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It was 1981, at Hobey Baker Rink in Princeton. The Dartmouth men’s ice hockey team was on its way to a 4-3 overtime loss to the Tigers when a visitor in the stands named Dan Gaudet found himself in the middle of a loud disagreement between opposing fans. Big mistake for the Tiger faithful, because Dan’s son Robert was in net for Dartmouth.

It probably won’t surprise anyone who has watched Bob Gaudet work the bench for Brown and Dartmouth these last 10 years to hear that he nearly came off the ice to protect his father. Depending upon who is telling the story, the younger Gaudet either attempted to climb into the stands or merely stood in the Zamboni runway and let his feelings for his father’s safety be known.

Either way, you don’t doubt that Gaudet was in the thick of things, because he is, well, somewhat uninhibited once the puck drops.

You may be surprised to know, however, that Gaudet is a little bit embarrassed about his reputation as a firebrand. You may be even more astonished to learn that, once the game ends, there are few people in the game of college hockey who are more of a joy to be around on a day-to-day basis.

“Bob has a couple of personalities,” Vermont coach Mike Gilligan opined. “He is a real easy guy to talk to, with a great sense of humor. At the (annual NCAA) coaches’ convention, he and (St. Lawrence’s) Joe Marsh are the two guys you want to be poolside with. But Bob certainly puts on his game face once the game starts.”

Having been subject to a few of Gaudet’s diatribes from the bench when he was at Brown, you can imagine how some of the Big Green skaters must have felt last spring when they heard who would be their next coach. After six frustrating seasons in which the team never seemed to meet its potential, the university kicked Roger Demment upstairs to a position as director of physical education, and undertook what turned out to be a brief search for his replacement.

“(Gaudet) used to just scream at us from the bench when he was at Brown,” said Dartmouth senior defenseman Shaun Peet. “He was such an intense coach. Some guys were a little skeptical that he was going to be our coach. They weren’t sure if it would be like boot camp or what.”

If Dartmouth’s top priority was finding a new coach with top-notch credentials and the ability to resuscitate an ailing program, they hired the right man. Gaudet took over the Bears in 1988, when the program was at its lowest ebb. Talent? The Bears had a few promising players, including Chris Harvey, Steven King and Mike Brewer, but depth and character were lacking.

Enter Gaudet. Brown won its opener, 5-4, in Hanover of all places — and proceeded to lose the next 25, surrendering 10 or more goals on five occasions. The Bears’ coaching staff worked hard to recruit grittier, quicker and more skilled players, resulting in a big step up to 10 wins in 1989-90 with rookies Derek Chauvette, Mike Ross and Scott Hanley leading the charge.

Brown skated to the Ivy League title in 1991-92, ending Harvard’s six-year stranglehold on the prize. Gaudet coached his team to an NCAA appearance in 1995, two trips to the ECAC semifinals and a second Ivy title. He was honored as ECAC Coach of the Year and was twice a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award, given to the national coach of the year.

“I fulfilled a lot of goals that I had at Brown, but obviously we had our struggles last year,” said Gaudet, whose final Bear team was 7-19-3 in the second year of a rebuilding phase. “The future of that program is very good (Brown is tied for fifth in the ECAC). We left behind a very good group, including our best recruiting class since Chauvette’s. I know that if we had stayed, it would have rebounded very quickly.”

So why leave Providence? After all, Gaudet was offered employment elsewhere once before, at Ohio State in 1994, but turned it down because he was happy with his arrangement at Brown.

“There comes a point where it is time to move on, and my boys are nine and ten — it would have been tough to wait any longer,” said Gaudet, who also has a daughter, age three. “It was a gut-wrenching call. It was certainly not a financial decision. The package that I got is very similar to what I had at Brown.”

The truth is that Gaudet made the move for his family, and for the opportunity to coach at his alma mater. He regretted the long nights on the road or in the coaches’ office, away from his wife and children, and felt that the intimacy of Hanover would be better suited for his role as dad and husband.

With a house just two miles from the rink and no traffic to interfere, his time at home has increased substantially.

“Brown was a wonderful place, but my wife (Lynne) is a Dartmouth graduate (class of ’81) and we wanted to raise a family here,” Gaudet said. “It is such a nice area, [and] it’s much lower-key here. I had to be sure that when I moved from Brown it was for the right reasons. I am trying to keep things more in perspective, and this was a compromise.”

The move has already paid of for Gaudet and Dartmouth alike. The Big Green started slowly, but have been on a tear as of late as they charge up the ECAC standings. Dartmouth is now 11-10-4 overall and only three points out of fifth place in the league, after taking three of four points in a weekend series at Cornell and Colgate and then trouncing Union Friday before dropping an overtime decision to Rensselaer. Among their victories is a 4-1 decision over Providence for the Sheraton/USAirways Tournament championship.

“We have kids who work incredibly hard and really want to do well,” Gaudet said. “With the exception of a couple of games, we have had chances to win every night. I just want these seniors to go out on a positive note.”

“Coach has brought integrity to the program,” explains Peet, who speaks of Gaudet with the reverence of an apostle. “If you are not playing, he explains exactly why. He treats us like men, which is so important. He makes it fun to go to the rink every day, where it used to be just awful. I still think that he is very intense, but I no longer think that he is just some loose cannon.”

Lightening up the atmosphere is one key to Gaudet’s continued success. Austin Powers and Dumb and Dumber are now fair game for the VCR on the team bus, where they might have been vetoed in the past for their, er, lack of intellectual content. Gaudet can kill you with deadpan humor or break up the troops with an outrageous locker-room routine on senior Charlie Retter’s chances against a 70-year-old Gordie Howe.

Moreover, Gaudet returned the concept of Dartmouth pride to Thompson Arena. He immediately trashed the Big Green’s new-look European uniforms, complete with a flying “D”, for the simple, traditional jersey with the name of the school across the chest. He and head assistant coach Brian McCloskey, also an alumnus, never let their players forget who they represent.

On the ice, Gaudet has transformed Dartmouth into a spitting image of his Brown teams.

“Gaudet teams are in your face quite a bit,” Gilligan said. “They play strong defensive hockey and they involve all five guys in the forecheck.”

Teams under Gaudet’s tutelage also play at a high tempo, a trait that carries over from practice. A Gaudet practice is short and intense. He sets goals for each session and practice ends when those goals are met, even if it only takes an hour and a half.

Dartmouth managed to discard one characteristic of recent Gaudet teams. Brown was frequently among the most-penalized teams in the league — never lower than fourth in the past four seasons. The Big Green, however, have kept team penalty minutes to under 20 a game.

“Coach wants you to play tough between whistles, but don’t try to be so manly after the whistle,” said senior forward David Whitworth, the team’s leading scorer. “We have worked hard at finding that balance. We have strict orders from the coaches not to lose control, and we have enough respect for them to do as we are told.”

Gaudet maintains that he has also toned down his act on the bench from past years. As a rookie, he became so worked up at Vermont that he hyperventilated and had to miss the third period of an 8-4 loss. Even in more recent seasons, it was not uncommon to see Gaudet race after the referees at intermission or to turn red in the face as he hollered at the officials from the bench.

“As you get older, you mellow out,” Gaudet maintains. “I started at 28, 29 years old with an extremely weak program. I had to prove to the kids that I was behind them every day. The kids came to expect a certain energy level from me at every practice, every game. When it wasn’t there, you could see the kids wondering, `What is wrong with Coach?’

“Coming here, I have tried to be a little less emotional. No less competitive, but I can have a fresh start emotionally and not take myself out of the game mentally.”

“Bob has not eased up a bit,” said Gilligan, who has seen the Big Green several times this season. “He is still fiery, still vocal. But I am sure that he is still well-liked by his players despite being demanding of them and of himself.”

Gaudet readily admits that his bench demeanor may have rubbed some referees the wrong way in the past.

“It is an emotional game, but it has to be focused,” he said. “My teams at Brown played very hard, with a lot of emotion. I have to think that helped more than it hurt, but I have no question that it did hurt us at some times. I understand more about referees now. It is not that I won’t say my piece, but I understand the reality better of how difficult a job it is. I have a different attitude now that I am 38 and I hope that there is mutual respect.”

Even as Gaudet works towards getting better control of his emotions and toward what he hopes will be a memorable culmination to his first year at Dartmouth, he is looking ahead to subsequent seasons. Once again, he wants skilled recruits who abhor losing.

Gaudet knows that it will be tough to replace Whitworth and his classmates, but the coach is determined to keep the program moving forward.

“The potential of this program is absolutely untapped,” Gaudet said. “You have academics and financial obstacles, but Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Cornell have those obstacles, too. There is no reason why Dartmouth can’t be a formidable program.”

The Big Green already have a formidable coach. Opposing fans may not love Gaudet, but they might if they had a chance to meet him — after the game.