LEWISTON – There is chirping. Plenty of chirping as there usually is in a tight-knit hockey circle.
Case in point: When the Niagara freshmen class was asked who is the smartest in the group, the most popular response was “Well, Tanner Lomsnes thinks he is.”
“Hey guys, I just chirped Tanner,” one of the freshmen boasted to his classmates.
Of course he did. And of course they all laughed. Even Lomsnes. Because sticking together and leaning on each other is what has kept the group of 10 passionate and positive as their rookie season for the Purple Eagles tests their collective resolve.
Just by sheer numbers, the freshmen were going to play key minutes for Niagara this season. They make up a third of the roster after all. But they’ve all had different learning curves. Some starting hot. Some are finding their groove late. All of them struggled through Niagara’s 11-game winless streak and fought the frustration that comes with playing well but not well enough to win.
Being able to rely on each other – on and off the ice – helped the freshmen keep their focus.
“It’s good to lean on these guys because we’re all kind of going through the same thing,” Lomsnes said. “We came in all at the same time and wanted to help this program and we haven’t lived up to our expectations. So we’re all kind of dealing with the same thing.”
“It’s something a lot of us as freshman had never gone through in juniors, where you’d be playing well and one mistake would cost you a game,” goalie Joe O’Brien said. “Sticking together has gotten us through it.”
From the time they arrived on campus, the group seemed to connect. As freshmen, they end up in many of the same classes. They live together. They play together.
It’s a lot of hockey. But it’s also a lot of family.
“I think we’ve just got a great group of guys,” Lomsnes said. “We have no cliques. We all have different personalities. We’re all over the place, so I guess we all fit together in a weird way. We’re just like brothers.”
“With having such a big class, you have a freshman on literally every line,” forward Nick Farmer said. “You play with everyone so you get to know them on the ice. Then you have classes with everyone so you build that chemistry. And with 10 freshmen, the future is going to be really good as this group of guys stays together. I’m excited to see what happens in the future.”
Niagara is excited to see what happens this weekend as it plays a home-and-home series with Mercyhurst, hosting the Lakers on Friday in Dwyer then traveling to Erie on Saturday.
The series comes after the Purple Eagles ended their 11-game winless skid with a pair of wins at American International. It was the first time this season Niagara has posted back-to-back victories.
The freshmen were key in both wins. Niko Kovachis, Farmer and Johnny Curran scored while Lomsnes, Sean King and Ryan Kuhn picked up assists.
But it’s not just the stats. It’s the way they play the game. Coach Dave Burkholder gives an example.
“Saturday at AIC, we’re up 4-3 and they call timeout to set up their 6-on-5 play,” Burkholder said. “I’m deciding who I want on the ice and I have four freshmen and a sophomore. That kind of tells you what we think about them. … I have trust. I trust those guys in the defensive zone and that’s a testament to how these guys have come in and adapted to our systems.”
“All of 2016 had been pretty tough,” Kuhn said. “We thought we should have won quite a few games but we weren’t getting bounces and were making mental mistakes. But we finally were able to complete a full weekend and it felt good. It was nice to get that going. Now hopefully we can use that to get some momentum the last six games leading into playoffs.”