Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Brown

This week's profile touches on a program that is known for brief moments of glory surrounded by months and years of pain. While the program at Brown is among the oldest in the nation, their record of accolades is quite thin - but that doesn't mean they're a team to be overlooked, especially in this upcoming season, thanks to a two-week span last year in which they repeatedly defied expectations by sticking to their system.

Nickname: Bears
Location: Providence, RI
Founded: 1764
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 1993
Last Frozen Four: 1976
Coach: Brendan Whittet (2nd season)
2009-10 Record: 13-20-4 (6-12-4 ECAC, 11th place)
Series: RPI leads, 51-22-6
First Game: December 28, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: March 6, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last Brown win: March 7, 2010 (Troy, NY)

2010-11 games: December 4, 2010 (Providence, RI); January 28, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Harry Zolnierczyk, sr.; F Jesse Fratkin, sr.; F Jack Maclellan, jr.; F Chris Zaires, so.; F Garnet Hathaway, fr.; D Jeremy Russell, sr.; D Jeff Buvinow, jr.; D Richie Crowley, so.; G Mike Clemente, jr.

Key losses: F Aaron Volpatti, F Devin Timberlake, F Jordan Pietrus, D Sean McMonagle

We mentioned that Brown took part in the first game between schools that still play hockey when they took on Harvard in Boston on January 19, 1898 - the Bears dominated that contest, winning 6-0 in the first game for both programs. Brown would go undefeated against collegiate competition that season, beating Yale twice and earning a victory over Columbia as well. That might lend one to suspect that Brown could be considered one of the first dominant teams in the history of college hockey, but their success would not last much longer past their first season. The Bears would roughly break even in their 1899 and 1901 seasons, but from 1903 through 1906, Brown would compile a record of 2-22-0, with both wins (and two losses) coming against high school teams. After a 4-0 loss to Harvard on February 7, 1906, hockey at Brown would disappear for the next 20 years. They would return in 1927 and field some decent teams in the early 1930s, but at the end of the decade the Bears would return to hibernation for 8 more years.

The modern era of hockey at Brown began in 1947, coinciding with the opening of the NCAA era. The first season was rough as the Bears gave up 10 or more goals on four occasions (including twice against Harvard and once in a 10-4 loss to the University of California), but within four years, the Bears were ready to approach the pinnacle of the college hockey world. After putting together a 16-6-0 regular season in 1951, Brown earned their first NCAA tournament invitation. The Bears would take down the defending national champions and hosts, Colorado College, 8-4 in the semifinals before falling to Michigan, 7-1 in the national championship game.

Head coach Westcott Moulton left in 1952 after five seasons with Brown, and the Bears' fortunes went with him. For the remainder of the 1950s, the Bears were a .500 team at best, bottoming out in 1960-61 when they lost every single game they played, going 0-20-0 in the final season before joining the ECAC for its inaugural season, a move which coincided with the opening of Meehan Auditorium on campus as their new home. The new building helped contribute to a new high in short order, however, as the Bears built from that bottom to reach the NCAA tournament again in 1965, when Brown would go 23-5-0 in the regular season to win their first formal Ivy League title. The Bears' new building would host the Frozen Four, but the Bears lost twice, in the semifinals to the eventual national champions, Michigan Tech, and in the third-place game to North Dakota.

Much like their first NCAA appearance, it was another peak for Brown, and the team sloped back into hard times in the immediate aftermath, though the trough this time was not as deep, as the team generally maintained .500 records through the late 1960s and into the 1970s with a few excellent seasons sprinkled in. The team peaked again in 1976 as the Bears rode a 22-6-0 regular season record to their second Ivy League title and another NCAA appearance, where they faced the same that ended their national title hopes 11 years prior, Michigan Tech. Brown would lose a heartbreaking 7-6 game to the Huskies in two overtimes before rebounding to defeat Boston University to claim third place.

Once again, the NCAA tournament appearance came in advance of a decline, and this one was more similar in nature to the decline the team endured during the 1950s, only this time it was more severe and longer lasting - and to some extent, continues through to the present day with some minor exceptions. The Bears hovered around .500 through the remainder of the 1970s, but the 1980s were particularly brutal in Providence. From 1981 to 1991, the Bears endured 9 seasons in which they failed to reach the 10-win mark, and had 14 consecutive losing seasons between 1979 and 1992.

Dartmouth alum Bob Gaudet helped snap the team out of its funk for a few years in the early 1990s as head coach. Gaudet's first team in 1988-89 was brutal, as the Bears finished with a 1-25-0 record, but the team slowly began to improve. Brown won their third Ivy title in 1991 despite a 9-15-3 record overall, and by 1993, Gaudet had assembled a rough and tumble team that worked its way up to a 4th place finish before riding a solid run through the ECAC playoffs to the first ECAC championship game played in Lake Placid. The Bears dropped a 3-1 game to Clarkson, but still earned their 4th NCAA bid.

Once again, the NCAA tournament represented a peak, and after two more fair seasons, Brown was back to struggling. Gaudet departed for his alma mater in 1997, and Roger Grillo wasn't immediately able to stem the tide. The Bears spent most of the late 1990s in the ECAC cellar, failing to reach 10 wins five times from 1996 to 2001. Behind current NHL goaltender Yann Danis in the early 2000s, Brown was able to improve their fortunes to some extent, but never did better than 4 games over .500 in Danis' senior year of 2004. The Bears last recorded a winning season in 2005, and have had 12 losing seasons in the last 15 years.

When Grillo departed Brown in 2009 to take a job with USA Hockey, Brown alum Brendan Whittet took over. Whittet was part of the last Brown team to go to the NCAA tournament under Gaudet, and he immediately set about re-instituting the same type of rough, in-your-face hockey that made Brown successful when he was a player. Where the team lacked in talent, they made up for in intimidation. The majority of the season was difficult for the Bears, as they limped to an 11th place finish with the worst defense in the league by far - they allowed 11 more goals in ECAC play than any other team. The offense was not much better, and their special teams were far below average.

But the playoffs were a different story. In consecutive weeks, Brown defeated the 2nd best defense in the league in RPI and the top offense in the nation in Yale using hard hitting and a clutch and grab trap style to intimidate the opponent and slow the game down in order to make up for a defense that, all season, had been causing the team problems.

Brown brings back a decent amount of scoring, led by Zolnierczyk, who will captain the team for his senior season, but Fratkin and Maclellan have shown a knack for putting the puck in the net as well. Beefy freshman Garnet Hathaway should add to that ability. Although Volpatti graduated as the leading goalscorer, Brown's offense may well be improved over last season. But the defense remains the weak point for the Bears. Buvinow is an outstanding two-way defenseman, but he's only one man. Mike Clemente put up mediocre numbers in net as a freshman, but had absolutely horrid figures last year as a sophomore, which made it difficult for Brown to play their trap style, since the trap tends to inhibit offensive chances. To point, in each of Brown's five playoff victories (representing 38% of their victories for the entire season), the Bears never once relinquished the lead once they had it, and they never had the lead in their three playoff losses.

Intimidation is the other key point to Brown's game, and it should be for the forseeable future as well. Volpatti broke the school record for penalty minutes in a season last year, and the Bears recently landed a recruit whose most impressive statistic is his massive PIM number. If they can't keep up with you, Brown will absolutely try to make you think twice about what you're doing with the puck, or at least force you to make a quick decision lest you get bowled over and turn it over.

Obviously, the key with Brown is in grabbing the lead and focusing on overcoming their bruising style to gain some insurance goals to get them out of the game. The defense has to stay tight early - a team that gets behind is going to find the going tough around the edges of the ice, as the Engineers learned last season, especially in Game 3 where they fell behind early, and then allowed their frustration at the rough play and the inability to maneuver to get the better of them as Brown built a lead they could not conquer.


  1. I am surprised by your reference to goalie Mike Clemente as mediocre in his freshman year. A quick look at the ECAC website shows his save percentage numbers were impressive at .930 that season, just a few ticks behind the league leading .932, and among the best numbers for freshman or sophmore netminders in all NCAA hockey that year. He also was in net when the underdog Bears blanked Harvard in two consecutive games, something that never happened to Harvard in it's 100 plus seasons. In his sophomore season he posted a .930 save percentage, improved his win % significantly and helped the overlooked Bears knock off RPI and Yale in two consectutive 3 game road playoff series, including another clutch playoff shutout to end the Bulldogs season. Although the Bears may still be considered underdogs by many they will surely look to build on their recent successes when the new season begins and may again surprise teams that discount their talent and desire.

  2. Clemente was near the bottom of the ECAC in every meaningful goaltending statistic last season. Given what I saw from him in the playoffs, he just happened to be the goaltender - I wouldn't say he displayed any qualities that made the fate of those series turn on him, Brown's system and their willingness to stick to it won them those series. It should come as no surprise that they got beat by a team that plays the same system, only better and with better talent, in a single game setting.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.