CHICAGO — During the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, there was a distinct University of Vermont flavor when the Bruins took on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
The matchup pitted a pair of former Catamount stars — Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Lightning forward Martin St. Louis — against each other.
Former Vermont coach Mike Gilligan, now working on the school’s fund-raising side, said he grew up a Bruins fan but was torn because of his affection for both players.
Thomas has since left Boston, but as the Bruins and Blackhawks battle in the Cup Final, Vermont is well-represented on the Chicago side. Forwards Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg are on the roster, and two other former Catamounts are members of the staff. The Blackhawks’ strength and conditioning coach, Paul Goodman, served in that capacity at Vermont for six years before heading to the Windy City. Andrew Allen, the Blackhawks’ developmental goaltending coach, spent four seasons at Vermont and was a teammate of Sharp’s his senior year.
Five former Vermont players have already won the Cup — John LeClair in 1993; St. Louis and Eric Perrin in 2004; Sharp in 2010; and Thomas in 2011. On 11 occasions, a Catamount has captured a major NHL award, some more than once, which is third most all time among Division 1 schools.
Although Vermont has not been a perennial contender in Hockey East — with its appearance in the 2009 Frozen Four a notable exception — the program has produced a legacy of successful professional hockey personnel.
“It seems like every couple of years they’re cranking out NHL players,’’ said Sharp, who played for the Catamounts from 2000-02. “When I was there, obviously St. Louis was blowing up on the NHL scene, Tim Thomas was just getting started, John LeClair [was having a great career]. And there are two guys in here — Viktor Stalberg and myself. We always talk about different dorms that we lived in and different games we played. He was in Hockey East, I was back in the ECAC then so it was a little bit different, but it’s kind of cool to know I was there four or five years before he was. It seems like everywhere you look, more kids are popping up out of Vermont. I’m proud of that, I’m proud to be a part of that school, and hopefully there’s a lot more to come.’’
As important as the hockey program is to Vermont, the athletes are not just about on-ice success. They are considered ambassadors for the campus and the community.
“My guys got involved in student government and other activities on campus,’’ said Gilligan. “That’s something I think is getting lost in some places in college athletics. The kids are minor league athletes instead of being part of the university fabric.’’
Current coach Kevin Sneddon said the type of student-athletes Vermont attracts is different than those who are looking for a more urban environment.
“We are a different option, there’s no question about it, and that appeals to certain student-athletes,’’ said Sneddon. “The fact that we’re in a community that is so focused on its hockey program, maybe versus a team in the Boston area where there is an awful lot going on. We do sell that in recruiting to certain prospects. It has helped us win some of those battles. Our big sell is our fantastic hockey community that just supports us so well through thick and thin.’’
Sneddon acknowledges the Catamounts have had their struggles to rise to the top in Hockey East, but he’s excited about the possibilities for the future.
“We’re kind of in a down cycle right now that we’re certainly optimistic about coming out of,’’ said Sneddon. “But I think it speaks volumes the environment the University of Vermont can provide a student-athlete to succeed in all avenues. We aspire to get back and sustain excellence this time, but we feel we have the right environment, the right resources to be successful and make a run like we did to the Frozen Four, but also develop our guys into NHL players. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do, make sure they graduate and do well in the classroom but also realize their dreams. The nice thing is we’ve been able to point to that in the recruiting.’’
Sneddon said he could tell early on that Stalberg had the makings of a star. Although he didn’t play in the first two games of the Cup Final, he made an impact in Games 3 and 4, and has come a long way since his college days.
“Vik was a little bit of a hidden player in Sweden,’’ said Sneddon. “He had an unbelievable final year of junior hockey. At 6-3, he was a little bit underdeveloped physically, but he just had that explosive speed that was so dangerous. In his last year of junior, he started to score goals.
“It’s a great example of what college hockey can do for a prospect. He came in a 6-3, probably 175-pound forward. He left UVM at 6-3, 210. He’s probably even bigger and stronger now. His speed has always been the thing that just makes him magical. He’s got to be one of the quickest players in the NHL.’’
Stalberg knew he wanted to play college hockey. He narrowed his choices with help from an organization in his native land.
“Somehow Vermont caught wind of [my interest] and they came over to watch me play,’’ said Stalberg. “We talked for a bit and then I went over to visit that school. I had some other offers but that was the only one I visited, and I felt it was a good fit for me so I didn’t really bother looking at too much else. I chose it because it was a good school with a good hockey environment and good fans and an opportunity for me to play a lot. I felt comfortable with the coaches, and that was a big thing. They seemed to believe in me.’’
Stalberg said Sneddon helped him cut down on his on-ice errors by making him realize he couldn’t get away with certain types of plays.
“You’re going to get punished for making mistakes, whether it’s the NHL or the AHL, for that matter,’’ said Stalberg. “That’s one thing he got rid of in my game. I think I was more prepared going into my first NHL camp because of that. He gave me an opportunity to play.’’
Dr. Robert Corran, Vermont’s director of athletics, said Catamount hockey players grow not only as players but as people in their time with the program.
“I think those kinds of intangibles really do have an impact in terms of preparing players for professional hockey,’’ said Corran. “I think it has a maturing effect. When they do get to the NHL, they’re pretty mature. I think that gets them to the point where they can really be very significant contributors. They’re not simply guys who are there hanging on but they’re really important parts of their teams. The guys in Chicago, they’ve grown up here and when they get there they’re mature, they’re leaders, and they have played a pretty significant role in their teams. At the end of the day, for us, we’re just so happy for their success.’’
When Thomas, St. Louis, and the rest of the high-achieving former Catamounts gain recognition, it reflects well on Vermont.
“It has a huge impact, the success our grads have had in professional hockey,’’ said Corran. “It says a great deal to a prospective recruit that it’s a program that has had so many graduates go on to distinguished NHL careers. There’s a real name recognition factor that 17- and 18-year-olds across the continent are hearing about. In this series, there are a lot of people watching. Most kids playing Division 1 hockey have aspirations for pro hockey. When they see a program where a lot of people have fulfilled their dreams, that gets us into the conversation. It’s a wonderful place.’’
Gilligan said Sharp personifies what Vermont hockey is all about.
“He was a heck of a player for us,’’ said Gilligan, who had hoped Sharp would stay longer than two years. “He was dripping with potential. He was a good kid to play with, everybody wanted to be on his line. He was very serious, he wanted to be a pro. It was tough filling his skates when he left, for sure.’’
Sharp said when the Philadelphia Flyers came calling, it was tough to turn down.
“Growing up in Canada, it was my dream to play in the NHL, and that was one step closer,’’ said Sharp. “So, it was a tough decision to leave. I definitely wanted to stay, I had a lot of good times there, but hockey took over. [Gilligan] was one of those guys you could talk to about anything. He taught me about things off the ice. I could talk to him about issues I was going through as a teenager, and his door was always open.’’
Gilligan said those around the program feel a great deal of pride because of the success of the players who have gone on to great success in the NHL.
“For such a small school and one that hasn’t been up there with the Wisconsins and Minnesotas, BCs and BUs, we seem very fortunate to have had young men who have played such a large role here,’’ said Gilligan.
Stalberg said he was well aware of the legacy before he arrived at Vermont, and is thrilled to have been a part of it.
“It’s fun seeing so many Vermont guys have success at the next level.’’ he said. “I think there will be plenty more guys here in the future.’’