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An Up-And-Down Time

Lovejoy: Little Playing Time, Few Regrets

Dartmouth player Nick Lovejoy.
Dartmouth College photograph

Dartmouth player Nick Lovejoy. Dartmouth College photograph

Hanover — Carl Lovejoy’s voice was soft and a bit scratchy earlier this week. The Orford resident has battled a cold of late and he had been talking about his youngest son, Nick, for more than 20 minutes.

A junior on the Dartmouth College men’s hockey team, Nick Lovejoy followed his older brother Ben into the program. Where Ben became a college standout and forged an NHL career, however, Nick has cracked the Big Green lineup only 11 times since he joined the squad.

“I think there were many people, family members included, who really thought Nick might have been the best of the three (brothers) as they were developing,” said Carl, whose middle son, Matt, was an All-American lacrosse player at Virginia and now plays professionally. “He was bigger and stronger and seemed to have the skills.

“When he was 16, there was little doubt in our minds that he wouldn’t only follow in Ben’s footsteps, but that he’d maybe go beyond what Ben has done. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”

That it hasn’t in Nick Lovejoy’s case is no tragedy. The 21-year-old is a healthy young man with tousled good looks who’s quick to smile and who’s receiving a world-class education. He enjoys his teammates, likes and respects his coach and when he does play, his parents are able to watch him in person.

Lovejoy, whose team hosts Vermont tonight at Thompson Arena, hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s lauded as a hard worker, a physical and cerebral competitor and a team player. But Dartmouth’s roster is loaded with talent and the Big Green is No. 10 in the national polls. When he was younger, Lovejoy sat behind older players. Now that he’s a veteran, he’s battling talented underclassmen for playing time.

“It’s frustrating and certainly less rewarding, but I have to treat every practice as if it’s my game,” said Lovejoy, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. “I can’t take a day off.”

There are signs that the tide is turning in Lovejoy’s favor. He’s dressed in six games this season for Dartmouth (6-2-2) and helps provide leadership for a squad that used freshmen or sophomores to fill 12 of 18 skating slots during last weekend’s defeat of Bentley. His willingness to persevere is one of those intangibles that isn’t discussed in the locker room, but is also a fact of which every player is aware.

“It hasn’t been seamless for him but he’s continued to progress,” 16th-year Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet said. “It’s not easy when you’re not in the lineup night after night.”

Struggling for playing time wasn’t on Lovejoy’s mind when he committed to Dartmouth as a sophomore at Deerfield Academy in northwest Massachusetts.

After living in the Upper Valley as a child and playing in the Hanover Youth Hockey Association, Lovejoy excelled at Deerfield, skating for coach Brendan Creagh, a former Hanover High, University of Vermont and minor-league professional player. Gaudet doesn’t usually enter into agreements with players so young, but he’d coached Ben Lovejoy and his own sons had been coached in youth hockey by Carl Lovejoy, a onetime Colby College player.

“You knew his genes and that he was going to be a hard worker and would develop physically and that’s come to fruition,” Gaudet said. “He’s a good player, but we have to make (lineup decisions) and a lot of times it comes down to splitting hairs. It brings a lot of anxiety and it keeps you awake at night.”

Most college prospects these days play a year or two of junior hockey after graduating from high school, but Lovejoy came directly to Dartmouth. Gaudet said the impetus for that move came from Nick Lovejoy, but the player and his father remember it differently.

“We asked the coaches if Nick should play junior hockey, and they convinced us they wanted him right away,” Carl Lovejoy said.

“He was a very young freshman and he paid the price.”

Said Nick Lovejoy: “In that situation, it’s generally up to the coaches, not to the player.”

Lovejoy played only once his freshman year, while trying to absorb all he could from assistant coach John Rose, who oversees the defensemen. At prep school, Lovejoy could be out of position by a step or two and use his reach and skating skills to cover himself. In college, just pivoting on the wrong foot at the wrong time can lead to disaster for a rearguard.

“I was a big project,” Lovejoy said. “There were a lot of small adjustments and they were hard ones to make.”

Events came to somewhat of a head a year ago when, after appearing in four of Dartmouth’s first five games, Lovejoy was told by his coaches that freshmen defensemen Rick Pinkston and Andy Simpson needed playing time and that his own was likely to be spotty the rest of the season. In the span of just several days, Carl and Nick Lovejoy hatched an unorthodox plan and took it to the coaches for approval.

What if Nick takes the winter term off and plays junior hockey? the Lovejoys asked. He can play in more games, accelerate his development and regain some confidence. Gaudet didn’t think the move was absolutely necessary, but he went along it.

A spot was found with the Manchester (N.H.) Junior Monarchs, whose coach, Sean Tremblay, had previously guided Nick during summer hockey competitions.

“It was an odd situation but it was with our blessing,” Gaudet said. “There were no ill feelings on our side. He sensed the writing was on the wall, but then we had all sorts of injuries later in the season, so who knows how much he might have played?”

Lovejoy lived with an uncle in Concord and had five goals and five assists in 19 Monarchs games. He returned to Dartmouth for the spring and summer terms and worked out daily with Ben. The pair also talked about the mental toughness and resiliency needed to handle being on the bubble when it comes to playing time. Ben Lovejoy has experienced that situation in Pittsburgh the past two seasons.

“Going in and out of the lineup, oftentimes you play not to make mistakes,” Ben Lovejoy said. “You play to not screw up, and by doing that, you play without confidence and aggression.”

Although Ben doesn’t offer much other advice and Nick rarely asks for it, the brothers still talk by phone every day. Nick was only 6 when Ben left home for Deerfield, so the two didn’t spend much time growing up together. In recent years, however, they’ve built an iron bond.

“We’re almost the same person and we’ve become best friends,” said Ben Lovejoy, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his youngest sibling. “I’m sure Nick’s felt pressure with both Matt and I having good college careers, but he’s been able to forge his own path. I’m incredibly proud of everything he’s done.”

Asked if following his brother to Dartmouth has been a difficult road, Nick Lovejoy shook his head while smiling slightly.

“My brothers are incredible athletes and my role models,” he said. “If people say I’m not as good as Ben, well they’re right. But I think my confidence is higher this season and I’ve learned not to take being out of the lineup as a shot at myself personally.

“I still get upset about it, but I’ve matured to the point where I can play through it at the next practice. This is Division I hockey and you have to realize the other guys are good, too.”

Notes: Tonight’s game is expected to draw a crowd of at least 4,000 spectators, which is about 500 short of capacity. … The contest will be nationally broadcast by the NBC Sports Network and the high-profile commentary team of former NHL coach Pierre McGuire and play-by-play man and Hockey Hall of Fame member Mike “Doc” Emrick. McGuire was at Dartmouth practice yesterday, talking to Gaudet and several of his players. McGuire was an assistant coach at St. Lawrence from 1988-90. … UVM is 3-7-3 and is playing its eighth game in 20 days tonight. The Catamounts have won their last four contests against Dartmouth.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.