and think,” said Gaudet. “Maybe [having time] is a dangerous thing. But I’ve had some perspective and priorities, I’ve come to grip with things and this was my choice.”

Gaudet goes over finite details with his Dartmouth team at practice (photo: Dartmouth Athletics).

The season for Dartmouth, unlike many other teams, had actually ended in the ECAC tournament first round just prior to all collegiate sports being canceled across the board days later. Gaudet, who has two elderly parents who still live in his hometown of Saugus, a wife who he met as an undergrad at Dartmouth, and three grown children – all of whom went through Dartmouth themselves, the two boys having played hockey for their father – said the decision to step aside right now was extremely difficult.

Even more difficult was telling his players in a virtual team meeting held on Wednesday evening.

“[Wednesday] evening was very, very difficult,” Gaudet admitted. “I’m talking to the entire team, my staff, my support staff via Zoom. I’m looking at the whole group. It’s a real great family. They’re fun to be around and it was great to see the kids and everybody.

“But to actually have to come out with the words that I’m retiring, that I’m not going to be coaching anymore is tough. It was very emotional.”

Emotion, though, is an interesting word when it comes to Gaudet. Anyone who knows him describes him the same way that ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell did the second he was asked about the coach.

“First-class individual, all class across the board. He’s a first-class gentleman,” were Hagwell’s initial words.

But pressed, you also hear of a man who was competitive as any.

“He is very passionate,” said Hagwell. “He stood up and backed his players, from his standpoint, in a positive way. He had some fire, and I’ll term it passion. That’s the way he coached.”

Retired Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who began his career as a commissioner in the ECAC when Gaudet first took over Brown, had a perfect anecdote to reflect Gaudet’s competitive nature.

“When I was working at Harvard helping [longtime coach] Billy Cleary, they sent me to scout [Gaudet] at Saugus High School,” recalled Bertagna. “There was a game in Gloucester. High schools don’t have printed programs. I’m watching the game and I’m thinking, ‘I’m new at this, but this Saugus goalie doesn’t look that good to me.’

“The first period went by and I went down to ice level and said, ‘Is that Gaudet?’ They said, ‘Oh no, he got suspended the last game, that’s the backup.’

“When I got to know the fiery side of him, I thought it was kind of funny that my first interaction was when he had been suspended from a high school game.”

That, though, isn’t the man people will remember nor the legacy Gaudet leaves.

Anyone who has ever been to what is now called the Ledyard Bank Tournament during the holidays (better known to some as the Auld Lang Syne) the wonderful hospitality that teams receive, most – if not all – of which could be attributed to the first-class nature of their host, Gaudet.

“Year after year, [Dartmouth] is a gritty, determined team,” said retired St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, a longtime friend of Gaudet who got to work on the women’s side at Dartmouth in 2017-18 filling in for Laura Schuler when she was tabbed to coach the women’s Canadian Olympic team. “But I’ll tell you one thing, they always played the right way. They always played disciplined, they always played clean. That was a testament to the coach.”

Many years, many stories

 (photo: Dartmouth Athletics)
Over 23 seasons with the Big Green, Gaudet compiled a 424-482-112 overall record (photo: Dartmouth Athletics)

When you coach for more than three decades in a league like the ECAC, an all-bus league where you might travel an hour or two between games on a Friday-Saturday road weekend, there are always going to be great stories.

Gaudet not only rode the busses as a head coach, but also as an assistant and a player. By his calculations, for 41 of the last 43 years, he’s made the drive via bus to every single ECAC building, including the longer drives to destinations like St. Lawrence and Clarkson as well as Cornell and Colgate.

It was a trip a number of years back to Ithaca and Hamilton, N.Y., that provided one of his favorite stories.

As Gaudet recounts it, the team had played at Cornell on Friday and, after checking out of the hotel early Saturday afternoon, began the 90-minute ride up to Hamilton to face Colgate that evening.

An hour into the drive, Gaudet realized something was wrong when the bus drove past the same hotel in Ithaca they had stayed the previous night.

“We left Cornell around 3 o’clock and we drove by the hotel we left an hour ago and hour into our trip, so the bus driver had gone the wrong way,” laughed Gaudet. “We drove by the hotel again and it looked familiar and now it was snowing pretty good.

“We got stuck on a hill. Somehow the gears were wrong in the bus and suddenly, old ladies in tiny vehicles are passing us. We were stuck on this hill. The tires are spinning. The entire bus filled up with smoke with the burning rubber from the tires.”

Gaudet had to get his whole team off the bus and the bus driver eventually got the bus moving again. Needless to say, the players’ minds were anywhere except being ready to face Colgate.

“The guys off the bus are making snow angels in the snow,” Gaudet said. “Some are trying to push the bus up the hill.

“We pulled into Colgate at 7:30 or close to 8. I remember seeing [Colgate coach] Donny [Vaughn].

“We had limited warm up and I think we scored on the first shot of the game. No warm up, no kicking the ball. We got off the bus we played and we go on to beat them 7-2 or something. It was actually an unbelievable experience.”

Gaudet’s other favorite story is one that Marsh also told, independent of one another. This one occurred back at home.

A highly-talented St. Lawrence team coached by March came into Thompson Arena and absolutely smoked the Big Green. Marsh had said his pleasantries to Gaudet and headed on the bus while the highly-competitive Gaudet went back to his office to reflect.

A while later, Gaudet was the last to leave Thompson Arena and saw one large package in the parking lot.

“I look out under the lights and there’s a box,” said Gaudet. “I thought maybe one of the fans had left a bomb or something. I walked up to it slowly. It’s a suitcase. I look closer and the name on it is ‘Joe Marsh.’”

Marsh picks up the story from there.

“We had a real good night, things went our way, and we swept that weekend; we’d beat Harvard, too,” recalled Marsh. “We get on the bus and when we’d sweep, the guys would always yell to the bus driver, ‘Hey Jimmy, stop the bus. Did you pack the four points?’

“Jimmy’d stop the bus and they’d laugh and then we’d go. Jimmy would open the door, to ceremoniously make sure the four points were packed.”

Little did anyone understand that at the bottom of the stairs of the bus, along with a bunch of empty pizza boxes and other luggage, was Marsh’s suitcase.

“When Jimmy opens the door, my bag flies out and we don’t notice it,” said Marsh. “We shut the door and leave. I get back to Canton [N.Y.] at about 4 in the morning, I’m looking all over the place for the suitcase. I’m looking through the trash. I’m tearing my hair out.”

On Monday morning, Marsh’s phone rang and it was Gaudet, laughing hysterically at the other end of the phone.

“’Did you lose something?’ he said.”

Oh, the stories.

The times, they are a-changin’

Gaudet takes pride that in his 39 seasons as a coach, he has been able to stay somewhat relevant not only as a coach but also as a leader of young men who so often look to their coach as a sort of father figure, many of them as they are embarking on adulthood.

He says that his own children, all of whom attended Dartmouth, helped keep him up to date on things like music and culture. But as Marsh noted, coaches don’t simply survive in collegiate athletics for as long as Gaudet did without the continuous ability to adapt to how the game itself changes.

 (photo: Dartmouth Athletics)
Gaudet’s sons, Jim (2008-12) and Joe (2006-10), played for their father at Dartmouth (photo: Dartmouth Athletics).

On the ice, Gaudet is described as not just a mentor but a student himself. But the position of head coach in college hockey has undergone such drastic changes that it’s difficult to feel that today’s modern coach resembles those from the past generations.

Camaraderie hasn’t left the game when it comes to coaches, but as salaries have increased, so, too, has the pressure to win, and that changes the relationships among bench bosses.

As the older generation of coaches continue to retire and the proverbial college hockey guard continues to change, one of the things that made college hockey so special for Gaudet might be something that we don’t see as much going forward.

In fact, it’s memories of Joe Marsh that were easiest for Gaudet to recall.

“When we competed against each other, we’d meet at center ice, win or lose,” Gaudet said of Marsh. “Invariably, we’d talk about family. It wasn’t about the game. It wasn’t about this call or that. There were never any harsh words.”

Marsh countered that feeling with one of the greatest compliments that one coach can pay another.

“This is the guy you’d love to have your kid play for,” said Marsh. “Sure, you’d love to have your kid go to Dartmouth. But I don’t care if he was coaching the Chelsea School of Upholstery, you want that guy coaching your kid.”