Dartmouth’s third-line center makes a difference on the ice and in the locker room

Steven Townley

Steven Townley Brian Foley — Foley Photograph

Steven Townley

Steven Townley

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-15-2024 8:01 PM

HANOVER — He’s not the ECAC hockey conference’s leading goal-scorer. That’s Luke Haymes.

Nor is he the 6-foot-8 goaltender who’s stopped more than 90% of the shots he’s faced. That’s Cooper Black.

Dartmouth College’s Steven Townley is merely a humble grinder, the men’s hockey team’s third-line center and a mainstay of its penalty killing unit. To hear coach Reid Cashman talk, however, the Woodstock High graduate is vital to the Big Green’s success.

“Steven’s a big part of why our program has taken a step up,” said Cashman, whose fourth-seeded club is battling sixth-seeded Union in a best-of-three quarterfinal series at Thompson Arena this weekend. “He’s always been one of our hardest workers, but he might have a bigger impact in the locker room.”

Dartmouth hasn’t hosted a playoff game since the 2019-20 season, and longtime coach Bob Gaudet retired after that campaign, leading to Cashman’s hiring. The Big Green won just five of its 30 games last winter but is currently 11-9-9 overall, 9-6-7 in conference play and vying for a berth in next weekend’s ECAC semifinals at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Townley, a 23-year old junior, has played in every contest and has two goals and three assists. It’s an entirely different role than the one he occupied while leading undefeated Woodstock to the 2018 Vermont Division II state title as its scoring star. During the last of his three junior hockey seasons that followed, Townley produced 45 points in 49 games.

“I thought hockey could help me get into a really good academic school,” said Townley, a government major recently named to the Ivy League’s all-academic team. “Freshman year was a huge adjustment. Every player is bigger and stronger and faster and you practice way more. There’s so little open ice and you have to be in incredible shape.”

Dartmouth recognized Townley as its most improved player after his freshman campaign and he’s an assistant captain this season. Cashman said the 6-2, 205-pound forward, who’s known for faceoff and shot-blocking prowess, is a main cog in the Big Green’s penalty killing efforts, ranked fifth in its 12-team conference.

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“He communicates well, which sounds simple, but not everyone does it,” the 41-year old coach said. “He’s loud and clear and helps align the other three guys and the goalie, so they know where to go and when to clear.”

Dartmouth was 9-32-3 in ECAC play during Townley’s first two years and more than half a dozen players recruited by Gaudet exited the program. Townley said the losing forced him to closely examine his love for hockey and sparked a team effort to change direction, including the players’ vow to improve their nutrition.

“We wanted to leave the program in a better spot when we graduated,” Townley said. “We really bought into what the coaches were selling and everyone came back in incredible shape. Then our freshmen were impact players from day one.”

Dartmouth started the season 2-3-6, but Cashman said the ties would have been losses during previous seasons and it was clear the Big Green was better. Its players took a 12-day holiday break and returned to practice on Dec. 21, working through Christmas and earning home victories over Lake Superior State and Vermont, the latter at a sold-out Thompson Arena.

Two weeks later, Dartmouth suffered its third consecutive defeat and was on the verge of a second winless weekend. It rallied for a defeat of Rensselaer and has gone 7-2-4 since, earning a first-round playoff bye for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

“We’re so excited and we want to get to Lake Placid because at that stage, anything can happen,” Townley said.

Cashman, a former Quinnipiac assistant who twice helped the Bobcats reach the Frozen Four, said Townley draws on childhood inspiration and a feeling of responsibility for again making the Big Green a relevant part of the Upper Valley’s sports landscape.

“Steven grew up watching Dartmouth hockey and its players were his heroes,” the coach said. “It means more to him than anybody else to wear our jersey and that pride is a really cool thing.

“He was maybe just happy to be here at the start, but he wants to leave his stamp on this place.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.