It would be hard for anyone to argue with the success the Middlebury College Panthers have exhibited in winning seven of the past eleven national championships since the NESCAC school was allowed to play in the tournament, starting in 1995. Head Coach Bill Beaney has had very talented teams in winning those championships, but the hallmarks for any successful team from Middlebury can be found in strong goaltending, a commitment to defense and at this time for the year, leadership.
“Leadership means a lot to a hockey team during the season and especially at this point in the season where the intensity level is so high,” said Beaney. “You need your team to do the little things for each other out on the ice that can be the difference in winning a hockey game and leadership is so important to making that happen.”
During the past two championship seasons, the Panthers were led by John Dawson and Brian Phinney, whose leadership was key in helping the Panthers meet the rigorous challenges of playoff hockey. In fact, last season was just barely over and the Panthers were already focusing on a key piece of the puzzle for this season.
As I walked away from the jubilant Middlebury locker room and away from the victory celebrations, I reached a quiet area of the corridor where I congratulated Coach Beaney on a terrific season and another championship. Jokingly, I told him he could relax and break out the golf clubs, not having to worry about next season just yet. The coach just smiled and said, “We are already working on next season, this year’s captain is picking out the guy for next year.” Enter senior Jeff Smith to continue what has become an important ingredient to the Panthers success.
Smith, a native of Nepean, Ontario, has faced a different challenge this season than his predecessors. In looking at the Middlebury roster, what strikes you is their youth. In fact, Smith is the only senior that regularly plays and there aren’t that many juniors to go around either. Ten sophomores and five freshman see a lot of ice time for Middlebury and that has led Smith to feed off what he learned from his predecessors. “We have had some ups and downs this season in terms of really being on our game, noted the senior captain. “I really took away the philosophy that is Middlebury hockey from playing with Brian and John during those championship seasons and the importance of the history and tradition that we represent on the ice. We have a motto – Believe. Believe that you are going to do it and believe in the group, the team. It’s something you start getting as a freshman and it continues.”
Coach Beaney has been impressed with the job Smith has done this year with such a young team. “We have lost some key guys over the past two seasons and they have been replaced by young players. I am surprised at where we are this year based on how young we are. I have to remind myself sometimes about our youth. Jeff has been an important piece in getting the guys to all play together and they all look up to him.”
In citing an example of Jeff Smith’s leadership qualities, Coach Beaney described an event that took place during the last regular season home game against Amherst College. Appropriately it was Senior Day and the score was tied 1-1 moving late into the third period. In fact, Amherst had the better of the play and was outshooting the Panthers when Smith headed to the bench and suggested to his coach that a timeout was needed.
“I told him that I had nothing to say, so if he wanted to call the timeout to go ahead and say what he wanted to say,” said Beaney.
Smith told the referee he wanted the timeout and brought the players away from the bench to the front of the goal.
“This was about the players,” said Smith. “I didn’t want the coaches to hear so I brought the guys to the goal area. I just reminded them that we needed to be hitting our stride coming into the playoffs and reminded them to make it happen. I brought up our motto – Believe. And I told them that they needed to remember the motto and go do it.”
Apparently everyone got the message, even the captain himself.
With a minute and a half remaining in regulation time, Smith himself broke down the ice and netted the game winner. It was an unassisted goal that gave the panthers a 2-1 lead. Mickey Gilchrist would add an empty net goal for the final tally in the 3-1 win and the Panthers ended the regular season on a high note entering the post-season.
“If someone had written this story in one of the campus classrooms for a writing class, everyone would be groaning about how corny it was,” laughed Beaney. “But that’s what happened out on the ice. It really shows the level of respect the team has for Jeff and his ability to bring them together.”
The Division III version of the Frozen Four begins this weekend in Elmira. Middlebury is once again in the hunt for a national title. The neutral site has turned into a home date for Elmira College whose upset win in double overtime over Manhattanville earns them a match-up with the defending champions. A hostile rink, loud fans cheering against his young team – what does the captain remind his team to do?