Freezing Out the Forwards
"Enforcer" Noah Welch is all for fun on the ice.
The Harvard athletic department website, a shrine to the accomplishments of Crimson athletes, makes a peculiar boast regarding ice hockey captain Noah Welch '05, who "sits seventh on the school's all-time list in career penalty minutes." Spending time in the penalty box is not the kind of achievement that usually makes a coach smile. But for a big (6 feet, 4 inches, 212 pounds), physical defenseman like Welch, being whistled for a goodly number of infractions is actually a sign of effectiveness.
|The C is for captain: men's ice hockey captain Noah Welch '05 at Bright Hockey Center.
|Photograph by Stu Rosner
As the Crimson's top defender, Welch nearly always takes on the opponents' most dangerous forwards. One way to discourage such high flyers from setting up shop in front of the Harvard goal is to punish them with bruising body contact if they venture near. "Protecting the front of our net is really the key," he says. During the course of a game, Welch's presence becomes... well, a deterrent. Naturally, the officials sometimes take exception to a particularly enthusiastic hit and send Mr. Welch off the ice for a spell. Those penalty minutes are a kind of real-estate tax, the price paid for territoriality.
As a sophomore, Welch was a second-team all-American; if selected again this year, he'd become the ninth Crimson player to garner such honors twice. Many also consider him a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, bestowed on the nation's top male college hockey player, even though defensemen are less likely to win this Heisman Trophy of the skating set.
In Welch's all-American campaign two years ago, he not only helped the team's defense post a 2.29 goals-against average, fourth lowest among Division I teams, but recorded 28 points on six goals and 22 assists, robust scoring for a defender. "I was on the power-play unit with Dominic Moore ['03] and Tim Pettit ['04]," he recalls. "You could pass the puck to either of these two and have a 50 percent chance of getting an assist. People started to consider me an 'offensive' defenseman.
"[New head coach] Ted Donato ['91] has already made me into a better player by helping me identify what kind of player I am -- a defensive defenseman," Welch continues. "Yes, I can make plays, but I am a big, physical guy whose job is to stop the puck from going into the net. Simplifying my game like that has helped me improve my play. I'm playing my best hockey right now, and I've had one assist in the last four games. [At exam break, Welch had three goals and six assists in 17 games.] If I score a goal and have two assists, but am also on the ice when three goals are scored against us, that's not a successful game for me. Success means stopping the other team's best lines."
Doing so isn't as easy this year, due to an NCAA rule change that favors more offense. Defensemen now get penalized for interference if they grab, clutch, or pin opponents against the boards. At the start of the season, refs called as many as 15 penalties per game on some teams ("Ridiculous," says Welch), to set examples. "Now, you definitely have to play defense more with your legs," he says, "as opposed to using your stick."
Harvard has found ways to do just that, and through its first 17 games allowed an average of only 2.0 goals per contest. National Hockey League (NHL) teams have drafted six of Harvard's current defensemen, including Welch, a second-round choice of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big factor is goalie Dov Grumet-Morris '05, "one of the hottest goalies in the United States," according to Welch. Grumet-Morris, drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers, played 14 of the first 17 games and posted an ultra-lean goals-against average of 1.78.
When opponents spring an odd-man rush (a two-on-one or three-on-two break, say), Welch works to limit their options in time and space. Skating backwards as the only Harvard defender against two opponents, he will position himself midway between the attackers, a couple of feet nearer the goal. His object is to force whoever has the puck to take the shot by threatening to intercept or foil any attempt to pass it. This disrupts the classic fast-break strategy of making the goaltender commit to one side of the net, then passing and shooting at the other.
Confidence in their stalwart defense has allowed Harvard's forwards to attack con brio when the transition game puts the puck on their sticks. "This year, it's a more wide-open style," says Welch. "We're encouraged to make plays -- to hold onto the puck and beat guys with our skills and speed." Forwards like senior Tom Cavanagh, the team's scoring leader at exam break with six goals and 11 assists, are doing exactly that. And Donato has recognized the talents of others, like Andrew Lederman '05, who played in only seven games last year and scored but one goal in his first three seasons. At exam break, Lederman was second to Cavanagh in scoring, with five goals and six assists. "Andrew is arguably the most skilled player we have," Welch says. "He might have the best shot and stickhandling ability out there."
Under Donato, the Crimson (10-5-2 at exam break) has upended national powers like number-two-ranked Boston College (3-1); Boston University (2-1); Maine (4-1); and Ivy archrival Cornell (1-0). "As we knock off these big teams, we're building confidence early in the season," Welch says. "Sure, it's easy to say you want to win a national championship, but as captain I don't want the team weighed down with a lot of expectations. My top priority is to make sure the guys really enjoy playing. When you are having fun, those other goals start to fall into place."
Last year's hockey team was an older squad with nine seniors and seven juniors; that talented bunch ranked number one in the ECAC and number six nationally. Expectations were high. Though the icemen won the ECAC tournament and advanced to the NCAAs, Welch says he "didn't have enough fun last year. For a month or two I didn't enjoy coming to the rink."
This year, Harvard skates nine freshmen and seven sophomores, and also has a younger coach in Donato, who came to Cambridge fresh from a 13-year NHL career. (He played for eight teams, beginning and ending with the Boston Bruins.)
With the accent on fun, Welch has returned to basics. "Why do I play hockey? Why do I love it?" he asks, then answers his own questions: "The smell of the rink. Putting that jersey on. The speed of the game. Sometimes I visualize skating on a pond with my brother when I was a kid. In those games, it didn't matter if you scored 10 goals or gave up 10 goals. You just wanted to enjoy the game."
Welch's older brother, Kethe, played hockey for Brighton High School in Boston, and Noah went to all his games. Their parents, Debra and David Welch, divorced when Noah was eight. Raising two icemen isn't easy as a single parent -- for one thing, hockey is an expensive sport -- but Welch says his mother "did an amazing job. Things like making sure I was at BC [Boston College] for youth hockey practice at 6:00 a.m."
At St. Sebastian's, a Catholic day school in Needham, Massachusetts, Welch captained a boys' hockey team that went 29-1-1 in his senior year, winning the New England Prep School Championships, a first for "St. Sebby's." Welch was named New England Prep School Player of the Year. "We won everything we could have won," he recalls. "I was a vocal captain there -- and at Harvard, too -- at the start of the season, I was almost too vocal. Good captains just go out and play; they try to be one of the best players on the ice. You don't want to worry too much about the other guys in the locker room. Lead your team by playing hard."
Welch is certainly doing that. As a Boston native, one of his most important goals for the team is winning the Beanpot Tournament, contested by Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, and Boston University. That particular trophy has always been an elusive one for Harvard, due to the long reading- and exam-period layoff right before the tournament. "The Beanpot is something I'm dying to win," he admits. Alas, Northeastern scotched that ambition by upsetting Harvard, 2-1, in the Beanpot's first round. But for his team's sake, Welch has to put that behind, look to the future, and stay focused on another essential goal: piling up lots of penalty minutes.