Why Eric Ehn Should Win the Hobey
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
It's not often that the Air Force Academy's hockey program is being talked about at this stage of the season. But thanks to one standout forward, the Falcons get to share some of the spotlight as the Frozen Four approaches.
Why? Because the Hobey Baker Award is on the line.
The official Hobey web site features an article, by Bill Esposito, describing Hobey Baker himself, the great Princeton hockey and football star, and one of the most legendary sports figures of the early 20th century.
Describing Baker's post-Princeton career, Esposito writes, "He enlisted as a pilot in World War I and was part of the federal Lafayette Escadrille in France, flying with Rickenbacker and flying against Von Richtofen and Goering. He shot down three German planes in dogfights so gloriously depicted in the movies 'Hells Angels' and 'Dawn Patrol," and having survived the war, looked forward to the world remaining for him to conquer. Just before he was to leave France to return for a hero's welcome, he was killed while testing a repaired aircraft. He was 26."
Almost a century later, college hockey's most famous and illustrious award is, of course, named after Baker, and for the first time in the 26-year history of the Hobey Baker Award, a member of a United States service academy is one of the three finalists for consideration.
Eric Ehn, a junior from Dexter, Mich., finished the season second in the nation in scoring (24 goals, 40 assists) while leading the Air Force Academy to its first-ever Atlantic Hockey championship and NCAA tournament appearance. Joining Ehn in the Hobey Hat Trick are North Dakota sophomore forward Ryan Duncan and Notre Dame senior goaltender David Brown.
Could this be the year that a player from Atlantic Hockey wins, for the first time, college hockey's most prestigious individual award?
Before delving into numbers and statistics, consider the official criteria for the award selection:
1. Candidates must exhibit strength of character both on and off the ice.
2. Candidates must contribute to the integrity of character both on and off the ice.
3. Consideration should be given to scholastic achievement and sportsmanship.
4. Candidates must comply with all NCAA rules: be full time students in an accredited NCAA college or university; and completed 50 percent or more of the season.
The criteria clearly stress intangible qualities, much like those that Baker himself possessed — qualities beyond pure numbers like goal and assist totals, qualities that stress integrity and intelligence, both on and off the ice.
With regards to the third criterion, Ehn was named not just the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year, but also to the conference's All-Academic squad. And, of course, he is a reminder — much like Baker was — that hockey should sometimes be put into perspective when considering that skating in a rink on behalf of your team must pale in comparison to fighting in a war on behalf of your country. Is there a better definition for "strength of character" than that?
The voting for the Award is complete, and it remains to be seen whether the voters took into consideration Ehn's dedication, discipline, loyalty and scholastic achievement that augment an already impressive resume that includes setting the Atlantic Hockey single-season scoring record. And while Brown and Duncan are more than deserving of all their accolades this season, Ehn has managed to make a name for himself playing at a school that offers no scholarships, that can recruit only U.S.-born players, and that was within 10 minutes of beating Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament last week.
Note, as well, that nowhere in the official criteria above is a requirement that the Hobey recipient be the WCHA's top scoring forward or defenseman — which sounds strange, but that's who the Hobey has been awarded to each of the last five seasons. Over time, the Award has become more about the player with the nation's most high-profile statistics, and some of the original meaning of the Award may have been lost. After all, the Award is a Memorial award, one that should honor the characteristics and qualities that Hobey Baker himself represented.
Not surprisingly, though, the WCHA's leading forward — Ryan Duncan — is one of the Hat Trick finalists this year, but he has scored less points than Ehn while playing in more games. Ehn also has an amazing plus-26 rating, compared to Duncan's plus-15. Some readers may be thinking that some of Ehn's stats are a product of playing in a weaker league. Perhaps a case can be made for this, but consider that Ehn kept up his 1.60 points per game in 12 nonconference games this year, meaning he was just as productive in games played outside of the Atlantic Hockey regular season as he was during it.
Aside from his statistics, Ehn is the element leader in his squadron and has exhibited other leadership qualities off the ice as well. He helped organize the Walk for a Cure for juvenile diabetes, has helped with literacy projects at numerous schools, and has helped distribute toys to hospitalized children over the holidays.
Not bad for a player who, through his entire career, has been doubted every step of the way. Ehn is only 5-foot-9 and weighs less than 180 pounds. His physical presence, needless to say, is not imposing. But he's managed to shine regardless.
Said Air Force head coach Frank Serratore, "He's a very talented kid, and he's got that great hockey sense — great hands. He's one of those guys that sees the ice in slow motion. We knew he'd be a good player for us, but we didn't know he'd be this good. He's one of those kids who, at every level, from youth hockey up, people have doubted that he'd be able to make the transition to the next step.
"And at every level, not only has he made the transition, he's excelled at the next level."
To be fair, he's not the only one. CCHA and Notre Dame fans might ask, "Why not David Brown?" It's a fair point. After all, Brown led the nation with a 1.58 goals against average and had a .931 save percentage while leading Notre Dame to the NCAA quarterfinal round last weekend.
Brown was 30-6-3 with six shutouts, and he also excelled academically, much like Ehn did.
But Brown has the unfortunate — and perhaps unfair — problem of naturally being compared to goaltenders of the past several years who have been considered for the Hobey. In fact, the last goaltender to win the Award was Ryan Miller (2001), who is now chasing a Stanley Cup with the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. For Michigan State that season, Miller had a 1.32 goals against average, a .950 save percentage, and a mindblowing 10 shutouts.
And as discussed by CHN in an article last May, it has become increasingly difficult — perhaps as a result of Miller's outstanding numbers — for a goaltender to win the Hobey.
Though this isn't fair to do for many reasons — especially after just talking about how this Award is about more than mere numbers — compare Brown's stats for Notre Dame this year side-by-side with Miller, as well as with some other goaltenders who have been Hobey Hat Trick finalists since Miller won the award:
1.32 GAA; .950 SV%; 10 shutouts — Michigan State's Ryan Miller (2001)
1.20 GAA; .940 SV%; 8 shutouts — Cornell's David LeNeveu (2003)
1.24 GAA; .947 SV%; 10 shutouts — Cornell's David McKee (2005)
1.55 GAA; .938 SV%; 9 shutouts — Wisconsin's Brian Elliott (2006)
1.58 GAA; .931 SV%; 6 shutouts — Notre Dame's David Brown (2007)
The numbers alone seem to speak for themselves; Brown's are the least impressive out of all of them. But a popular notion in recent years is that a goaltender may actually be able to win the Hobey in a year in which there isn't a dominant scorer. Could this favor Brown in the voting? After all, this season, no player reached the 70-point plateau.
But in 2005, McKee was passed up for the Hobey by Colorado College's Marty Sertich, who had only 64 points — coincidentally, the exact number that Eric Ehn has this year.
Will the situation this season be reversed, with the Award going to a goaltender who has less impressive numbers than McKee did, just because Ehn plays in Atlantic Hockey? One would hope not.
Returning to Esposito's words in his article on the official Hobey site, he writes, "[Baker] was typical of the heroes of that Horatio Alger period, young men strong of heard, sound of limb, confident but not cocky in the knowledge that they could do whatever job was given them and do it with joy, with elan, with a zest for competition."
So, keeping in mind these often impalpable attributes and what it means to represent the honor of Hobey Baker, does Eric Ehn deserve to win this Award?
We'll find out on Friday in St. Louis.