by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last year was supposed to be the "culmination" year. Bob Gaudet took over the Dartmouth program in 1997, built it up, had a lot of senior forwards, and made a run to Lake Placid before losing the play-in game.
With all that scoring graduating, Gaudet himself thought it would take another couple years to build things up again and beyond.
Of course, it's always nice to have an experienced defense corps coming, and that can make up for a lot — especially when it's Pete Summerfelt, Trevor Byrne and P.J. Martin. And a senior in net, with Nick Boucher.
But what Gaudet didn't know — couldn't know — was how much of an impact his freshman class would have.
Six-feet, five-inch Hugh Jessiman stepped in and scored 22 goals and 46 points, and became the first ECAC player to win major ECAC hardware, the league's Rookie of the Year Award. He was the crowned jewel, and could be a first-round NHL draft pick, but he wasn't the only one. Mike Ouellette had 14 goals and 35 points, and Eric Przepiorka showed a lot of promise with 15 points. And sophomore Lee Stempniak rose his game to previously unseen levels, getting a chance to be in the spotlight and leading the team in scoring (21-28—49).
"We felt like we had a good, solid defensive core and were really solid in goal if Nick had a real good year," said Gaudet. "But the scoring was gonna be such an unknown. To think we'd have two 20-plus goal scorers on our team, and have a freshman score 40-plus points, I couldn't have expected that. I expected Hugh to maybe score in the 20s and he basically doubled his expectations. ... He came from a place [where] you wouldn't expect him to step right into Division I and hockey and have an impact."
Of course, potential first-round picks are often tempted to leave for the money of the pro ranks. But this is the Ivy League.
"I think we're going to have him for four years, unless I'm mistaken," said Gaudet. "At 220 or 225 pounds, that 20 or 25 pounds more. He's gonna be a pretty imposing kid. I just know him well enough and I know his folks well enough. And if that isn't the case, it's not like he's going anywhere right away. So i think we're going to have him for a while. And he's a super kid.
"He's drained, I think he ran out of gas at the very end. ... [But] he's pretty complete. He's amazed me at how good defensively he's got, and I think it's because he's so good with his hands. He's really a gem."
There's no doubt, however, that the Big Green will miss that defensive unit. Byrne was there for the turnaround and was an instrumental part of it. And despite the disappointment of never quite getting over the hump and making serious noise, Byrne was able to reflect on his four years, even right in the aftermath of Friday's 5-3 semifinal loss to Harvard.
"I was one of coach Gaudet's early classes to come in, and there's seven great seniors in our class that have seen the whole turnaround in Dartmouth hockey," said Byrne. "It's been really rewarding to see the juniors come in, sophomores and now a tremendous freshmen class, really coming in and being able to contribute the way they have. And as seniors, to be able to provide leadership along the way, and build off what the guys before were able to create. So it's been a great experience for all of us. It's tough to see it come to an end here, but we can step away knowing the team is in good hands, and the coaching staff here, and the real good players they've recruited."
And Gaudet doesn't believe the cupboard is bare defensively. Junior Brian Van Able will have to be an anchor, and he's very capable. And three big recruits are coming in, Rob Jarvis, Grant Lewis and Mike Hartwick, at 6-foot-2, 6-3, and 6-3, respectively.
"There's a kid, Dave Thompson, who pulled a groin against Colgate who's going to be a pretty good defenseman for us [too], a stay-at-home guy like P.J. Martin," Gaudet said. "And we have three coming in, all good-sized kids. It's going to take them time to acclimate. Maybe we'll have of an offensive team."
An offensive team? That has to make an old goalie cringe. Of course, goaltending will be another issue, with Boucher gone and the inconsistent and little-used Dan Yacey and Darren Gastrock set to battle with newcomer Sean Samuel.
But Yacey played very well in relief of Boucher in the semifinal, allowing no goals in 31:46 of time.
"Yacey comes into situations out of the blue and plays really, really well," said Gaudet. "I like to tell him right after warmups [he's starting] and throw him in there. Maybe play a couple shifts and [then] throw him in."
Gaudet knew he lost to a tough team on Friday, but there was lingering disappointment over getting so close again, especially in allowing Harvard to break out to a quick lead.
"It happens in a game. Whether it's being tentative or unfortunate bounces, you have to work yourself through it," said Gaudet. "I think we have a good hockey team, but we dug ourselves a hole. Why that happened, I don't know.
"Everybody who's associated with Dartmouth College should be proud of the effort. I can't ask for anything more."