HockeyTown: Princeton, New Jersey
by Roman J. Uschak/Correspondent
Mention the word Princeton to most people and it conjures up images of staid academia, ivy-colored walls and, perhaps, the American Revolution.
More and more, it also has stood for hockey, ranging back to the turn of the 20th century at a world-class university to the rise of youth groups a half-century later. Those separate entities have worked to mold Princeton, long known for college basketball and lacrosse, into an up-and-coming hockey town.
Former Princeton University men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, who guided the Tigers from 2004 to 2011 following a five-year stint at Alaska-Fairbanks, saw how good things could be in central New Jersey — and played more than a small role in it himself.
“We had a lot of following from the community,” said Gadowsky of his time at Old Nassau, which included back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament in 2008 and ‘09.
That included the most prominent local minor hockey organization, the Princeton Youth Hockey Association, which was founded in 1958. The Tigers also have allowed Mite players to skate in between periods of Princeton men’s games.
“It wasn’t just the university,” said Gadowsky, who is now the head coach at Penn State. “Two of my kids played, and we had a great partnership.”
Gadowsky fondly recalled those days when his players ran clinics for local youths at Hobey Baker Memorial Rink, named for the famed Princeton hockey star of the early 20th century.
“It was great for the youth organization, and I think our players enjoyed it as well,” said Gadowsky.
“Skate with the Tigers,” the combination autograph/skating sessions that Princeton still holds following select home contests, also drew members of the student body, at least on one memorable occasion. Gadowsky remembers one skate that took place at 1 o’clock in the morning with about 300 undergraduates, as part of a “Midnight Madness”-style promotion.
“Five hundred people came to watch our practice at midnight,” he said.
On the scholastic hockey scene, Princeton High School skates as a member of the Colonial Valley Conference in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, while the Princeton Day School competes as an independent.
The PYHA has existed for nearly 55 years and has always had a relationship with the university. “Skate with the Tigers” and the various hockey clinics have persisted, even with the recent change in varsity coaches.
“All of that has continued,” said Maureen Thompson-Siegel, the PYHA’s master scheduler and standing board member. “(Current coach) Bob Prier has been involved the same way that Guy was.”
The PYHA skates out of the Pro Skate Arena in nearby South Brunswick and fields roughly 200 players per season from Mites through Midgets.
“There’s definitely more boys than girls, but there are some girls,” said Thompson-Siegel.
For high-level female hockey, girls can turn to the Princeton Tiger Lillies, who have skated out of Ice Land in Hamilton since their creation in 1992.
“We’re pretty much the only girls-only organization in New Jersey,” said retired general manager Bob Forant. “We’re not tied to another organization.”
This year, the Tiger Lillies feature three teams and approximately 55 players, although in some years there are enough players to fill out four squads. In their two decades of competition, they’ve sent players to schools such as Boston College, Boston University, Providence, Robert Morris, Syracuse and UConn.
“Every year there’s somebody,” said Forant. “We’ve probably got eight to 10 playing in college now.”
A dozen former Princeton University players have gone on to the NHL over the years, with George Parros (2007) and Kevin Westgarth (2012) also having hoisted the Stanley Cup.
As they did under Gadowsky’s tutelage, the Tigers have continued to bond with the community.
“Our guys are incredible with the young hockey players, and with families in general and how they treat everyone,” said Prier. “They (in turn) give us the kind of fan support we receive.”
Team captain Jack Berger, who grew up with four younger brothers, has enjoyed helping out at youth practices and then seeing those players attend his games.
“We have lot of youth teams come out, and we appreciate their support,” said Berger. “It’s fun to see them go out and enjoy the game. You see yourself in them, and it’s a good experience.”
The Princeton women’s team also has registered more than a bit of success since the program began play in the late 1970s. Entering 2012-13, the Tigers had won five Ivy League championships and also qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2006.
Head coach Jeff Kampersal, a former Princeton defenseman, has been at the helm of his alma mater since 1996, and the program has sent 11 players on to international competition.
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New York Hockey Journal.