Men at Work
Contact: Ben Badua
I. Welcome to Lake Placid
The hotel rooms weren’t the most luxurious. The fixtures were old, the twin beds creaky, and the furnishings Spartan. The locker rooms were cramped. The arena didn’t have some of the amenities of a newer, state-of-the-art facility.
But what the Olympic Training Center and Herb Brooks Arena did have was history. And looking to add to it, there was nowhere else the Amherst men’s ice hockey team would have rather been at the tail-end of a special season.
Wrapping up the prior campaign with a disappointing NESCAC quarterfinal loss to Bowdoin, the Lord Jeffs’ road to Lake Placid began in the spring of 2011. Fueled by a sense of underachievement, Amherst brought a renewed focus and dedication to its offseason workouts, an attitude that carried into the following fall and the preseason.
The Jeffs' renewed commitment to hard work began well before the start of the 2011-12 season.
Making a subtle change to its practice structure, the coaching staff looked to take advantage of the team’s improved drive. Instead of gradually working into competitive situations over the course of a session, the Jeffs would now do much of their warm-up off the ice. Once they stepped on the sheet, it was simply about two things: hard work and consistency.
“I’ve never had a team that worked as consistently hard as this group did,” said head coach Jack Arena. “Work ethic, intensity and focus were a part of the culture of the program. It was a constant theme during the year and I think that was the key to our success.”
Wandering around the OTC in the days leading up to their national semifinal showdown with Oswego State, the Lord Jeffs explored the various gyms, workout facilities and training rooms. Hanging on the walls were pictures of Olympians, both past and present, alongside the current athletes of the month. At the cafeteria they’d talk about who was sitting a table over. A speed skater? A luger?
At the coaches’ table they wondered about a physically imposing man in line for food who looked like he was carved out of stone. Maybe he’s one of the strength and conditioning coaches. No, I bet he’s a bobsledder. One of the guys that pushes the sled. Yea, that must be it. Amid the speculation, one thing was for certain: they were surrounded by world class athletes. Athletes, who with unequalled commitment, had reached the highest level of their respective sports.
On the eve of the game, Amherst joined the other three teams at an awards banquet. On the left side of the lobby was a table displaying Frozen Four merchandise. On the right side was the national championship trophy sitting alone on a small table for all to admire. Inside the banquet hall, through a set of large double doors, the teams sat together at large, circular tables, flanked by a pair of buffet lines. In the front stood a podium with four spotlighted jerseys, those of Norwich, St. Norbert, Oswego and Amherst.
Jonathan La Rose graduated as the NCAA's all-time career save percentage leader (.943).
Of the four teams in attendance, Amherst was the only one making its first trip to the Frozen Four. Perennial powers, the other three semifinalists had won a combined six national championships, including four of the last five. Yet it was a pair of Jeffs who walked away with the evening’s biggest honors, with Jonathan La Rose being named the National Player of the Year and Arena getting the nod as the National Coach of the Year.
“It’s a great honor,” said Arena while receiving congratulations from his players following the ceremony. “But as Coach (E.J.) Mills said, you always want to recruit well enough that it doesn’t come down to coaching.”
With La Rose, Arena had done just that. Although it’d taken the senior goaltender a while to regain the form that he showed during a stellar first-year campaign in 2009, by mid-season he was firing on all cylinders.
Through his first six starts, La Rose was very good, but not great. Stopping .921 (128-139) of the shots he faced with a 1.64 goals-against average, he was getting the job done, but was also showing some rust after a two-year absence. Playing behind a veteran group of defensemen in 2009, including National Player of the Year Jeff Landers ’09, he was only counted on for two or three big saves a game.
While this year’s unit was in many ways just as good (Amherst led the nation in scoring defense), he was seeing more shots, both in quantity and quality, and it was taking him a while to adjust to the game’s speed and playing back-to-back nights. Still looking to get into a groove at Bowdoin in early January, La Rose had his worst collegiate outing, giving up four goals through the first two periods, before surrendering three more scores on eight shots en route to a 7-4 loss.
Unfazed by the poor showing, he went right back to work in an effort to get back on track. It didn’t take long for him to rediscover his game. In his next three starts, he stopped 64 of the 65 shots he faced (.985). Over the final 13 appearances entering the Frozen Four La Rose was better than ever, going 13-0-0 with a .969 save percentage during that span.
II. Put on Your Hardhats
Maybe it was the size of the Olympic sheet. Maybe it had to do with the novelty of playing in the 1980 rink. Or maybe it was the gravity of being at their first Frozen Four. Whatever the reason, the Jeffs weren’t as sharp as they normally were during their practice the day before their national semifinal with Oswego. Their passes weren’t as crisp. Their positioning was off playing on a surface much bigger than Orr Rink and slightly bigger than UMass’ Mullins Center, where they practiced earlier in the week. Sensing his team’s compounding frustration, Arena called his guys in.
Brandon Hew began the tradition of the hardhat following a 3-0 loss to Utica.
“It’s only Friday,” he told them. “We don’t have to be our best today. This is just one step toward making sure we’re at our best tomorrow.”
After practice, everyone helped pack up the equipment. While most of the team ventured into downtown Lake Placid to kill some time before dinner, Brandon Hew—a junior—stayed behind to sharpen the team’s skates. Since the start of preseason, everybody had a role to play on this team. Everyone was accountable.
During the heart of a brutal nine-game midseason road trip, Amherst found itself in Clinton, N.Y., for an important conference game against Hamilton. In the waning moments of the period, senior defenseman Mike Baran brought the puck up ice. Instead of getting it deep, he tried to stickhandle through the neutral zone before turning it over, allowing the Continentals to get a shot off just before the buzzer. Skating toward the bench, one of the Jeffs’ first-years called out the senior captain. You have to get that deep. Acknowledging his mistake, an egoless Baran quickly agreed with his rookie teammate. That was not the Amherst way. He had to be better.
The following night the Jeffs put together a poor performance in front of 3,000 upstate New Yorkers in a 3-0 loss at Utica. Walking to their locker room, they heard the jeers from the Pioneer faithful. They’d relied too much on their talent instead of outworking their opponent. Back in Amherst on Monday, Hew came into the dressing room with a yellow hardhat in hand.
He placed the hat on a table in the center of the room with a message for the team. The hat (which was later accompanied by a shovel) soon came to represent the team’s commitment to hard work. A subtle reminder of what it would take to win, the guys danced around it after victories. It came on the road with them. They turned it into a hashtag on Twitter messages.
Down 1-0 in the regular season finale against Middlebury, Amherst looked dead in the water. They were outshot 28-8 over the first two periods. The Panthers were dominating every facet of the game and it looked like the Jeffs didn’t have any answers. With the seeding for the NESCAC Championship already locked in and a banged up Amherst squad set to host the first round of the conference tourney the following weekend, conventional wisdom would have had them pack it in, hoping to just get out of a raucous Kenyon Arena without any injuries.
Instead, the Jeffs battled back. From the drop of the puck in the third period, it was a different game. A switch had been flipped and visitors wasted no time turning the tables. Settling into a rhythm, Amherst put shot after shot on net before getting the equalizer at 9:31. Shorthanded just over five minutes later, they buried the game winner. They outshot Middlebury 13-3 in the final frame. Put on your hardhats, boys.
The Jeffs rode their hardhat mentality all the way to a second NESCAC title and third NCAA Tournament berth.
Cruising to a 6-0 win over Hamilton in the NESCAC quarterfinals, Amherst would be without senior captain Eddie Effinger during the semifinals and finals but it didn’t matter. They were getting scoring from four lines. Fifteen different players had double-digit points. Ten had at least five goals. Twelve scored in the conference tournament and first round of the NCAAs. Someone would step up. Someone always steps up. Against Williams, Andrew Fenwick, a first-year who had seen action in just six games, scored to put the Jeffs ahead. Later, senior defenseman Jeremy Deutsch buried just his second goal of the year to give Amherst a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish. Put on your hardhats, boys.
In a rematch against Middlebury in the NESCAC final, the Jeffs went down 2-0 in the first 10 minutes. Arena knew his team felt the pressure of hosting the championship game on home ice. Calling a timeout after the Panthers’ second score he tried to settle the team down. Just play. You don’t have to do anything different because it’s the NESCAC Championship. It’s been good enough all year.
Senior Mark Colp responded with a goal at the tail-end of the period. Then, during a dominant 10-minute stretch in the second, the Jeffs erupted for three more scores. With that, the tables were once again turned just like at Middlebury two weeks earlier, giving the Purple & White its second conference championship and a remarkable 17-1-0 record against NESCAC opponents. Put on your hardhats, boys.
III. The Ragamuffin Group
Amherst’s morning-skate routine on gamedays probably isn’t what most people would expect from one of the nation’s best teams. It was the one on-ice venture the workmanlike Jeffs treated rather informally. As the bus left for Herb Brooks Arena the morning of Semifinal Saturday, several members of the team were notably absent. Some of those who were there didn’t have any intention on skating. Over the course of 28 games, the optional skate had become as engrained in the team’s culture as the hardhat. Since it was working, why change now?
The previous weekend, hockey’s elite got its first taste of Amherst’s unconventional practices. Making their 20th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, two-time national champion Plattsburgh was used to being the focus of everyone’s attention. They almost always played in front of thousands at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena and they traveled with nearly as much fanfare.
Despite being the higher seed Amherst embraced its role as the underdog against two-time national champion Plattsburgh.
Acutely aware of the Cardinals’ cult following, Arena wanted to prepare his team for the sea of red that was inevitably going to take over Orr Rink. Knowing the guys felt the pressure of hosting the NESCAC Championship as the favorite just days earlier, he played up the upstart Jeffs’ role as underdogs (despite technically being the higher seed). When Plattsburgh requested a pregame skate time following Amherst’s, it all fell into place.
Arriving with trunks of equipment, the Cardinals were set to take the ice in full gear and ready to go through a regimented routine. Arena’s “ragamuffin group,” on the other hand, had other ideas. There they were (those that showed up, anyway) in mesh shorts. Knee-high socks. Some in t-shirts, some in full gear. All mismatched. It had fed into the David vs. Goliath jokes the coaching staff had made all week, and the team’s relaxed attitude carried over into its matchup with a Division III powerhouse.
Falling behind 1-0 in the opening period, there was no panic. Back in uniform, Effinger kicked off another 10-minute offensive explosion with the equalizer at 6:28 of the second. First-year Aaron Deutsch then gave the Jeffs the lead at 14:28, before Effinger struck again with his 10th of the year at 16:34.
Punching their first-ever ticket to the Final Four, the Jeffs just kept finding ways to win. During a pivotal four-game stretch early in the season, Amherst picked up NESCAC wins over Wesleyan, Trinity, Williams and Middlebury, all by one goal. They notched three comeback wins over the final two weeks. Once again ousting the rival Ephs and Panthers on consecutive days by the slimmest of margins, they had now upped their record in one-goal affairs to 9-0. Most years, that just doesn’t happen.
And if they ever got ahead of you it was all but a done deal. They were 18-0 when scoring first, 17-0 when leading after the opening period and 20-0 when up after two. After putting away the Cardinals they finished the year with one final unblemished mark, going 14-0 at Orr Rink.
IV. Game Day
Pacing outside the Amherst locker room, Arena was anxious to take the ice for the team’s 7 p.m. showdown with Oswego. With the players beginning to warm up and go through their pregame stretches in the tunnel, the assistant coaches were perched high above the action on media row in the upper recesses of the arena, scouting the first semifinal between St. Norbert and Norwich.
As the clock ticked closer to game time, Arena searched for the words he'd use to address his team during the pregame talk. In his 29 seasons at the helm of the Amherst program, if there was one thing he’d learned, it’s that less is more. There would be no fiery motivational speech. Those, he found, rarely worked. If anything, they were reserved for lackluster Saturday afternoon games in February. Not now. Not moments before the Frozen Four.
Eddie Effinger gave Amherst new life with a game-tying goal with 22 seconds left in regulation.
Instead, what he felt they needed was consistency. They were hyped up and anxious enough as it was. Keeping it typically low key, he simply reminded his players of the intensity and focus it’d taken them to get to this point. There was no reason to be in awe of the moment or of the opponent. They belonged.
From the opening whistle, Arena’s words rang true. Like a heavyweight fight, both teams felt each other out, trading punches with neither giving an inch in a tightly contested first period. As the second frame wore on, it became clear that the Amherst’s defense could adsorb pressure, stifling what was the nation’s second-highest scoring offense and frustrating the Lakers' top line. But the Jeffs struggled to generate quality chances of their own on the other end.
Addressing his team during the second intermission, Arena’s message was clear. Oswego’s defense was better than anticipated. There would be no pretty scores. The strategy would simply have to be to get the puck to the front of the net and hope for a screen, a rebound or a deflection.
Still scoreless midway through the third, one of the teams finally broke through, but it was the Lakers drawing first blood. Taking advantage of an Amherst turnover, Ian Boots ripped a hard, rising shot from the left circle over the shoulder of La Rose to suddenly put Oswego on top. Unfazed, the Jeffs went right back to work.
“You give up a goal with 10 minutes left in the national semifinal, it’s not as if it had no effect,” said Arena. “But it had about as little effect on the team as it could have and we just kept at it.”
As the time dipped under the two-minute mark, there was no sense of desperation—merely a steely look of confidence and determination that they’d tie things up. Pulling La Rose for an extra skater, Amherst won a faceoff just outside the Oswego blue line. When the puck found its way to Aaron Deutsch at the point, the first-year ripped a shot on net. Pushing the rebound to the back post, Johnny Van Siclen found the stick of Effinger, who had been waiting outside of the scrum for the puck to squirt through. And it did. Just like that, Effinger had Amherst on the board and back in business (with 22 seconds to spare).
Given new life, the Jeffs stood poised to complete an unbelievable comeback. Peppering the Laker net in the first five minutes of overtime, they were creating their best scoring opportunities of the game. Colp nearly ended it with a shot from point-blank range. Dylan Trumble stood on the doorstep of an open net, but the puck took an unfortunate bounce over his stick. Amherst had all of the momentum.
But in a blink of an eye, it was over.
Bringing the puck up ice, Paul Moodie slid a pass just inches beyond the outstretched stick of Jeremy Deutsch to send Paul Rodrigues, one of the nation’s leading scorers, in alone on a breakaway. Moving from right to left, the forward patiently waited for La Rose to go down before lifting a backhander just over the senior’s stick and flailing pad to push the Lakers through. They’d won it on their first and only shot of overtime.
Riding a wave of momentum, Amherst generated its best chances in overtime but just couldn't connect.
As Rodrigues rushed to celebrate, dropping to his knees and sliding across center ice, it was like time momentarily stood still. The Jeffs’ miracle run had finally come to an end in the most excruciating fashion. There was no clock winding down. No last-minute heave. No last out to record. No way to prepare for what had just happened. What moments earlier had seemed well within their grasp, was now suddenly ripped away.
In the aftermath of Oswego’s sudden death victory, Arena took a few seconds to process his emotions before turning his attention to his players. The abruptness was the hardest part to deal with, and he wanted to make sure they were handling it. As the Jeffs made their way to the locker room, they did so to cheers and sincere congratulations from both Amherst and Oswego fans alike. It was a tremendous game, and it was clear to anyone that witnessed it that both teams left everything on the ice.
While the disappointment was palpable, the Jeffs seemed to keep it all within perspective. It had been an unforgettable year. They set a school record for wins (24). They won a second NESCAC title and their 17-1-0 league record was the second-best run in conference history. They advanced to the national semifinal for the first time. More importantly, they stood toe-to-toe with a perennial powerhouse and were one play, one break, one bounce away from playing for a national championship.
In the locker room, Arena told his team he had only one regret: that he would not have the opportunity to coach them for just one more day. Following the coaching staff’s remarks, the players took a few moments to talk amongst themselves and express how much this season had meant to them. At the postgame press conference, the mood was solemn, but also optimistic as they focused on a tremendous effort and the program’s bright future.
“This will definitely change our expectations,” said Arena. “But there’s a difference in expecting to be there and feeling entitled. If everything falls right, we can win a national championship. There’s so much that goes into it. Just because we’ve been here once, doesn’t mean it’s a regular thing.”
Better put on your hardhats, boys.