Tennis Balls: Harbingers of a Title?

by David Sherzer | 2/22/02 6:00am

It's that time of year again -- when Omer & Bob's sells out of tennis balls, and even those who can't tell a faceoff from a slapshot clamor for a good seat at Thompson Arena.

That's right -- the Dartmouth men's hockey team hosts Princeton tonight at 7 p.m. in the annual "tennis-ball game," in which fans, in one of the most bizarre traditions in sports, pelt the Princeton goalie with tennis balls following the first Big Green goal.

"It's one of those things that's a traditional college hockey event," center Jamie Herrington '02 said. "I think it's exciting. You'd be surprised how many people around here don't know anything about hockey, but they all seem to know about the tennis-ball game.

"They know that against Princeton, they'll get a chance to unleash some of their fury on the opposing goaltender," Herrington added. "I'm excited about it. I just hope we can get out there and pump one in really early."

The Big Green men, who swept Cornell and Colgate last weekend with a pair of thrilling last-minute victories, have much incentive to score early and often tonight, as a win will earn them a share of the program's first Ivy League championship since 1980 with Cornell and possibly Harvard.

Dartmouth (12-9-4, 9-5-4 ECAC, 5-2-1 Ivy) hosts Yale tomorrow night, and with a three- or four-point weekend, the Big Green will claim the Ivy title outright.

"We've been in the mix before," veteran Chris Taliercio '02 said. "But this year, we're in a position where we're in first place and we have a chance to win it on home ice. I've never felt like this before. It's exciting."

The tennis-ball game is a "tradition" that actually stretches back only five years or so.

According to long-time followers of Big Green men's hockey, it originated as a payback gesture for a Princeton custom that has since died out.

At Princeton's Hobey Baker Rink, fans used to throw tennis balls at the opposing goalie after the first goal of the season, and the Dartmouth netminder was the unlucky recipient of that wrath not too long ago.

Later that season, the Big Green fans exacted revenge by pulling the same stunt against the Tiger goalie.

Before long, it caught on as an annual tradition.

"I'm a huge fan of the tennis-ball game," defenseman Trevor Byrne '03 said. "I think it's a good way to get the community and student body involved."

Most players echo Byrne's excitement, but not everyone is looking forward to the spectacle.

Head coach Bob Gaudet '81, for one, would like to see disappear.

"On my side of it, I'd like to see it peter out," Gaudet said this week. "As coach of the team, we really appreciate the fan support. But at this point, I don't think we have too many people who just come to throw tennis balls. I think people come to see the team play well."

Gaudet, who was a goalie on Dartmouth's last Ivy championship team, has engineered a rebuilding process for the program since his arrival prior to the 1997-98 season.

"We're trying to take the steps to bring the program to a high level within our league and in the country," Gaudet said. "With that in mind, I think this particular tradition is antiquated. We're not a juggernaut, by any stretch of the imagination, but we've developed rivalries with a lot of different teams within our league. I don't see where Princeton is the focal point."

Nevertheless, most players see positives in the admittedly quirky tradition.

"I think it's pretty fun," Taliercio said. "Most other schools, like UNH, throw a fish out every game when they score the first goal. I think it's an amazing sight when 1,000 tennis balls are in the air."

Co-captain Mike Maturo '02 agreed. "I think it's great," he said. "Some people say that it kills momentum when we score a goal, but the bottom line is that it brings in more fans to the arena, and that's what we want."

Byrne, for one, doesn't think the lengthy tennis-ball cleanup will be a momentum killer.

"There are a lot of things in hockey that can kill momentum," the junior said. "You have teams like RPI who take a minute-and-a-half between every faceoff. We're a team that's really ready every single faceoff. One break in the game is not a big deal. I think anything that gets an extra thousand people into the rink is pretty special."

Aside from the tennis balls, the emphasis this weekend will be on the Ivy title, which would be a fitting prize for a senior class that has played a substantial part in the Big Green's on-ice rebirth.

The Class of 2002 missed the playoffs by a single point its first season; made the postseason but got swept in a first-round series with Rensselaer in 1999-2000 and advanced all the way to the ECAC semifinals last year.

Now, the seniors have a chance to help the Big Green hang its first championship banner in Thompson Arena in 22 years.

"When we came in four years ago, we were all focused on the rebuilding process," Chris Baldwin '02 said. "We definitely thought things would come quicker than they did. But as the years have gone on, we've expected to win more and we've accomplished more.

"This year, it would be nice to take that next step and get ourselves a championship."

The Big Green, which is currently in second place in the ECAC standings and -- with a successful weekend -- could take a big step toward earning home-ice in the first round of the playoffs, will feature a slightly altered lineup.

This week, Gaudet and his assistants had to decide whether to continue starting each game with an essentially balanced set of offensive lines -- as they have done all season -- or to go with a lineup that features two so-called "super lines" of proven scorers.

The coaches chose the latter, crafting a line chart that includes the traditional top line of Maturo, Kent Gillings '03 and Mike Murray '03, along with the equally potent trio of Baldwin, Herrington and rookie Lee Stempniak.

Herrington and Stempniak have paired together all season, but Baldwin is a newcomer, although the senior skated with the other two late in each game last weekend. The resulting line combined for all five of the team's goals, including both game-winners.

"You can't really argue with the results," said Baldwin, whose spot on senior Frank Nardella's line will be filled by Jason Costa '04. "Last weekend, we scored five goals out of the five the team scored. That's not too bad.

"At this point in the season, we no longer have to spread out everything through the four lines. This is the time when you play the guys who are going well. It just happens to be us right now."

Herrington, for one, is glad to have his classmate flanking the left side.

"I think Baldy adds so much over on the left wing -- great speed, an unbelievable shot and he's always going at the net hard," the center said. "He's one of those guys who can create something out of nothing. When you're playing with those guys, you can just dish off the puck and let them work their magic."

Gaudet has high hopes for the new lineup, but is quick to point out that nothing is permanent.

"I've got a lineup sheet that I'm willing to scrap four shifts into the game if I have to," the coach said. "That's really the important thing. We have 12 forwards who will play in the game, all of whom will play an important role on the team. I have to be flexible enough to read and react during the game.

"We're still trying to have a balanced attack," he added, "but we're trying to take advantage of any spark that we've found, because it's hard to score in this league.

"I feel very good about our chances this weekend."