The long, dark Russian winter of Princeton hockey has come to an end. How long? How dark? Well, the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies came and went without Princeton hockey's having so much as a .500 season. But the 1998-99 Tigers are cats of a different stripe. Halfway through the season Princeton is 11-4-1, ranked eighth in the country and tied for second in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) with a 7-2-1 record.
"Guys are sick of the talk about the past," says Princeton's co-captain and leading scorer, Jeff Halpern, a senior from Potomac, Md., who is a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation's top collegiate player. (Baker, class of '14, led the Tigers to a 27-7 record over his three-year career, during the golden era of Princeton hockey.) "My freshman year, guys just wanted to get to the middle of the pack," Halpern says. "Now our goals are different. We can't be compared yet to the elite teams in the country who do it year in and year out, but on any given night we can beat any of those guys."
The Tigers proved that last March when, after struggling to a 7-9-6 regular-season record in the ECAC, they knocked off Brown, Cornell, Yale and Clarkson in the span of six days to win the league tournament and their first ECAC championship. That earned Princeton its first invitation to the NCAA tournament, in which the Tigers put a scare into eventual champion Michigan, losing 2-1 on the Wolverines' home ice in the semifinals. "On ESPN they were joking about sending the Tigers into the lions' den, having to play Michigan at Michigan," says All-America senior Steve Shirreffs, Princeton's top defender and a ninth-round draft choice of the Calgary Flames in 1995 (he put off an NHL career to finish college), "but there's really not much of a talent gap between us and the top teams."
Traditional hockey powers such as Boston University, Clarkson, Harvard and Minnesota can attest to that; all of them have lost to Princeton this season. But Tigers coach Don (Toot) Cahoon, the man responsible for turning the Princeton program around, is quick to wave a flag of caution. "Athletically, even now, we're just a little above the middle of the pack," he says. "So to get to the top, it's a question of doing the little things right. The players understand that the whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts. These kids are motivated. That's what got them to Princeton. We're very disciplined in areas where some other teams break down."
Cahoon, 49, a self-described overachiever, makes the Energizer bunny look indolent. A carbonated bubble of a man, he doesn't walk from place to place, he scoots. He came to Princeton in 1991 from BU, where he had played on two national championship teams and helped coach a third. At that point the Tigers had had one winning season in the previous 30 years. "He brought with him instant credibility—and a game plan," says Princeton assistant coach Len Quesnelle, a former Tigers player who had been on the coaching staff before Cahoon arrived. "When he said, 'I want you guys to follow this weight training program because I know it's what BU is doing,' the players bought into it right away."
"We didn't have to turn this thing around all at once," says Cahoon, who was undeterred by the conventional wisdom that Princeton had two strikes against it when it came to recruiting: It's one of the southernmost hockey-playing schools in Division I, and, like all the Ivies, it doesn't give athletic scholarships. "I asked myself, Why couldn't we find five or six kids a year who would cherish the opportunity to play at a university the caliber of Princeton? We never put the focus on winning. It was, Are we getting better? It's simplistic, but it takes the burden off the players."
From the start Cahoon preached nutrition and off-ice conditioning: Before every season he requires his players to be able to run eight consecutive 200-yard dashes, each in under 31 seconds, resting for 90 seconds in between. They also must be able to run five miles in under 35 minutes. "A lot of people would argue that those requirements have no basis for developing a hockey player," Cahoon says, "but they're a great basis for developing the mind."
To discourage postgame Saturday night carousing, Cahoon holds Sunday practices, giving the players Monday off instead. "That serves a dual purpose," he notes. "It also lets them get an academic head start on their workweek."
It wasn't until Cahoon's fourth season, 1994-95, that the Tigers showed signs of turning the corner. That season Princeton knocked off the top-ranked team in the country, Maine, went on to win a school-record 18 games and advanced to the ECAC finals for the first time.
The success of that team helped Cahoon recruit the nine seniors who are the heart of this year's lineup. "Coach convinced me it was almost an honor to be part of bringing Princeton out of its historical trap," says co-captain Syl Apps, who scored the game-winning goal in last year's ECAC title game in double overtime and whose father and grandfather both played in the NHL. "Every year since he's been here, the program has gone forward. We have a higher caliber of athlete now than we did my freshman year, and when you practice against those guys every day, it can't help but lift the level of your play."