Undefeated men’s club hockey team to compete at nationals in St. Louis this week
The team has not lost a game in three years and is ranked 10th in the country heading into the tournament.
After a two year hiatus from the ice caused by COVID-19, the men’s club hockey team is right back where they left off in March of 2020: heading to nationals. The team will take its undefeated record to St. Louis, Missouri from March 10–15 to compete against other top American Club Hockey Association teams like the University of New Mexico and Grand Valley State University, the latter of which was the national runner-up in 2019 and is ranked second coming into the tournament. The Big Green hasn’t lost a game in the past three years and will enter the tournament ranked 10th in the Division III pool of the tournament.
The team is a mix of former high school players, former college varsity players and some former juniors players. Captain Andy McBurney ’23 had the opportunity to play hockey at the NCAA Division III level, but made the decision to prioritize his academics and applied to Dartmouth early decision instead.
“I didn’t want to just drop hockey completely, so I ended up emailing the club hockey coaches when I knew I got in early decision, and from there, I had no idea what I was getting into,” McBurney said. “I didn’t know if hockey would be a complete joke playing once a month or it would be really serious, but it’s been a good mix of having fun — definitely still a time commitment, but not taking over my entire life at Dartmouth.”
Other players had a less traditional transition to Dartmouth club hockey, like goaltender Michael Cullen TH, who played two years of Division III hockey at Amherst College before coming to Dartmouth to complete his dual degree in engineering sciences.
Up until five years ago, the team was self-run and worked like a high-functioning intramural men’s league with a couple games against other schools. According to current men’s club hockey and former Lebanon High School coach Gary Smith, members of the team came to the decision that they wanted to compete on a higher level and reached out to him.
“It was a perfect time — I was ready for a transition, I was starting a young family,” said Smith. “... We have such a diverse group, which is really good, and now I get the opportunity to coach kids from all over the country, whereas previously I was coaching kids from a small town in New Hampshire that I grew up in.”
While the team had a successful 2020 season, the break from the ice in 2021 posed some hurdles for the team when it returned this fall.
“When we started this year, we had basically 12 new players on the roster that had never played for us before and then a handful of returners — I think we were returning about eight,” said Smith. “But for the most part it was a relatively new team that had never played together and didn’t really know each other. Watching the kids come together has just been really good.”
Several of the players from the 2020 squad have graduated and moved on, but those that remain have the same goal in mind: to win nationals.
“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Cullen. “To even qualify, there are probably hundreds of club hockey teams — and for us, just with our strength of schedule, you can’t even take a night off. And for so many things to go our way through hard work and sacrifice, to look back and see how all of this adds up to what we have earned is really special. It’s a privilege to be able to play in an organized league. We’re really really lucky to be able to do this.”
Having won 16 of their 17 games this season, with the exception of one tie against Wentworth Institute of Technology, the Big Green is feeling confident going into tournament play but is prepared for a new brand of competition.
“Geographically, we are limited [in] the teams we can play, and now we are seeing what the rest of the country has to offer,” said Cullen. “We can’t rely on them to make mistakes. We have to produce our own chances through hard work and doing the right things.”
McBurney echoed Cullen’s sentiment and reiterated how the team needs to focus on its own skill rather than the other teams’ weaknesses.
“I found that the last couple of games have been a lot closer, and we’ve been trying to focus on playing good defense and playing smart in terms of not turning over the puck,” he said. “We know we are good enough to beat any team in our division this year, so it’s sort of up to us not to make any mistakes and let other teams capitalize on that.”
The Big Green’s first matchup of the tournament is against No. 7 University of New Mexico on Thursday.