By Mike Zhe
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
HOOKSETT, N.H.— What the heck, why not Pinkerton?
You can forgive the New Hampshire high school hockey world if it hadn’t heard of Pinkerton Academy freshman J.D. Dudek heading into this season.
No worries. Most of the country hadn’t heard of his father before Joe Dudek graced the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 1985.
Good genes and some good developing hockey talent have J.D. Dudek making his own name. In late January, he was the leading scorer on a young Astros team that stood 9-2-1 in Division 1 and forcing its inclusion into the discussion of the state’s best.
“I know that he was a good football player,” J.D. said of his father. “I just want to follow in his footsteps as a good hockey player.”
The older Dudek was immortalized by the Dec. 2, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated, the cover of which showed off his photo below those of Auburn running back Bo Jackson and Iowa quarterback Chuck Long. The box next to Dudek’s photo was checked, and the headline proclaimed him “The Thinking Fan’s Vote For The 1985 Heisman Trophy.” Inside, a column by Rick Reilly titled, “What The Heck, Why Not Dudek?” coughed up his amazing stats and tongue-in-cheekly explained why he was more deserving of the Heisman than either Jackson or Long.
Joe Dudek was a football and track standout at Plymouth. That’s where he met his wife, Jodi, who played field hockey and basketball. But both J.D. and his younger sister, Taylor, have chosen to lace up the skates, a foreign concept.
“He actually came to us,” his father said. “We believe in getting our kids involved in a lot of sports, but never pressured anything. Both of us believe that sports are a great foundation for life.”
“I’d always heard the stories of the 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. practices and, to be honest, I was against it at first,” he said. “But my wife’s been great, as far as managing his hockey career.”
Pinkerton has only been playing varsity hockey for a decade, but it’s been a good decade. The program has one Div. 1 championship to its name (in 2009) and reached the semifinals again last season, losing to Exeter.
The largest high school in New Hampshire in terms of enrollment, Pinkerton’s most famous hockey alumnus is Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.), who went on to play with the Jr. Monarchs and is now the leading scorer on an explosive University of New Hampshire team that was ranked No. 4 in the nation in mid-January.
After losing Andrew Walsh to the prep ranks and leading scorer Teddy McCarran to juniors, the Astros had some voids to fill up front. They had a good core of players such as sophomore standout Zach Sanford, defensemen Billy Johnston and Mike Shea, and goalie Kevin Kent, as well as a pair of holdover veterans from their championship team of 2009 — Alex Desrosiers and Cam Romano — but needed young players such as Dudek, Bailey Walsh and Dominic Corsetti to perform.
“We’re real young,” said Shea, an assistant captain. “A lot of freshmen and sophomores, so coming into the season I was a little scared. I didn’t know who was going to show up.”
Through 12 games, Dudek had eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points, one of the highest totals in Div. 1. At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, he has pretty good size for a freshman, and his good hands and ice vision have earned him a spot on the Astros’ top two lines.
“We had a couple kids leave early so we had some open spots at camp,” Pinkerton coach Casey Kesselring said. “He just played well right away.
“He’s definitely exceeded expectations. He’s on pace to get 30 or 40 points, which would blow away anything that Thompson or Sanford did as freshmen.”
“I’ll be honest. I was a little scared at first,” J.D said. “But I’ve gotten a lot more confident playing with these bigger and older guys.”
Growing up, Dudek played with organizations such as the Manchester Flames, Exeter Freeze and New Hampshire Avalanche. During a stint with the Valley Jr. Warriors, he was coached by a trio of former Bruins: Steve Leach (Cambridge, Mass.), Bob Sweeney (Boxboro, Mass.) and Bob Carpenter (Peabody, Mass.), who coincidentally was another famous Sports Illustrated cover boy in the ’80s.
“He just knows how to play hockey,” Shea said. “He’s good up and down the ice, plays well at both ends, plays well on the power play as a defenseman, at the point. He’s been a big help.”
Kesselring, who starred at Merrimack College in the mid-1990s, is in his eighth year as Pinkerton’s coach. He’s quick to admit that he came into a good situation, where numbers were never an issue. Now, the Astros are rubbing elbows with traditional powers Bishop Guertin, Concord, Hanover and Exeter.
“Once you get the momentum going, kids in our district are excited to be an Astro,” he said. “Kids know coming in it’s a strong program, so we don’t lose a lot of kids to Bishop Guertin or a Central Catholic or a Trinity.”
Joe Dudek grew up in Quincy, Mass., before heading north and breaking records on the gridiron at Plymouth State. He moved back to New Hampshire for good eight years ago and has spent most of his professional career working in the adult beverage industry. He lives in Auburn, manages the northern New England market for Southern Wine and Spirits of New England and serves on the President’s Council at Plymouth State.
He’s also spent the past four years as an assistant coach on the Pinkerton football team, which this past fall won the state Div. 1 championship for the fourth time in six years. But hockey’s grown on him.
“I was always a Bruins fan,” he said. “I understood the sport. But it’s been really from watching J.D. that I’ve become a hockey fan. It’s such a beautiful, fast-moving sport to watch. … What I try to do is see how the ice opens up for the players. It’s a little like being a running back in football.”
Plymouth State retired Dudek’s No. 22 in 1989. He played two games with the Denver Broncos during the strike in 1987 and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
“We have all that down in our basement,” said J.D., “all the magazines and jerseys and stuff like that.”
“I still get two or three Sports Illustrateds a year sent to me by fans out there,” Joe said. “I think if my name were Joe Smith it would be different. But I have an uncommon name and, to this day, when I’m introduced, they all say, ‘Dudek. Where have I heard that name?’”
On the ice, we may be hearing it for years to come.
Mike Zhe can be reached at email@example.com