Defenseman Josh Van Dyk received a little pep talk from University of Maine hockey coach Tim Whitehead before he left for home last spring.
“He told me he wanted me to be more of an impact player and to work really hard so I can be the player we know you can be,” said Van Dyk. “Coach and the entire coaching staff gave me a lot of positive feedback.”
Van Dyk, a junior, took it to heart and is having his best season with six assists through his first 12 games entering tonight’s game at UMass Lowell.
He is plus-one in the plus-minus category, second-best among Black Bear defensemen.
Players are given a plus-one if they’re on the ice when their team scores an even-strength goal and minus-one if it surrenders one.
He had eight assists in 34 games last season after going pointless in 31 games his freshman year.
“I’m more mature now. I worked hard in the off-season. I didn’t really work hard the previous two summers,” said the 23-year-old Van Dyk. “I’m a little bit stronger and faster than last year so Coach has a little more confidence in me and I’m trying to play with a little more confidence as well. I’m stronger on pucks now and I’m able to do a little bit more.”
His improvement has also resulted in more ice time. He plays on the power play and on the penalty kill and Whitehead will also use him in the final minute of a close game.
“It definitely boosts your confidence when your coach has enough confidence in you to put you out there in all situations. It’s a good thing,” said Van Dyk, a six-foot, 185-pounder from Woodstock, Ontario.
“He has made a tremendous improvement from last season,” said Whitehead. “It began in the spring, the summer with his off-ice training. I’ve been really impressed with how hard he worked and how he prepared for this season. He has increased his strength and speed. When we ran our [fitness] tests in the fall, he not only tested well off the ice, he was also our fastest backwards skater.
“You can see his strength on the puck in every game. He’s shrugging off forecheckers. Last year he had trouble in some of those one-on-one battles,” added Whitehead.
“He’s a very solid defenseman,” observed UMass Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “He makes good decisions and he moves the puck well. He’s also pretty cagey.”
“He has been playing great,” said Maine junior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen. “He has put on some muscle and gotten a lot stronger. He really dedicated himself to coming back and playing defense first and then working from there. And it has worked out for him.”
“He’s real smart with the puck and makes good plays. And now that he has the confidence and the strength to go with it, he has been a good player for us,” said junior center and captain Tanner House. “He was determined to come back this year and be a big part of this team.”
Van Dyk’s progress is even more noteworthy when you consider the fact he had to deal with the emotional heartbreak of losing his brother, Nick, to cancer in July, 2008.
“The whole team helped me through that,” said Van Dyk.
“That was awful for him. I’m sure it slowed him down. But he bounced back afterwards,” said sophomore goalie Scott Darling.
Van Dyk, who had 19 goals and 40 assists in 46 games for the Hamilton Red Wings during his last junior hockey season, is still looking for his first collegiate goal.
“I’m not worrying about it too much but when the day comes, that will be a nice monkey off my back,” said Van Dyk.
He said he has been “pretty happy” with his season but admits that some of their early season-losses have been frustrating.
“We’ve been playing well lately. We’ve got to put together a full 60 minutes,” said Van Dyk, who expects a dogfight against the nation’s No. 3-ranked team tonight.
“They’re a good team that plays its systems to a T. We’ve got to make sure we don’t turn the puck over and we have to play solid defense. The better we play defensively, the more chances we’re going to get offensively,” said Van Dyk.