By Mike Zhe
BRUNSWICK, Maine — Defenseman Tim McGarry was handed a hard hat during his visit to Bowdoin College so he could tour the incomplete structure that would ultimately turn into the Sidney J. Watson Ice Arena.
By the time he left campus that day, he’d committed to coming.
Forward Dan Weiniger’s timing was even better. He visited campus on the night the arena opened for business four years ago, and joined 2,400 fans in watching Bowdoin spank Williams, 8-3.
“It was surreal,” he said, “like something you dream about as a little kid, playing in a beautiful rank like that, packed with students, townspeople. When I was driving home, I called (coach Terry) Meagher and told him I wanted to come.”
Four years later, the sparkling arena isn’t the only thing that’s matured.
As February began, the veteran Polar Bears (16-1-1, 10-1-1 NESCAC) sat atop the league standings and were ranked among the top teams in the country. They’re scoring 4.50 goals a game — fifth in Division 3 — and getting strong defense and goaltending at the other end.
Also, they’re focused. Together, it’s been a winning recipe after last year’s creation left a little bit of a bad taste.
“Collectively, this junior and senior class is not distracted by other things — job interviews, the pressure of what’s ahead,” said Meagher. “It’s somewhat rare, in my opinion, to have 95 percent of your group connected, focused, loving to play and loving to play hard.”
The seeds for this success were planted last February, when a surging Bowdoin team was ousted by Middlebury, 6-3, in the NESCAC semifinals. By most accounts, a win in that game would have earned a bid to the NCAA tournament for a third straight year; instead, the Polar Bears sat out and watched league champion Amherst carry the NESCAC flag.
This year, they roared out of the gate like a team not wanting to leave anything to chance, not losing a game until Wesleyan clipped them midway through last month.
“Not too surprised, to be honest with you,” said Weiniger, whose 10 goals are third most on the team behind Ollie Koo (Greenwich, Conn.) and Harry Matheson. “Last year we had a very strong team and fell short of where we wanted to. … We knew that if we put in the time and effort and dedication, we could have something special.”
Weiniger’s resurgence has mirrored his team’s. After putting up 26 points as a freshman and 45 as a sophomore, his scoring totals of 7-9-16 last year were comparatively pedestrian.
“I was lucky enough to have a good first two years, personally,” said the Phillips Exeter Academy product. “Last year was definitely not as great and that was hard for me to handle. But I had a great offseason, worked my (tail) off, and it’s good to see it paying off.”
“He had a falling off last year,” said Meagher, “but he’s got his swagger back.”
A pair of juniors, Koo (11-9-20) and Matheson (11-15-26), are leading the way offensively, though nine Polar Bears have already cracked double digits in points, with sophomores John McGinnis and Connor Quinn (Sudbury, Mass.) the only non-upperclassmen in that group.
The goaltending has been ably shared by junior Steve Messina (2.48 goals-against average, .912 save percentage) and Max Fenkell (1.84 GAA, .940), another former Exeter Academy standout who transfered from Division 1 Colgate.
Even the lone loss was spectacular, in its own way. Leading 4-2 here against Wesleyan last month, the Polar Bears took some penalties, gave up a pair of power-play goals and lost when the Cardinals’ Keith Buehler completed his hat trick four minutes into sudden death.
But that’s been the exception, and the team bounced back to win three straight in the league after that, sweeping Williams and Middlebury on the road. The win at Middlebury was the first for the program since 1993.
“It was a good lesson,” said McGarry. “I think losing that game prepares us better for what’s ahead.”
Typically, the team has skated at such a high level, consistently, that its coach has to work at not getting caught up watching it.
“There’s a rhythm and flow that really sticks out,” said Meagher. “This team, as much as any team I’ve had, I’ve got to snap out of it sometimes on the bench so I’m not watching, I’m coaching.”
A lot of that comes with experience, something the thoughtful Meagher calls an “internal GPS,” knowing where “the hidden rocks are.” It’s allowed the team to compete at a consistently high level.
And in a great venue, to boot.
The current seniors are the first class to play their entire careers at the new Watson Arena, modern and sparkling inside and out, but with a mural of life-size photos lining the far concourse that gives a nod to the program’s proud history.
Fred Ahern (Class of ’74) remains the only Bowdoin guy to reach the NHL, though Jon Landry (Class of ’06) is knocking on the door with the New York Islanders. But the most famous alum commemorated on the mural is a Class of ’72 guy, Ned Dowd (Framingham, Mass.), who enjoyed a brief career in the NAHL but became a hockey household name with his portrayal of goon Ogie Oglethorpe in the classic movie his sister wrote, “Slap Shot.”
The blown-up, black-and-white photo shows Dowd with Paul Newman (Reg Dunlop) and former New Hampshire star Mike Ontkean (Ned Braden), in one of those captured-on-film moments that makes the arena feel a lot older than just 4.
Four years ago, McGarry, who grew in Pennsylvania and played juniors with the New England Falcons, was all set to go to Williams. He came up to Bowdoin, almost as an afterthought, saw what was being constructed and never looked back.
“As far as the rink’s concerned, I live right across the street from the rink, on the other side of the parking lot, and come here every day,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
From Watson Arena back to the NCAA tournament? That’s the goal.
“Freshman year we were lucky enough to be there. Sophomore year we were lucky enough to be there,” said Weiniger. “Last year we had high hopes and that semifinal loss really crushed. It was probably one win away from getting to the dance. … It definitely lit a fire under us because that’s where we want to be.”