BRUNSWICK, Maine — It’s possible the most interesting class at Bowdoin isn’t listed on the master schedule of classes. But if you ask Terry Meagher, head coach of the Bowdoin men’s hockey team, it’s one of the best learning experiences a college student can have.
“We get to apply what we teach,” said Meagher. “What [the players] learn in our classroom for four days, we apply on the weekend. It’s like a calculus class where you have your three classes that week and that weekend you go toe-to-toe with Colby College’s calculus class to see who’s best on the test.”
Leaning back in a chair in a skybox overlooking Bowdoin’s basketball court, Meagher, in his 30th season as head coach for Bowdoin, chose his words with the poise of a professor. After using classroom metaphors repeatedly when describing his approach toward the game, Meagher was quick to respond when asked whether he saw himself in the same light as the school’s other prestigious academics.
“I think you have to,” Meagher said. “I am a faculty member here. You have to understand what our mission is. I think you would go crazy as a coach if all you cared about was who won 3-2. You have to look at it and put an educational component to it. I really believe in that.”
If Meagher is a teacher, then the stuff he’s teaching isn’t entry-level material. Rarely will the Polar Bears line up in a traditional formation with two defensemen, two wingers and one center. Sometimes there are two players up top and three back. Or a one-three-one formation. He’ll move his defensive line up dramatically, pressing the opponent. He’s taking what is a standard technique and using it unconventionally.
“It’s just geometry,” he said.
No matter what you call it, it’s bringing success for Bowdoin. The Polar Bears are 13-1-1 — the best of any college hockey team in Maine — and ranked fourth in the current USCHO.com poll. The team is on a 14-game unbeaten streak.
Although all aspects of play have been strong, it’s been the offense that has been gelling the most. The Polar Bears haven’t scored fewer than two goals in any game this season. Twenty-three players have tallied a point thus far, with senior forward Daniel Weiniger and junior forward Ollie Koo leading the team with 10 goals each.
Success in Division III
Meagher understands the difficulties in finding talented athletes that meet Bowdoin’s rigorous academic demands. Add to that the fact that Division III doesn’t allow athletic scholarships, and you have a challenge in developing a consistent program.
Despite the hindrance, Meagher has fielded decades of successful squads. Compiling more than 450 wins, Meagher ranks in the top 10 all-time in victories among Division III hockey coaches.
“First and foremost, it’s the school itself that attracts motivated individuals,” Meagher said of his program’s continued success. “It has been and always will be the academic mission as the focus. But I think you have to add another dimension to their student life and sport is part of that.”
The trick, according to Meagher, is attracting student-athletes who have the commitment to carry a heavy workload and whose enjoyment of the game is organic.
“When they are inside that glass they need to make the best of that time,” he said. “I think it’s pride, they play for the love of sport. I think it can kind of be their refuge. We’re very thorough on recruiting and trying to identify student-athletes that have the academic qualifications and have a level of skill where we can maintain the competitive integrity of the program.”
One aspect of college athletics Meagher enjoys is having his players experience that other classrooms may lack the constant assessing of what they are learning against others. It’s that competitive drive that sets athletics apart.
“Being in competition where either teammates or competition pushes you to new heights — it’s a wonderful thing,” Meagher said. “I think it’s one of the best classrooms in higher education. Being a part of a team, committing to a common good greater than them, I can give you all the cliches.”
Continuity in a program
When Meagher began at Bowdoin in 1982, he was following in the footsteps of a legend. Sidney Watson coached the Polar Bears for the 24 seasons prior to Meagher, amassing 326 victories, four Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference titles and three coach of the year awards. In 2001, he was awarded the Hobey Baker Legend of Hockey Award and was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
Bowdoin remains the only Division III program with two 300-game winners in ice hockey.
“Sid and I both had similar goals to be at a place where not only you can see student-athletes graduate and be proud of that moment, but have individuals come back 10 years later with children,” Meagher said. “It is relatively unusual. It’s my 30th season and Sid went 24. I don’t think you’ll see that as much any more.”
Rebounding from last year
Depending on who you ask in the Bowdoin hockey program, you’ll get mixed answers on whether last year was a success. Meagher scoffed at the notion the Polar Bears’ semifinal exit in the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament was a disappointment, pointing to the squad’s 16-6-3 record.
“It was still a pretty good run,” Meagher said.
Despite a recent loss, the first blemish of the season for the Polar Bears, Meagher is comfortable with where the team is thus far. He reflected on a recent, six-game road trip where Bowdoin won all six games, outscoring its opponents 31-12.
“What really holds water is teams can be built in a really good way on extended road trips or they can fall apart,” he said. “I think that was a blessing for us that we were growing and developing and were committed to each other at that time.”
Even though the majority of the schedule has been played, Meagher knows he and his squad must get through the next month.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Meagher said. “You’re vulnerable to a bad night or the flu on any night — the January yucks I call them — but you’ve got to overcome that. It gives them the opportunity to learn about themselves, to develop resiliency.”
Like a true professor, Meaghar is always looking for a place to teach his students.