From The Denisonian
By Charlie Thompson
As the zamboni levels the ice at the Lou and Gib Reese Ice Arena, the Denison Club Ice Hockey team arrives shortly before their 9 p.m. practice. Head Coach Jeff German laces up his somewhat troublesome skates, talking candidly about the team’s goals for this season, as well as their somewhat bumpy start. Though the team started just 1-2 in their first three games, Big Red Hockey has seen immense success since, winning five of their last six games, something that German has partially attributed to his improved recruiting strategy this past offseason.
“I always just say [to the parents], before we break out into groups, ‘If you don’t have a 3.5 [GPA] or better, don’t come to my table and save us all a bunch of [time]’,” said German. “I want kids exactly like the twenty-eight we have here, they’re here for the right reasons, and they’re also great hockey players.”
An alum who played for the team was also impressed by the progress the team has made of late, both in terms of their play and their personnel.
“You make progress based on good leadership, bringing in good kids, good kids being great leaders, great current players and kids making it more attractive for other good players and kids,” said the alum.
He believes that is what Coach German and the team captains (Jon Svendsen ‘23, Oliver Gignoux ‘23, and Trevor Seitz ‘23, and assistant captain Jake DiMantova ‘24) have done for the team. Coach German similarly believes in the progress made by the team’s leadership.
“In all my time here, this group of captains are probably the best we’ve ever had. They hold everyone, including me, accountable… I think that this group has instilled a really good culture, and when it starts to wobble, they immediately shift… There’s a reason to be very optimistic on the future leadership,” said German.
Shortly before practice, Coach German and forward Duncan Humphries ‘25 shared a moment, discussing line changes and potential shifts to use against Xavier. They bickered, almost familially, about how each line interacts with one another, and settle finally on a lineup they both could agree on.
Humphries has been in the Lou Gib (as it’s affectionately known) since before he can really remember. Having started skating lessons in kindergarten, he began to play for the Newark Generals, eventually playing for his high school’s varsity team and being coached by German his senior year, where Humphries also served as a captain.
Humphries said, “Having [Coach German] as a coach my senior year, he was all about pushing me and having me get better. When he asked me about the opportunity to play for Denison, I felt confident that I had acquired the skills here from the Newark program that I could take that to the collegiate level that he was building and that we are playing at.”
Humphries attributes much of his success and his experiences with the team to German pushing him.
“It’s definitely crazy to think of the kinds of teams we play…having played West Virginia and UNC Chapel Hill, those are all teams I wouldn’t have imagined playing growing up, nevermind right now,” Humphries said.
The season has been off to a good start for the Big Red. In the offseason, Denison Hockey was promoted from American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA)’s Division III league to the Division II Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League (ACCHL). This division consists primarily of the traditional ACC schools like North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia, but also includes non-traditional teams like Penn State from the Big Ten, Princeton from the Ivy League and James Madison from the Sun Belt.
German considers this to be the next step in the team’s journey, their next proverbial mountain to climb. Sitting pretty with a 6-3 record going into a two-game series against Adrian College at the end of October, Denison has looked fierce and fired up. Against North Carolina, the team was down as much as 5-2 at one point, but fought back with three quick goals to force an overtime, where Finn Lewis ‘26 delivered the game winner. UNC Head Coach Jeff Volkman spoke briefly about the game, saying Big Red Hockey capitalized on the poor stamina of the Tar Heels.
“[Our goal] was mainly keeping our stamina up and playing our game… I think Denison’s a great team and they’ve gotten a lot better in the last year,” said Volkman. “And they had a great win. For us, it boils down to that we got away from our game… We [play] a speed game and we weren’t able to execute…Denison did a great job of capitalizing on that,” said Volkman.
This is high praise coming from Volkman, whose team beat the Big Red last year in a swift 6-2 routing in Hillsborough, NC. Jack Duane ‘23 spoke again about how Denison wore down the already exhausted Tar Heels.
“[The] UNC game, man, that was a fun one… That was our first game of the year, [and] as a team, we were really excited. We all had jitters, nervous jitters, butterflies in our stomachs. We knew UNC was going to be tired, coming from playing two games in Cincinnati, and then driving over here before going home, so we took advantage of [that],” said Duane.
Coach German also believes that the team’s resilience is also what helped them send the Heels home with a road loss.
Said German, “I think for me, the absolute pinnacle, was in years past, we’d go down 5-2, the game ends 8-2, we’d just collapse. But we had a moment on the bench, where it was the moment, the defining moment, maybe of the season, even though we won’t win every game, but we decided not to lose that game. There’s a difference, and we just came back and it was one goal at a time, one shift at a time.”
The following weekend, the team traveled to Morgantown, WV, to face off against West Virginia University in a two-game series. Despite their best efforts, Denison returned home with two losses, which many players said came from a lack of good physical health and just being outmaneuvered on the ice from a physically stronger, albeit perhaps not better, team from WVU.
On Sept. 23, Xavier University’s hockey team traveled up from Cincinnati to Newark to face off against Denison. From the moment the puck dropped in Game One, it was chippy. Although German was nervous of a fast and physical Xavier team, it was anything but that for the Big Red. It became increasingly obvious that Xavier was not, in any way, prepared for the game, as Denison was skating circles around them, controlling the puck and bullying the Xavier players up and down the ice.
Early in the first period, Lewis was laid out by a Xavier player, who was subsequently dropped to the ice by Seth Kaplan ‘26. The physicality didn’t let up throughout the game, as Xavier repeatedly played a little less than fair, taking any chance to maim Denison players. In the first period of Game One, weaving through a shaky Xavier defense, Gignoux found an opening and took it, firing the puck straight past Xavier goalie Jack Framber. Framber, who throughout Game One, would be scored on four more times by the Big Red
Captain Gignoux spoke about how proud he was of the team for starting to have the ability to put fresh and effective shifts on the ice, saying “We’ve got people contributing up and down the line. In years past, it’s been two or three people that we really rely on, Jon [Svendsen] being one of them in net… We’re now at the point where everyone can make a contribution.”
Xavier did strike back on a power play in the first period, scoring with the Big Red shorthanded. However, the Musketeers were held to just two points total, scoring once more early in the third period. Denison, on the other hand, had another goal in the first period from Tommy Raith ‘25, followed by two shorthanded goals from Kaplan and John Yavari ‘25.
“[We] got away from taking too many stupid penalties, and the kids are out there having a grand old time. We put in two short handed goals, the fans are electric, and the bench is on fire. I see us coming out of today with a W,” said defenseman Nick Salerno ‘25 during the second intermission.
In the third period, Kaplan scored the game-sealing goal, with Denison taking Game One 5-2.
In the second game, which took place at Xavier’s home rink in Cincinnati, it was no tougher than the night before. Despite a Big Red road win, 6-3 in the Denison’s favor and garnering a series sweep, Xavier again played physically to try and level the field.
Early in the first period with the game tied at 1-1, a Xavier player broke one of the most sacred unspoken rules in hockey: he hit the goalie. As goalie Brennan Holmes ‘25 had left the goal to retain a puck, he was laid out against the boards, unsurprisingly prompting the Denison line to immediately race over to protect Holmes, dropping gloves and dog-piling on the aggressor. This didn’t bother the Big Red, with Ethan Wipff ‘25 scoring a hat trick, as well as claiming goals from Gignoux, Humphries and defenseman James Patillo ‘25.
Despite the challenges that lay ahead, Denison Hockey is in it for the long haul. Led by captains who care about their teammates just as much as they care about the game, the bonds that tie this team together have made them something to be reckoned with as they enter their first season in the ACCHL.
Game after game, the team looks increasingly more capable of reaching the ACCHL Playoffs, which German noted specifically as the overarching season goal.
“This is just the beginning. It’s a talented group of players, they’re motivated, they want to win. These guys hate losing more than they want to win and that’s where you’ve really got to be. I think I’ve been consistently setting the message in the locker room that we deserve to be here, like it’s okay to expect to win… Now we should expect to win, it’s not only that we should expect [to], it is expected of us,” said German.
Luckily, Denison has a lot to look forward to, with Big Red Hockey sweeping the University of Akron 6-1 and 10-1 in two games respectively, as well as tying a two-game series against Mercyhurst University this past weekend. The team takes on Adrian College Bulldogs on Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at the Lou and Gib Reese Arena in Newark.
(Originally published at https://denisonian.com/2022/10/sports/more-than-a-club-denison-hockeys-heart-courage-paves-way-this-season/)