March 11, 2014

From NEHJ: Pride in the jersey

By Andrew Merritt

Playing primarily with linemates Tom Forgione and Jonathan Turk, Pete Massar, left and above, has found a niche at UVM. (Photo by Brian Jenkins/UVM Athletics)

For Pete Massar, it turns out you can go home again.

Growing up on a leafy dead-end street in Williston, Vt., Massar spent his formative years a short drive from Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse, and just a few houses away from Wally Ligon, who was the Catamounts’ strength and conditioning coach in the late 1990s. Like any hockey-loving kid in Vermont, he was a Catamounts fan, but his proximity to Ligon brought enviable access.

“We used to have a pretty good inside look. We’d come on Saturday mornings when they were out of season and skate with some of the guys,” Massar said. “I’d be around the locker room as a kid. Definitely a cool inside track.”

“The guys” that Massar referred to were, at the time, just UVM players. But the mid- to late-’90s was a good time to be around Vermont hockey, as the roster included future stars Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin, among others.

A young Pete Massar got to be about as close to those stars-in-the-making as you can get without actually earning a scholarship.

“Wally was really good about getting him over there; he met the guys, he went into the locker room,” said Massar’s father, Erick. “He’d see St. Louis play, Eric Perrin, tremendous players at UVM. That was pretty inspiring for a guy who was never the big guy. (St. Louis) was never afraid, which I always loved about him.”

Almost two decades later, Massar is a fifth-year senior who starts every night for the Catamounts, playing on a forward line tasked with defending against other teams’ best players. But the line from Massar’s rink rat days as a Williston kid kicking around the Gutt and his status as a counted-upon member of the UVM roster is anything but straight.

Massar went on to join the Green Mountain Glades, a well-known junior hockey program in Vermont, and when the time came for him to look at his next step, he wanted to set his sights beyond the home team.

“Growing up, I kind of felt like (going to UVM) would be a pretty cool option, but I also wanted to see what else was out there,” he said. “It’s something I thought about, but it wasn’t a definite priority that this was where I wanted to be.”

Massar’s coach with the Glades was Chris Line, a native of nearby
Essex Junction who went on to play four years at Clarkson. Line’s college career gave Massar some inspiration to look to the small school in Potsdam, N.Y., that had a strong hockey tradition.

So Massar set off for Potsdam, where the Golden Knights were coming off a 10-19-7 year, but had two years earlier made back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament, winning the ECAC tournament title in 2007 and the regular-season crown the next year.

The program’s slide continued, however, and Massar was bitten hard by the injury bug even before the season began, suffering a groin injury that dogged him throughout his freshman year. He played in 13 games in 2009-10. The following year his health, and the coaching staff’s lack of trust, made things even worse. He played just six games as a sophomore.

That 2010-11 year turned out to be the last one for coach George Roll behind the bench, as he and assistant Greg Drechsel were fired shortly after the season ended. But for Massar, the damage already had been done.

“I kind of thought about staying when the coaches were fired, but at the end of the day I thought it was best to get a fresh start,” he said. “I had a really good buddy, (former Catamount) Pete Lenes, and he said I should look into coming here.”

Lenes, who graduated in 2009 following a 31-point senior season on a Catamounts team that went to the Frozen Four, told coach Kevin Sneddon that he might want to talk to his old friend Massar, who could use a fresh start in a familiar place.

“With the coaching change at Clarkson and some things that had transpired there, he was looking for a new opportunity,” Sneddon said. “We certainly had room for a transfer, and from all we could gather, we knew his hockey ability. But we did our homework, and he got outstanding reviews from all the people we talked to.”

Massar transferred to UVM ahead of the 2011-12 season. While Erick said he and his wife, Gayle, supported their son’s decision to go to Clarkson, they were glad to have him back in the neighborhood.

“For us, it’s like the return of the prodigal son,” Erick said. “It’s just nice having him home. It’s great having him back in Vermont. He’s had a pretty long journey, but he stayed incredibly focused and committed to the sport.”

NCAA rules dictated that Massar sit out the 2011-12 season as a redshirt player. Even if he wasn’t dressing for games, Massar already was helping his hometown team.

“It was an important part in the year he had to sit out. We had so many injuries, and we had to play him on defense at practice,” Sneddon said. “And he did so without batting an eye. His first year, he had some nagging injuries, he had a rib (injury), he blocked a shot and broke his foot. So he wasn’t really healthy until after the season. It was real difficult, but we saw some good signs.”

The Catamounts struggled throughout Massar’s redshirt season, with injuries crippling the team as it stumbled to a 3-23-1 record, missing the Hockey East playoffs.

“It was tough to watch that year; the team struggled almost every night,” Massar said.

The following season, Massar’s first in a Catamount uniform, was a slight improvement. UVM went 8-13-6 last year and returned to the league playoffs before being eliminated by Boston College in the quarterfinals. Massar played in 20 games, scoring two goals and four assists.

This year, he’s only missed a few games for Vermont (17-11-3, 9-9 league) and has found some chemistry on a line with freshman Tom Forgione — a fellow Vermont native from South Burlington — and sophomore Jonathan Turk. The trio is Sneddon’s go-to line for matchups against most opponents’ top lines, and they’ve done well to neutralize a lot of those dangerous situations.

“This year he’s playing exceptional, on a line that’s just been spectacular,” Sneddon said.

This year has been both affirmation of the belief Massar has always had in himself, and reward for a lot of long seasons filled with frustration.

“It’s a great feeling. It obviously brings a little bit more pressure, because you know you’ve performed in the past, and now you have to perform at a consistent level,” he said. “It’s nice to know the staff has confidence in me to do the job every night, and I’ve been able to contribute and bring a lot to this team, to help turn this program around.”

His parents, who used to have to catch his games via the Internet when he was at Clarkson, sure don’t mind being able to make the short drive into Burlington, especially since they run their home furnishings company, Rags and Riches, on some of UVM’s game days.

“We love it. We just want him to feel like 20 years from now, he looks back and says, it was all worth it,” Erick said. “That everything he did was the right steps, stays true to his passion. He never quit, and that’s something I instilled in him a lot.”

Vermont might not have been Pete Massar’s first choice, but it’s been the better one. UVM traditionally has at least a few Green Mountain State natives on its roster, and it means a lot both to the players and the hometown fans who see their local boys done good.

“There’s a lot of pride when they put that jersey on,” Sneddon said.