By Andy Merritt
He was on his knees, head down, with friend and foe crowding around him. The final seconds of the game were bleeding away, slow and agonizing. The foes were whacking away at any hint of the puck, real or otherwise, and the friends were trying to make sure the puck stayed right where it was.
With five teammates and five opponents standing in terribly close proximity, Dax Lauwers was the loneliest man in Matthews Arena as Northeastern’s game against Maine wound down Friday night, Jan. 11. Lauwers had just blocked Maine’s 98th shot attempt of the night, providing the 31st blocked shot by a Northeastern player. Rather than carom away from him, the puck fell between his feet, and with seconds left in overtime and a 1-1 score on the board, Lauwers hit the ice and held on for dear life.
After several seconds of poking and swinging, the Maine players came up empty, and Northeastern escaped to hang on to a crucial league point, thanks in large part to Lauwer’s refusal to back down.
The reality is that it’s rare for the average fan to notice anything a guy like Lauwers does. For defensive defensemen, much like baseball umpires, if people know your name, it probably means you screwed up. But that night, as a scrum began to unfold around Lauwers and the horn sounded, the Northeastern crowd was cheering for the guy with the funny name that came from … where was it again?
It started in Lincoln, Neb., for Lauwers, a native of Anchorage, Alaska. As a high school student playing for the USHL’s Stars, he started thinking about how to get a college education, preferably while playing Division 1 hockey. He reached out to the Air Force Academy, and then to the U.S. Military Academy — for our purposes, Army. The latter offered him the opportunity he sought.
“I said, ‘You know what, get an unreal education and a chance to play college hockey, why not?’ ” Lauwers remembered.
He ended up playing in all but two of the Black Knights’ 35 games in 2010-11 — a season in which Army struggled to an 11-20-4 record.
But of course, West Pointers don’t just put in their four years and then join the working world. The first day of their junior year, cadets begin a five-year service obligation, and by the time they graduate, they are second lieutenants in the Army. They are deployed, they find jobs within the Army, and the athletes trade in hockey sweaters and other jerseys for a very different kind of uniform.
Lauwers realized he had a decision to make. He had come to Army for the education and athletic opportunity, and admits now that when he chose to enroll at West Point, he was willing to give up on the dream of one day playing hockey professionally. Once he had become a cadet, however, his mindset started to change.
“I just started kind of evaluating what I wanted to do after college, and what it came down to is I have a passion for hockey, and I want to play hockey after college. I didn’t know what that was going to entail, but I knew I couldn’t do it (at West Point).”
He did some soul searching and talked with friends, including his roommate Aaron Deister, then a freshman on the Army basketball team.
“I knew they cared about me, because they said, ‘You make a decision that’s your own decision, and stick with it. Don’t make a decision based on what other people are telling you. We want you to stay here, you’re a good hockey player,’ ” he said. “The hardest part about leaving Army was leaving my teammates there and my close friends.”
Lauwers decided to leave Army and return to Lincoln. “Once I was back in Lincoln, I couldn’t ask for a better team, a better organization and a better coaching staff,” he said. “I felt at home, and I felt like they care about their players. What I liked about being there was every day, just going to battle with your buddies.”
The Division 1 dream wasn’t dead, but Lauwers knew he’d have to chase it somewhere else. So he picked a pretty good time to score his only goal of the 2011-12 season — in the Stars’ second playoff game against Fargo, with Northeastern assistant coach Jerry Keefe (Billerica, Mass.) in attendance. Keefe asked if Lauwers was interested in coming to Boston, and a few months later, Lauwers was a sophomore Husky.
“We liked the way he approached the game, just a hard-nosed, tough guy to play against,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) said. “He wasn’t flashy, but he knew his game. A lot of fire and brimstone — he had a lot of passion that he played with. We just thought his element would round out our defensive corps.”
He’s one of several transfers on the Huskies’ squad this year, including captain Vinny Saponari (Boston University) and Lauwers’ roommate, Torin Snyderman (Sacred Heart). Although transfers can sometimes carry some baggage from their previous schools, Madigan was never worried about that.
“No, I talked to (Army coach Brian Riley), who I know, and I have a lot of respect for the Riley family, known them for a long time,” Madigan said. “It’s a special player who decides to look to one of our military academies, and I knew the Riley family only recruits kids with a lot of character. I knew there were no character issues, he just wanted a different school, a different lifestyle. I knew the young man was going to fit in well.”
Madigan, it seems, was right. Lauwers appeared in all of the Huskies’ first 19 games, usually paired with Colton Saucerman or Josh Manson, and had an even or better plus-minus rating in 11 of those contests. His stay-at-home style has proven useful when he’s found himself in front of enemy forwards as they close in on the NU net, and his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame often is strong enough to simply turn the threat away.
“He’s a big guy who fits the style that he plays,” said Snyderman, who will be eligible to take the ice next year. “He’s pretty serious about preparation and how he goes about his business — when he gets to the rink, he’s all business. I could tell from the first time I met him that he was like that.”
He’s made an impression on his teammates and his coach, and while he’s still getting his footing as a Husky, there’s even reason to think he might someday be the one wearing the ‘C’ Saponari currently has on his jersey.
“He’s a good character guy to look up to,” Snyderman said. “Dax has a lot of great qualities that would make him a great leader for our team, so that’s definitely something I could see somewhere down the line.”
That’s why Lauwers doesn’t look back on his year at Army as a misstep. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Did you make a mistake by going to West Point?’ No, not at all,” he said. “At the time, it was what I wanted to do, and I didn’t waste a year at all. I learned so much that year; I learned so much about myself, what I want to do. … It gave me a perspective that I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.
“I think I got a lot of perspective on things. The whole decision to stay or leave, it was kind of the first time that I had two paths to go on, and I made the decision of what I felt was best for me.”