By Matt James
The Fresno Bee
FRESNO, Calif. – Hockey is an interconnected, woven mess of relationships.
Like small-town dating, pretty much everyone’s been together at some point.
If you haven’t played for the same coach, or in the same league, or skated at the same tryout, then you know each other from some junior league in Alberta.
So it was that the Fresno Falcons, now the double-A affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, didn’t necessarily go looking for smart guys for this season, it just sort of worked out that way.
They already had defenseman Daryl Marcoux, a Princeton graduate from a couple of years ago. The coach at Princeton is Guy Gadowsky, who coached and played for the Fresno Falcons back in the ’90s.
That’s how you end up with smart guys. It’s minor league hockey. You can’t fly in 100 players for tryouts. There aren’t big budgets for recruiting and scouting, or any budgets at all, in a lot of cases.
You have to take recommendations or go get guys you know, which is why it’s not unusual to see an entire minor league hockey team with less degrees of separation than that Kevin Bacon game.
The Falcons started the season with five former Ivy League players, four of which played for Gadowsky at Princeton: Marcoux, a defenseman, and three forwards, Grant Goeckner-Zoeller, Dustin Sproat and Kyle Hagel.
The fifth, 21-year-old defenseman Brennan Turner, is a tough guy who racked up a lot of penalty minutes in three seasons at Yale.
The situation has given the Fresno Falcons coaches — far more noted for their wit than their own academic achievements — a chance to work on their material.
Head coach Matt Thomas: “When you figure in our dumb guys, we average out to about a junior college.”
And assistant coach Ryan Mougenel: “If we can’t beat people on the ice, we’ll beat ’em in a debate.”
So far, the Falcons are beating them on the ice, three wins in the first three games, on pace for the first perfect season in modern hockey history. OK, it’s not likely, but a good start nonetheless.
Goeckner-Zoeller has since been cut from the team, but the other four remain and are contributing quickly. And all are, in short, nothing like the goons from “Slap Shot.”
“They aren’t smart guys,” says Gadowsky, in his fifth season at Princeton. “Those are extremely intelligent people. Good students don’t get into Princeton. They’re extremely good students.”
The weird part is, a couple of them are tough. It used to be hockey players would look down a roster, find an Ivy League guy, and know there was someone on the other team they could beat into a pile of bruises.
Turner is an all-around big guy, big hands, big wrists, already had a great fight in a preseason game. Jousters don’t charge their opponent as hard as Hagel goes to the net. And he’s not someone you’d want to call a nerd, the smart kid who grew up in Hamilton. He’s 225 pounds, squats 530, benches 320 and has about as much body fat as a Greek statue.
“The last guy you want to see coming at you is Kyle Hagel,” Gadowsky says.
He’s already gone swing-for-swing with Nathan Saunders, an NHL draft pick and full-time brute who plays for Stockton.
“If you had to go do anything,” Gadowsky says, “and you needed help, someone to watch your back, or help you, of all the people in the world you’d pick him first.”
The most unlikely of the group, though, is Sproat, a player who got married, graduated from Princeton, played two months of professional hockey in Redding, Penn., then quit and got a job back home as a chemical engineer in Calgary.
He’d started his regular life, making a sweet salary at a natural gas processing plant, driving a nice car. This is a guy who was No. 3 out of a high school class of 300, a brainiac for whom the SAT must have seemed like an open-net slap shot. (He got a 1,370 first try.)
Two years removed from the game, he’s back, playing for peanuts. The CEO of his company, who’s a big hockey fan, is holding Sproat’s job at the plant if he changes his mind. Doesn’t seem likely.
“I just love the game so much,” he says. “I’m still young. I just had to give it another shot.”
Sproat no longer works on projects, he is a project, one with big-time potential. At Princeton, he led the Eastern College Athletic Conference in scoring as a junior, ahead of Lee Stempniak, who now plays right wing for the St. Louis Blues.
Let’s see, make six figures in a no-lifting job with a Princeton degree? Or make three-figures-a-week getting your incisors smacked into glass?
Hey, even smart guys make dumb decisions.