NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The Norwich University men's hockey team enters the 2019-20 season after narrowly missing out on capturing its fifth NCAA Division III National Championship last year.
Norwich returns 24 players from last year's squad that finished with a 23-5-3 record and won its 13th New England Hockey Conference (NEHC) Tournament title. The Cadets defeated Hobart 2-1 to claim the conference tournament title and punch their 18th NCAA Tournament ticket. NU defeated Univ. of New England (2-1) and SUNY Geneseo (4-2) before ultimately falling 2-1 in overtime to UW-Stevens Point in the national title game.
"Last year's group was successful because they became really close and they were willing to do whatever it took for each other," said head coach Cam Ellsworth, who returns for his second season. "It wasn't part of our game plan, but we ended up blocking 30 plus shots in the Geneseo game. Our guys showed the willingness to do whatever it took on most nights against almost every team we played."
Senior goalie Tom Aubrun (Chamonix, France) returns to backstop the Cadets after a breakthrough junior season that ended with being named an American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) Third Team All-American. Aubrun posted a 20-4-3 record with a 1.70 goals against average and a .929 save percentage to go along with six shutouts, which tied the program single-season record for most in a season. He was also named the NEHC Goalie of the Year and First Team All-Conference, as well as an All-New England selection.
"I think our least comfortable spot was goaltending coming into the year last year, but Aubrun rose to the challenge and was our back bone and rightfully awarded All-American honors in my opinion," Ellsworth said. "He's a great, very humble and quiet kid, but we're expecting him to assume a leadership role this year. He carries himself well, working hard in practice and in the weight room and our younger guys look up to that."
Norwich returns its top eight scorers from last year, led by junior Felix Brassard (St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec), who had 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points and earned NEHC Second Team All-Conference honors last season.
Junior Coby Downs (Montclair, Calif.) (9-20-29) led the team in assists, while sophomore Brett Ouderkirk (Monkland, Ontario) (15-13-28) led the team in goals. Ouderkirk was named to the NEHC All-Rookie Team.
Sophomores Maxime Borduas (Saint Cesaire, Quebec) scored eight goals and had 14 assists, while Gabriel Chicoine (St. Dominique, Quebec) had six goals and 16 assists for 22 points to rank as one of the top blue liners in the country. Chicoine was an NEHC Third Team and All-Rookie selection last year.
Senior Jordan Hall (Anchorage, Alaska) rounds out the top returning scorers with 11 goals and seven assists for 18 points last season.
"We return every forward that dressed in the national championship game last year, but we ascended to that lineup throughout the year," Ellsworth said. "There are two freshmen forwards that are chomping to play as well as some returning forwards that weren't in the lineup that are battling to try and get time. I'm looking forward to the competition and how everyone pushes themselves, which will help us collectively improve."
On defense, Norwich graduated three defensemen, including two co-captains in David Robertson, Jake Erickson and Cam Beecy that provided invaluable leadership throughout the season on and off the ice.
"We didn't lose a lot quantity wise, but we lost a lot of really important personalities and leadership in vital roles," Ellsworth said. "Dave and Jake both wore 'Cs' last year and did a great job leading our team. Jake was hurt for most of the first half of the season so Dave assumed a really powerful leadership role and was one of the best I've seen."
Norwich will once again feature two senior co-captains on defense with TJ Dockery (Lockport, N.Y.) and Matt Burchill (Marshfield, Mass.). Senior forward Taeron Lewis (Winnipeg, Manitoba) and junior forward Scott Swanson (Wheaton, Ill.) round out the 2019-20 leadership group.
"The four guys our team chose are great ambassadors for our school and our program," Ellsworth said. "I think this year it will be a little bit more by committee and the makeup of the four men will really help us get to all corners of our locker room, which should really help us grow that team dynamic that is so critical to success."
Chicoine, Dockery, Burchill and Connor Swystun (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan) were all the on ice for last year's final game. Senior Josh Cronin (Langley, British Columbia) and sophomore Alex Monteleone (Montreal, Quebec), as well as three freshmen will be pushing for time to try and crack the lineup as well.
Norwich was picked to finish first in the New England Hockey Conference (NEHC) Preseason Coaches Poll that was released last week. The Cadets are also ranked No. 2 in the USCHO National Preseason Poll that was released on Monday.
"The polls are a reflection of what our guys earned and achieved last year," Ellsworth said. "We're expected to be in a spot where we're good, but right now everyone is 0-0. We're trying to ignore the noise and challenge ourselves and get better as a coaching staff and a team every day. Our challenge is to start back at square one, build from the ground up and try and recapture that love for each other that served us so well last year."
Norwich will have plenty of competition just to try and get out of the NEHC Tournament. The NEHC put three teams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever with Hobart also making it to the Frozen Four last season and regular season champion UMass Boston also earning a spot in the 12-team national field. Babson, Skidmore and New England College all posted seasons with 13 wins or more as well.
"Experiencing the conference last year for the first time day in and day out, I was thoroughly impressed at how deep the league is," Ellsworth said. "There are no easy nights and the competition level is extremely high on a day-to-day basis, whether you were home or away, or playing a team that was in front of or below you in the standings. I think our league is extremely deep and I anticipate it only improving."
Norwich opens the 2019-20 regular season with the same opponent it faced in the last real game at Kreitzberg Arena in the Univ. of New England. The Cadets defeated the Nor'easters 2-1 in overtime in a thrilling NCAA Quarterfinal game in front of a capacity crowd at Kreitzberg. UNE is ranked ninth in the USCHO.com national rankings.
"We're focused on UNE which is going to be a supreme test," Ellsworth said. "We had an outstanding hockey game with them last year that we were fortunate enough to win. What they've built there in the last five years is really impressive under Coach Swallow. They deliver a high-octane, high-tempo style of hockey that challenges you every shift. They return a very good goaltender and their leading goal scorer. We'll be challenged right off the bat. For an opening night game, it's probably one of the top matchups in the country on opening weekend along with UW-Stevens Point and St. Norbert."
Puck drop is set for 7 p.m.