Former Lebanon hockey coach’s success with Dartmouth club team was years in the making

  • Lebanon head coach Gary Smith, right, wraps up practice with the team at Campion Rink in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Lebanon-Stevens coach Gary Smith talks with his players during a time out in the second period of the game with Winnacunnet in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/27/2020 10:04:22 PM
Modified: 2/27/2020 10:04:19 PM

HANOVER — It wasn’t about X’s and O’s as much as coaching mentality when Gary Smith took over the Dartmouth College men’s club hockey program.

He transitioned into the strategic side of his job quite nicely after he and assistant coach Mike Fisher picked up the club’s reins in 2017 — it was the program itself, the relationships and availability of his players, and the mindset of an academically focused athlete that took some getting used to.

That shift took years, but Smith’s work is paying off.

Dartmouth — which competes in the club hockey American College Hockey Association — is coming off a near-perfect 16-0-2 season this winter that gave the Big Green a No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Division ahead of the ACHA’s national tournament, scheduled for March 24 in Dallas.

Dartmouth averaged a dominant 7.28 goals per game this winter and has six players up for ACHA All-Atlantic and All-American honors; Smith has been nominated for ACHA All-Atlantic Region coach of the year. But Smith sends the credit right back to his bench.

“So many kids have stepped up for us, it’s such a cool thing to see,” said Smith, who along with Fisher stepped down as Lebanon High’s boys hockey coach after the 2016-17 season to take over Dartmouth’s club program. “We’re so deep, deeper than a lot of teams we play. ... Our depth has carried us as far as it has.”

That depth has blossomed from a close-knit group of committed student-athletes. For some, seeing that level of commitment to a structured program is a dream come true.

“When me and some of the other guys first came up with this idea, we wanted to build something that we could be proud of,” said Chris McCorkle, a senior forward and Maryland native who leads the team with 45 points in 18 games. “We could have never imagined the success we’re having. That’s something you don’t really plan for. I think it’s a byproduct of the professionalism that Gary (Smith) and Fish have brought. They’ve put us on pace for things like this.”

Three years ago, McCorkle and some of his teammates decided the club needed a change. The team was unstructured and disorganized, led by a volunteer coach with a baseball background. Practices were spotty; attendance at games was optional. McCorkle, used to competitive hockey in high school, wanted the team to be something more than an optional men’s league club.

“It was my freshman year when the program was taking off,” said McCorkle, who became the program’s first 100-point scorer this winter. “The juniors who were in the 2018 class had really taken the lead transitioning this thing, saying, ‘Let’s get this thing together.’ ”

Smith and Fisher were hired to help bring about that change in attitude and culture, something Smith acknowledged was much easier said than done.

“I inherited a team that had about 18 players; probably five of them were taking it really serious,” Smith said. “Academics is the most important thing; I don’t blame them whatsoever. ... Some of the guys were not there for the structure and said, ‘Whoa, this isn’t what I wanted.’ ”

The way to do that was to incorporate a heavy dose of fun into practices. It’s a fine line, Smith said, between Dartmouth’s prestigious varsity program and its club alternative. Finding the right balance — not so serious that it took away from other activities, not so relaxed that the team fell apart — was an important step.

“I learned a lot in those first couple of months,” Smith said. “I was shocked at how different a high school program is from a college club program. The way the kids are, an older age group, they do things different. How you work practices, games, it’s a very different thing. I went through a large learning curve. It’s been really fun.”

Dartmouth finished Smith’s first season with a near-.500 record, a year that was more about the program’s growing pains than its on-ice success. Last year, the team struggled mightily without a full-time goaltender. That kind of adversity, however, did more to change the team’s approach than Smith ever could.

“We actually returned a strong team, just no goaltenders,” Smith said of the 2018-19 season. “It was a fun atmosphere despite the limitations we had. That’s what I think is really cool: The kids stuck around, came to games, even though we were getting destroyed.

“The way last year played out, this year could not have happened. We kind of said, ‘Let’s just get through this year because we know what’s coming.’ That was our fuel for this year.”

The Big Green has outscored opponents, 131-29, in 18 games this season in front of goaltender Michael Cullen, an All-Atlantic MVP and All-American nominee.

A trip to nationals is an accomplishment in itself for a program that was a glorified men’s league squad three years ago. A championship, Smith said, would be the “highlight of my career.”

But Dartmouth’s strength, McCorkle said, comes from its newfound mentality of never being satisfied. It’s the team’s advantage heading into nationals next month, something the Big Green is counting on in games against clubs that have been there before.

“(A championship) would be a dream come true. It’s what I’ve been dreaming of since freshman year,” McCorkle said. “I think the guys realize we can be very competitive. Everyone wants to be there; we have the potential to do it. ... Now that I think we’re on the path we saw a few years ago, I start thinking about what happens when I leave. I think we’ve set up a culture of winning here. Starting with the Class of 2024, they’re coming in joining a national championship-contending program.

“A championship would be a really nice way to cap off my career. (Getting to nationals) is a huge victory we’re all very proud of.”

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