Reflections II: Cat Country

This past weekend, while most of New England was watching Tom Brady run the score up on the Chicago Bears in a Midwest snowstorm, I was lucky enough to catch the Vermont Catamounts beat their old rival Dartmouth in Hanover, NH. I say “lucky” because the odds of seeing the Cats win a game so far this season are about the same as seeing an actual live catamount in the hills of northern Vermont.

Covering a good amount of college hockey this winter I always check the out of town scores when they roll across the jumbotron during intermission. I wait to see how Vermont is doing, and this season have felt my heart sink a little for them each time I see the Catamounts on the wrong side of a lopsided score.

Vermont’s 5-4 win over Dartmouth this weekend is just their second of the season, their first was a 5-3 win over Boston College at Gutterson Field house, which before Sunday might as well been light years in the past. Vermont isn’t the only struggling team in Hockey East by any means. The bottom three of UMass-Amherst, Vermont, and UMass-Lowell don’t have ten wins between them, but Vermont will always stick out in that crowd the most for me.

When I would watch UVM as a kid, a win over rival Dartmouth was as good as it got. Pre-Hockey East era, UVM was a power in the ECAC for many years, especially during the early 90’s when yours truly was just another set of glazed over eyes standing at the glass during warm-ups.

It’s mostly just flashes of the crowd in my memory now. The Go-Cats-Go chant. Paper airplanes slowly floating down from the student section towards the opposing team’s goalie.  Reaching over the railings for a high-five or the eight-year-old’s Powerball lottery jackpot of a broken stick.

I suppose we all hold a team somewhere close to us in nostalgia, it being a seemingly simpler time in our sports fandom. Tim Thomas wasn’t a Vezina-winning nor supposedly-overpaid goalie on the trading block. He was a kid from Flint Michigan who – during a charity skills competition – threw his stick to the boards because none of his teammates could score on him in the shootout. Martin St. Louis wasn’t a Stanley Cup champion, but an undrafted and undersized playmaker who created a Burlington hockey camp for a business school project.

But times have changed and so has our game. Thomas had no prep school and USHL pedigree, which are standards at today’s Division I hockey schools. St. Louis would be the smallest player on the current UVM roster by three inches minus native Vermonter Brett Leonard, who actually mirrors St. Louis in stature.

But though league affiliation, players, and records change over the years some things will remain the same as always. As Lake Champlain begins to freeze over a ticket to a men’s hockey game may be harder to find than a parking spot near Church Street. Crowds of students and families alike still pack the Gut (as the Gutterson Field house is so affectionately called) though their Cats have only gone 1-6-1 at home. If you are planning on moving to Burlington in he next five years or so you should put your name on the list for season tickets now as that’s about how long the wait list is.

Now just before the holiday break the Catamounts sit in danger of their worst season since joining Hockey East in 2005-2006, but nobody in Burlington is worried. There have been other years thin on wins. There is still plenty of hockey to be played, and with a game against St. Lawrence before the winter break, a streak of any kind but losing might just be the medicine the Cats need.

There may never be another Tim Thomas in the crease for UVM. Nobody ever may walk through the doors and break Martin St. Louis school scoring record.

But as long as the Catamounts are playing there will be kids hanging over the edge of the railing hoping to touch what they hope is their future, and someone looking up at the out of town games waiting to see them on the right side of a lopsided score.

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