West Lebanon — Gary Smith wanted to move up the hockey coaching ladder. He found the next rung just a couple of miles up the road.
Smith stepped down this week after eight seasons as head coach of the Lebanon High boys hockey program. The 35-year-old Lebanon graduate and former Raider defenseman will coach the Dartmouth College men’s club team, whose players are seeking to upgrade the quality and competitiveness of their program within the American College Hockey Association.
“Honestly, I’ve been helping as a coach at Lebanon since 2003,” said Smith, who took over the top job from Anthony Shaw in 2009. “The last couple of years, I’ve peeked into getting to the next level. This is a good opportunity. Club hockey is growing astronomically — Keene State is at the nationals right now — so I’ll be able to go to a college program, work with student-athletes and start something from the ground up.”
Lebanon, which formed a co-operative team with Stevens High for the first time this season, completed a 10-11-0 campaign with a quarterfinal loss to Spaulding on March 1. Smith informed his team of his decision shortly thereafter. Mike Fisher, one of Smith’s assistants with the Raiders this year, will join Smith with the Dartmouth club squad.
“When this opportunity came about, I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave Lebanon,” Smith said in a phone interview. “This works much better for my family and is better for my work life. It all made sense.”
Dartmouth junior defenseman Sam Forstner, the club team’s captain and co-president, said in an email that Smith had reached out to the program in past years, but hadn’t received a response because the team hadn’t been well-organized.
Working with friend and teammate Scott Bohn, Forstner and the Dartmouth program have been working toward gradual improvements. A college employee, Ryan Gill, coached the Big Green this past winter through a 6-10-1 season that Forstner would like to see extended to 20-25 regular-season games in the future.
“With Gary and Fish, we have the structure in place to make a huge leap and be what I have always wanted the team to be: a contending ACHA Division II program and a close-knit group both on and off the ice,” Forstner wrote in a response to email questions.
Unlike most club sports, ice hockey has a national organization for those college programs seeking the highest level of competition short of varsity play. The ACHA sponsors three divisions of men’s hockey and two for women, with national championship tournaments in March. Keene State is competing in the ACHA D-II men’s nationals in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend.
Upper Valley high school graduates have occasionally populated ACHA rosters in recent years. This season’s Dartmouth club team included former Hanover High skaters Peter O’Leary and Sam Carey, both of whom Forstner is expecting to retain next season.
“While this is not by any stretch the same level as varsity, it is still high-level competitive hockey,” wrote Forstner, who played high school hockey in Michigan before opting for a Dartmouth education and club hockey experience over trying to make an NCAA Division III varsity team. “Unlike varsity, we do not recruit or have ties to admissions, and we spend significantly fewer hours per week practicing and training. … While we will be competing at this (ACHA) level, I have no illusions of this being varsity college hockey, and I believe it is important to maintain perspective as to the difference between varsity and club.”
Smith played club hockey at Colby-Sawyer College while pursing his undergraduate education. While understanding the Big Green’s competitive aspirations, Smith said he’ll like the more relaxed schedule the program provides.
It should also help with his job as commercial sales manager with Claremont’s Red River Computer, work that occasionally requires travel.
“At the club level, you don’t play games during the week; you have the ability to travel during the week,” Smith said. “The unique thing about Dartmouth is they have a trimester system with breaks. Hockey runs from September to Thanksgiving, then they break and are away until early January. Having that break in the middle is a break for everyone.”
Lebanon went 64-98-7 during Smith’s eight seasons in charge. As much as he’s looking forward to the new challenge, Smith said it wasn’t an easy decision to leave.
“Honestly, I’m going to remember the relationships with the players,” he said. “I still talk to many kids from over the years, those I’ve coached over the years. … I love the job. It’s been a huge part of my life for the last 15-20 years.
“It was an honor to play at Lebanon and to go back and coach at Lebanon. I will certainly miss it.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.