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Pussycats No More After decades of mediocrity (or worse), the Princeton Tigers are in the Top 10


The long, dark Russian winter of Princeton hockey has come to an
end. How long? How dark? Well, the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan
and Bush presidencies came and went without Princeton hockey's
having so much as a .500 season. But the 1998-99 Tigers are cats
of a different stripe. Halfway through the season Princeton is
11-4-1, ranked eighth in the country and tied for second in the
Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) with a 7-2-1 record.

"Guys are sick of the talk about the past," says Princeton's
co-captain and leading scorer, Jeff Halpern, a senior from
Potomac, Md., who is a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, given
to the nation's top collegiate player. (Baker, class of '14, led
the Tigers to a 27-7 record over his three-year career, during
the golden era of Princeton hockey.) "My freshman year, guys just
wanted to get to the middle of the pack," Halpern says. "Now our
goals are different. We can't be compared yet to the elite teams
in the country who do it year in and year out, but on any given
night we can beat any of those guys."

The Tigers proved that last March when, after struggling to a
7-9-6 regular-season record in the ECAC, they knocked off Brown,
Cornell, Yale and Clarkson in the span of six days to win the
league tournament and their first ECAC championship. That earned
Princeton its first invitation to the NCAA tournament, in which
the Tigers put a scare into eventual champion Michigan, losing
2-1 on the Wolverines' home ice in the semifinals. "On ESPN they
were joking about sending the Tigers into the lions' den, having
to play Michigan at Michigan," says All-America senior Steve
Shirreffs, Princeton's top defender and a ninth-round draft
choice of the Calgary Flames in 1995 (he put off an NHL career to
finish college), "but there's really not much of a talent gap
between us and the top teams."

Traditional hockey powers such as Boston University, Clarkson,
Harvard and Minnesota can attest to that; all of them have lost
to Princeton this season. But Tigers coach Don (Toot) Cahoon, the
man responsible for turning the Princeton program around, is
quick to wave a flag of caution. "Athletically, even now, we're
just a little above the middle of the pack," he says. "So to get
to the top, it's a question of doing the little things right. The
players understand that the whole has to be greater than the sum
of its parts. These kids are motivated. That's what got them to
Princeton. We're very disciplined in areas where some other teams
break down."

Cahoon, 49, a self-described overachiever, makes the Energizer
bunny look indolent. A carbonated bubble of a man, he doesn't
walk from place to place, he scoots. He came to Princeton in 1991
from BU, where he had played on two national championship teams
and helped coach a third. At that point the Tigers had had one
winning season in the previous 30 years. "He brought with him
instant credibility--and a game plan," says Princeton assistant
coach Len Quesnelle, a former Tigers player who had been on the
coaching staff before Cahoon arrived. "When he said, 'I want you
guys to follow this weight training program because I know it's
what BU is doing,' the players bought into it right away."

"We didn't have to turn this thing around all at once," says
Cahoon, who was undeterred by the conventional wisdom that
Princeton had two strikes against it when it came to recruiting:
It's one of the southernmost hockey-playing schools in Division
I, and, like all the Ivies, it doesn't give athletic
scholarships. "I asked myself, Why couldn't we find five or six
kids a year who would cherish the opportunity to play at a
university the caliber of Princeton? We never put the focus on
winning. It was, Are we getting better? It's simplistic, but it
takes the burden off the players."

From the start Cahoon preached nutrition and off-ice
conditioning: Before every season he requires his players to be
able to run eight consecutive 200-yard dashes, each in under 31
seconds, resting for 90 seconds in between. They also must be
able to run five miles in under 35 minutes. "A lot of people
would argue that those requirements have no basis for developing
a hockey player," Cahoon says, "but they're a great basis for
developing the mind."

To discourage postgame Saturday night carousing, Cahoon holds
Sunday practices, giving the players Monday off instead. "That
serves a dual purpose," he notes. "It also lets them get an
academic head start on their workweek."

It wasn't until Cahoon's fourth season, 1994-95, that the Tigers
showed signs of turning the corner. That season Princeton knocked
off the top-ranked team in the country, Maine, went on to win a
school-record 18 games and advanced to the ECAC finals for the
first time.

The success of that team helped Cahoon recruit the nine seniors
who are the heart of this year's lineup. "Coach convinced me it
was almost an honor to be part of bringing Princeton out of its
historical trap," says co-captain Syl Apps, who scored the
game-winning goal in last year's ECAC title game in double
overtime and whose father and grandfather both played in the NHL.
"Every year since he's been here, the program has gone forward.
We have a higher caliber of athlete now than we did my freshman
year, and when you practice against those guys every day, it
can't help but lift the level of your play."

In the manner of the late, great Wisconsin and Pittsburgh
Penguins coach Bob Johnson, Cahoon has dozens of spiral notebooks
in his office detailing practices of the national teams of
Sweden, Austria, France, Poland and Russia, among others. He's a
faithful subscriber to a coaching manual called The Drill of the
Week Club and prides himself on introducing five or six drills a
week that he has never tried. "Some of them are terrible," he
says with a laugh. "Players are running into each other. But
that's the fun of coaching. You try to keep the kids thinking.
I'm a product of my own insecurity. I don't know anything else I
do with the same level of competence as coach. That's what drives
my passion. I don't want to lose the thing I do best."

Which is why, the day after a 4-2 loss on Jan. 8 to a less
talented but more determined Dartmouth team, Cahoon did something
he'd never done: He kept the Tigers at the rink for more than
three hours, even though they had a game that night against
Vermont. He made them watch a video of the debacle against
Dartmouth, walked them through situations on the ice, talked to
them collectively and individually. His message? Your time here
is short. The games are few. Don't waste a single shift. "I told
them to give me something to work with, because the one thing I
can't coach is lack of effort," Cahoon says. "I asked them to let
me take them to a place they might not ordinarily think they
could go. It's corny, but that's me. I'm very comfortable showing
these guys exactly who I am."

The Tigers responded with one of their best games of the season,
a 3-2 win over the gritty Catamounts that ended a two-game losing
streak. Freshman goaltender Dave Stathos, of Longueuil, Que.,
improved his record to 6-1-1, solidifying a position that was a
question mark coming into the season, following the graduation of
Erasmo Saltarelli. This Princeton team, like the BU squads Cahoon
played for and coached, is fundamentally a defensive,
counterpunching club. Its offense is generated by forechecking
and neutral-zone turnovers, so it can't play run-and-gun.

"We're beginning to understand our identity," says Halpern. "We
can't go out and expect our talent to win games. We've got to hit
and shove and win the battles along the boards, and let our skill
players score some big goals. It's that kind of play that will
take us as far as I think we can go."

They've already come one frozen hell of a long way.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA "Guys are sick of the talk of the past," says Halpern (right), the Tigers' leading scorer. [Jeff Halpern in game]

"These kids are motivated," says Coach Cahoon. "That's what got
them to Princeton."