It was 15 years ago when Greg Gardner was minding the net for Niagara, leading the Purple Eagles to the Elite Eight in the 2000 NCAA men’s hockey tournament.
In some ways, 15 years seems like a lifetime ago.
But when Gardner looks at the big picture, 15 years still makes the region the new kids on the college hockey block.
Gardner was back in Buffalo Saturday as an assistant coach with Mercyhurst as the Lakers tied Canisiuis, 3-3, in HarborCenter.
Gardner started his coaching career on Monteagle Ridge, spending five seasons as an assistant coach with Niagara, including the year the Purple Eagles joined Atlantic Hockey. After spending three years on the staff at Princeton, Gardner took the job with Mercyhurst in September. It’s a familiar region for the Mississauga native although the profile of Atlantic Hockey has changed since the last time he worked in these parts.
“The league has grown in stature since I left a few years ago,” Gardner said. “It’s a heck of a good group of teams from top to bottom. You see in non-conference games they’re more competitive. It’s grown in the right direction and is headed in the right direction. It’s only about 10 years old. The league is still only getting its legs under it with young hockey programs which are growing and moving up the ranks. Every year it’s a little stronger and different programs are finding different ways to be successful. It will be exciting to see what can happen in the next 15 years.”
Different ways to find success. Gardner’s career has been built on that.
He is best remembered in Western New York as the goaltender who stole the show for the Purple Eagles as Niagara built hockey from scratch. He was the backbone of the 1999-2000 team that went 30-8-4 and knocked off New Hampshire in the NCAA tournament. Gardner had a 1.53 goals against average that season and a .936 save percentage.
And as much as his team focused on being in the moment, they were also aware of what they were creating.
“There are days as a player you sometimes just show up to the rink and play and you don’t think too much about the big picture,” Gardner said. “During the summer or recruiting meetings, the coaches told us their plan and their vision. For us as players, I remember as a group we had to lay a foundation for the program’s future. That was very important to us.”
Settling into Erie, Pa., Gardner has some talented goaltenders to work with. Senior Jimmy Sargeant is the reigning Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year (although currently sidelined with a hip injury. Sophomore Spencer Bacon has been good with a .904 save percentage while freshman Brandon Wildung made 35 saves in his collegiate debut.
While Gardner is a goalie by trade, he’s approach isn’t to micromanage.
“I'm not going to change their game. That’s not my style,” Gardner said. “All I ask is that they find their game and I’ll push them to find their game as much as possible. Some days, I wear my goalie hat and watch every repetition at practice. Some days, I’m not watching the goalies at all. I’m dealing with the penalty kill or our defense against the rush. I leave the goalies to coach themselves and find their own way through it.”