A Season on the Ice: Looking Back on Men’s Hockey

by Gayne Kalustian | 3/18/15 2:58pm

02.16.15.sports.sportsweekly.mens-hockey_Eliza-McDonough
by Eliza McDonough / Eliza McDonough

I’m not sure if I’m allowed to have nostalgia at a time like this. This is the men’s ice hockey’s story, and I am a writer, the ultimate inside-outsider. There’s an otherworldly aspect to the sport that I both understand and don’t — enough that I feel I can write something about it but just enough mystery to keep my eyes glued to what unfolds on the ice. The game can become so intense I don’t realize I’ve stopped breathing until I hear the final buzzer and I let out the pent up air, unaware that so much apprehension could fit inside my 5’2” frame.

Game two of this past weekend’s ECAC quarterfinals had the potential for the kind of ending you thirst for as a writer — unbelievable pressure, mounting suspense, a comeback in a do-or-die playoff match up that would push the contenders into overtime. A 6-4 man advantage for the Big Green flashed a wave of hope over the ice and the bench, and a pipe shot by Brett Patterson ’16 sent a surge of fear over Starr Rink in Hamilton, New York. Another shot flirted with the crease but never crossed. Time expired, and the final buzzer meant Dartmouth was eliminated from the playoffs by No. 16 Colgate University. The teams played two incredible games of hockey, killed penalties, took and doled out hard hits. It was the kind of series that, despite back-to-back losses, made itself worth nine-and-a-half hours of driving, sleeping in the house of some friendly strangers, surviving on Subway and Clif Bars.

As the players left the ice after a hard-fought series, it was time to begin writing the story. To do this, though, I needed more than the two post-game interviews I had managed to get, one from head coach Bob Gaudet and the other from Carl Hesler ’18. Yet without the clearance to get access to the team and those interviews — the amount of pull I actually have is analogous to the access a pigeon gets to the Oval Office — I set in motion a plan to write the story of the Big Green men’s hockey’s 2014-2015 season by asking players for permission to use past interviews or conversations that were had in passing, after we’d run into each other in Collis or the Hop. Responses varied, of course, from “I trust you” to “No” without any further explanation. For my part, though, it was coming from desire to tell a story — partly about me, partly about them. I wanted the readers to know the players as I had come to know them, hear the things they say that don’t always make it into articles full of inspirational banter and gameplay strategy.

To be clear, the players and I are not necessarily friends — we run in what some might call “different social circles.” I likely won’t talk to many of the players until next winter, and I’m sure I won’t talk to most of them again after I leave Hanover. That, I think, is part of what makes me so grateful for this season.

My first interaction with the team came this past summer, when the juniors on the team were on campus for their sophomore summer. I was writing a story for Dartmouth Sports about Caleb Nelson, the Team Impact player with a rare gene deletion that disrupted his autonomic breathing function. Nelson has become a fixture, a player and a brother of Big Green hockey, accepted by players like Josh Hartley ’17 who, according to Caleb’s mother Heather Nelson, texts him to say goodnight every night. I’ve seen Hartley sit with Caleb Nelson in the bleachers on some of the nights that he’s been scratched, leaning over to talk to him about things I’ve wondered but never asked about.

The team’s sports information director and assistant director of varsity athletics communication Pat Salvas directed me to Brad Schierhorn ’16 and Ryan Bullock ’16 as good athletes to interview for the article. I had never spoken to either of them, but after glancing at the team’s roster I remembered pointing to Bullock once in the Class of 1953 Commons and telling my friend, “That guy seriously looks like the quintessential hockey player.” This statement, long before I had entertained the idea of writing about the hockey team, marked the very first of many times that I was wrong. It’s not because Bullock isn’t a quintessential hockey player, but because at the time I didn’t even know what a “quintessential hockey player” really was.

Ryan Bullock identifies as a notoriously slow eater. His family nurses animals for the Humane Society. He loves animals and kids, he said last summer, and is a bigger fan of soccer than hockey. I asked him about his family, how he got into hockey, what life was like in Minnesota. He comes from a lineage of athletes, he said.

“My parents did absolutely everything they could to help me with developing to becoming a better player,” he said.

Bullock has long, sometimes-wild brown hair. Compared to the average person he’s tall, but the athlete doesn’t appear so looming when standing next to the other players on the team. He’s deceptively strong, with skating skills and balance that often make his work as a defenseman look effortless. He’s a deadly shot from the blue line. In his interview this summer, he simply said he’s a “playmaker,” and I took him at his word. If I interviewed him again, I’d tell him how much he undersold himself.

Yet, for reasons unrelated to his personhood and personality, Bullock emerged as my favorite player to watch this season. He’s a cool guy, but I envy the way he moves on the ice, and his +6 rating puts him among the top defensemen on the team.

In the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit to how little I really knew about hockey when I began the Nelson story. In my interview with Schierhorn, you can hear me admit that I did not really know who Sidney Crosby is. Now, of course, I realize what a ridiculous thing that is to suggest in the hockey world—sacrilegious, even.

“Come on, Gayne, he’s only like the best hockey player in the NHL,” Schierhorn laughed.

From that interview, which ranged from conversations about his past and his experience with Nelson to the difference between Alaska — his home state — and California — my home state — Schierhorn explained the journey for aspiring hockey players to billet families across the continent, the primacy of the USHL in the United States and the difference between major junior hockey and NCAA hockey. The choice, he said, was usually about education since historically major junior hockey had a greater graduation to professional hockey. He wasn’t talking about Dartmouth specifically, but purely by virtue of being a player in the NCAA, he was.

Schierhorn is the only junior who played on the top line with two-time captain Tyler Sikura ’15 and alternate captain Eric Robinson ’14. With 22 points this season, the athlete amassed more than any non-senior on the team, placing fourth overall. Amidst all players on the team, he became the most valuable source I would acquire all season long. He never gave up anything juicy about the team which isn’t that surprising, but he guided me as I tried to understand all the things that make hockey different from other sports —the dynamics on ice, the realities of checking, the rotating player systems, the penalty kill and power play strategies. Schierhorn answered all the questions I couldn’t find in books or ask the anchors of Hockey Central. His impact, though, has been difficult for me to work into stories, as it requires my concession of personal knowledge about a sport that I, on a whim after the Nelson story, decided I wanted to write about.

In between it all, he produced the single sentiment I held on to most from the season. He knew, he said, that it sounded like a made-up line.

He truly believes, he wrote, in every person on the team.

As November came around, the ice hockey season began, and I put out my first official game recap. During the editorial process, a tiny line about the team’s penalty kill from the end was cropped and put up top as the lead. It suggested that the team killing penalties was “a notable accomplishment.” Overflowing with anxiety that the line would read as patronizing to a team I was just starting to learn about, I asked my editors to change the wording online and immediately emailed Sikura and Salvas with a long-winded apology. In hindsight, it may have been a bit of an overkill. but Sikura wrote back. The mishap, he wrote, wasn’t anything to be overly concerned about. He thanked me for reaching out to him so quickly, and said that the email showed that I took pride in my work.

It doesn’t seem like much now, but to a perfectionist who was embarking on covering a sport that she was learning about along the way, it was the ultimate pass — permission to try again.

Sikura finished his tenure for the Big Green with 92 career points, only two behind alternate captain Eric Neiley’s ’15 94. Neiley had a lights-out, 30-point season for the Big Green, centering the team’s particularly potent second line alongside Brandon McNally ’15. Neiley, like his other linemate Grant Opperman ’17, became one of my go-to for interviews. They were straight-shooters who told the versions of games which were the closest to the self-critical truth, and the two were always willing to respond to my requests for interviews.

After his career-high two-goal game against then-No. 20 St. Lawrence University, I submitted a request to Rick Pinkston ’15 for an interview. I was careful about how I worded the request, because despite Pinkston’s two goals the team eventually lost that game. It’s hard to talk to teams after they lose. I waited, and I waited, and I waited. There was no response, which I’ve grown accustomed to when attempting to contact not just hockey players but athletes from almost any sport. I saw Pinkston later that day in FoCo. As I walked toward him with the kind of pursed lips that said I was a bit unhappy, I called out his name. He said hello and asked me how I was before pausing.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked as he slowed down his cadence to the hockey team’s table.

I told him about the request — which he didn’t answer — and that I was disappointed that I didn’t get to interview him after such an impressive game.

Pinkston’s shoulders dropped, the creases of his mouth relaxed and his eyebrows came up above their normal resting place. His eyes opened just the slightest bit wider, a clear look of surprise on his face. Surprised, I think, at himself. Pinkston pulled out the kind of sincere apology some journalists wait their entire lives for. I quickly reassured him that everything had worked out, that Opperman had agreed to talk and that he really shouldn’t worry about it. Pinkston apologized again as I walked to my own team’s table, and it occurred to me that after terms of being ignored by important players that — at least for some people — it really was an accident. It’s hard to get that kind of real sense of a +15 rating defenseman who finished his senior season with 13 points in post-game interviews.

These small interactions, which the players sometimes remember and sometimes don’t, colored the 2014-2015 season for me. It was a great to watch them play hockey — the sport is fast, interesting and contact oriented. Hockey is captivating in the kind of way where you really can’t bring yourself to look away. The season has made a lifelong fan out of me. I even played on an intramural team this year, though my skating ability is somewhat reminiscent of a newborn horse trying to take its first steps. Except I, unlike the horse, never got better.

This season and the team that played it are much more than a set of numbers, statistics and sports aspirations. It’s the way you can’t get them to use full names in interviews; everyone is Fergie, Bully, Sikky, Mac, Neils, Robo, Opps, and G. It’s Charlie Mosey ’15 being a regular guy, just talking about how he misses home.It’s Charles Grant ’16 avoiding an interview not because he didn’t want to talk but because he didn’t want to be asked to say anything “controversial” about his teammate James Kruger ’16, who was ranked No. 6 nationally in goals against average at the end of the regular season. It’s Andy Simpson ’15 leading the ECAC in blocked shots—the kind of physical self-sacrifice that gives an advantage to the team and bruises and welts to Simpson. It’s Opperman jumping off the bench with an immediate sense of urgency to skate over in support of Kruger after the team dropped game one of the Quarterfinals. It’s the senior class skating up, together as one, to take a picture with Jesse Beamish ’15, whose family couldn’t make it to senior night. It’s this team, comprised of guys who, whatever you call them — athletes, students, people—spend 80 percent of their time thinking about hockey and the other 20 percent of the time thinking about their teammates and families.

I wouldn’t be writing this story if I were the only one who felt this way. I spent my winter interim period working and watching hockey in Hanover. As soon as I mentioned being a student at the College who wrote about sports in her free time, the first thing people in the community mentioned was the men’s ice hockey team.

An elementary school kid talked to me about how he just watched the amaz- ing game where the Big Green beat the No. 1 Boston University Terriers.

“I was there,” he whispered.

An employee at a local dining establishment was wearing a Dartmouth hockey sweater. In the spirit of being friendly before service at breakfast, I complimented the sweater, and she erupted in an outpouring of love for the school’s hockey program. She knew by the end of sophomore summer which kids she liked and which ones she didn’t, but she always loved, she said, the guys on the hockey team.

This season gave meaning to the rankings that SmartAsset put out earlier this year, collecting what they call the best hockey towns in the United States that don’t claim an NHL team. Hanover was second, ahead of all minor league teams and second to just one collegiate team in the country: No. 1 University of North Dakota. I don’t think, necessarily, that the players play for the community. I don’t think they play for the school. I don’t think they play for their parents. They play, I think, for each other. And that’s what makes everyone around them love it. In the coldest place I’ve ever lived, a winter of Big Green hockey made it worth it, especially in a year that was full of upsets and unreal glove saves, a victorious shootout in Thompson Arena and yes, sometimes, heart-breaking defeat.

For me, there was something visceral about this season that will never be repeated. I’ll continue to write about the world of Big Green sports, and it will always be different. It will always be my first year covering a hockey team, and that will never change. I read books, biographies, ethnographies, strategies and articles about the sport and watched more NHL Network than I think any one person ever should. I stared at blank Microsoft Word documents for hours sometimes, hands pushing up the soft chunks of my cheeks into my tired eyes and my brow furrowed into what little kids say causes my “worry lines.” In the end, though, I absorbed more from the players than I did from anyone or anything else.

Others have pointed out, though, that there’s something about this winter for Dartmouth hockey that makes it an “almost” season. I’ve heard from more than one person a sympathetic lament for Gaudet who has been coaching the Big Green for almost two decades and never has secured an ECAC Championship. This team, this year, was probably good enough to make that happen. If the world looks down on the ice, ascribing value to a team solely based on wins and losses, then certainly it was a season that fell short. But it’s hard for me, whose spent the better part of two terms watching and wondering about players, on and off the ice, to see anything else that could be considered “almost” about it.

As Coach Gaudet emerged from the locker room following the team’s expulsion from the ECAC postseason, he just started talking before I’d had the opportunity to ask even a single question. I didn’t say a single word. I didn’t have to. He just got going. And after four and a half months of following a team who trusted each other, believed in each other like no team I have written about ever has, I had some vague, abstract idea of what he was talking about.

“We didn’t give ‘em a whole lot, and they didn’t take a whole lot,” Gaudet said. “It’s a really emotional time because it’s the last time these seniors will have a uniform on, but I can’t ask anything more from them. They left it all on the ice, and I mean that. There is absolutely nothing more.”