Champions on Ice
If you want to know all about the Hope College hockey program’s past history, current state or future hopes, you really only have to talk to one person. Just one conversation with one guy is all you need to find out the team’s passage from its humble, eclectically skilled beginnings in 1996 to winning the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division III national championship in 2018. Over the span of 22 years, Chris Van Timmeren ’97 has skated through practically every inch of the Hope hockey’s journey — first as a two-year player, then as a one-year assistant coach and now as its 18-year head coach. It has been a longtime association carried forward by a deep passion for both the sport and his alma mater. In the athletic world, that combination is often a winning one.
But sometimes, college coaches and players have to wait for it, wait for it. Building successful programs that reach the pinnacle of athletic achievement is not for those motivated by instant gratification. The work is long; recruiting and culture-setting is an ongoing challenge. Competitive people hunger for constant improvement, though — not just in wins but in personal growth, too.
That has been Van Timmeren’s mindset for close to two decades. He has patiently, arduously built a respected hockey program rife with athletically and academically talented young men. Accolades and achievements have piled up, even if a national championship, heretofore, had been elusive. Here are the impressive stats that bear out the team and coach’s single-minded persistence:
- 17 consecutive winning seasons starting in 2001;
- 15 consecutive trips to the ACHA national playoffs (from 2001 to 2015);
- Two ACHA National Players of the Year, 18 ACHA All-Americans and 77 ACHA Academic All-Americans, and 50 all-conference players in the Michigan Collegiate Hockey Conference (MCHC);
- Six MCHC league titles and five MCHC tournament trophies;
- Five MCHC and three ACHA Coach of the Year honors for Van Timmeren; and,
- Along with this year’s national championship, four previous trips to the ACHA title game in which the Flying Dutchmen finished runner-up (in 2003, 2010, 2011 and 2014).
For all of that unmitigated success, it is those four Buffalo-Billesque, championship close calls that most vexed VT — as the head coach is summarily known. At the threshold of hoisting a huge silver trophy so many times, finishing second, though commendable, was heartbreaking.
Focus and intensity renewed, the Flying Dutchmen moved into and through the national championship with a calm confidence. Van Timmeren chalks up his players’ resurgence to a solid sense of belief in themselves and each other.
A third of the way through the 2017-18 season with a middling 6-5-2 record, it didn’t appear that lifting high a national championship trophy, especially after a previous two-year absence from the tournament, was probable. Then again, anything in sports is possible given enough time and an attitude adjustment. Turns out the Flying Dutchmen had enough of both.
“After we lost so badly to Michigan State (9-1) on a Friday night in November — and they were the best team in the country at that time — we called a team skate on Saturday morning and a team meeting afterwards,” recalls senior captain Peter Stewart, a biology major from East Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We just talked things out for a while and basically said, ‘Let’s just make sure everyone’s on the same page from now on moving forward.’ We ended up beating MSU, 6-3, that night [in the second game of the series], and from then on, we went 19-3 for the rest of the season.”
Focus and intensity renewed, the Flying Dutchmen moved into and through the national championship “with a calm confidence,” Stewart says. Van Timmeren chalks up his players’ resurgence to a solid sense of belief in themselves and each other.
During the Flying Dutchmen’s tournament run of three games in pool play, then the semis and finals, Hope netted 33 goals in five contests, or 6.6 goals per game. By hockey standards, that’s a veritable scoring deluge. As they skated toward the final buzzer of the championship game, a 7-5 victory over Oakland University contested in Columbus, Ohio, glove-throwing, stick-tossing and dog-piling pandemonium ensued. And VT — known for his intense and business-like demeanor — stayed on the bench and watched, overwhelmed by an immediate rush of relief and then the full flow of tears. “I didn’t really get excited about [the championship] until I got to hold the trophy up,” he confesses. “Besides getting married [to wife, Gina] and having a baby [now 20-month-old daughter, River], that was the best moment of my life.”
“I think a lot of people thought, ‘This isn’t the team’ [to win a championship],” adds assistant coach Caleb Digison ’14, a former four-year starter in the program. “So to have a real underdog story, to be those guys and to do our own version of ‘Miracle on Ice,’ that was greatly satisfying as a coach.” So was finishing the season 25-8-2. The milestone victory made Van Timmeren’s career record 420-232-20, a healthy 77-percent winning margin.
“It’s really incredible that these high-caliber hockey players and high-caliber students and people came together at Hope to play the sport they loved so much.”
Championship moments always encompass more than a current team. Titles are touch points of celebration for a community, too. Van Timmeren’s phone lit up and buzzed for hours after the championship win. Calls and text messages from former players, Hope staff, hockey parents and friends of the program rolled in as if a blinking, beeping video game was playing on his phone. Those expressions of heartfelt congratulations often were accompanied by additional reminiscing of where the team had started and how far it had come. “Alumni, no matter their years, still feel like this is their team,” Van Timmeren states.
“In the mid-90s, these guys who had played hockey at a variety of levels — some high school level, some club, some travel hockey — came together with a wide set of skills to form a team,” recalls Dr. Richard Frost, vice president for student development and dean of students, whose office oversees hockey as a club sport. “Some were extremely skilled and others were kind of learning how to really skate well. But it was this wonderful experience of them banding together for the love of the game to form this club. They didn’t have a rink nearby and had to travel quite a ways [to Southside Ice Arena in Byron Center] to practice at odd hours. They’d show up to games, and the only apparel they had in common was their jerseys. They had different color helmets or different color socks. But they all always proudly had ‘Hope’ on their chests.”
Today, at the home of Hope hockey, Griff’s Ice House West in Holland (formerly known as The Edge), the history of the program is proudly displayed via archival photos and 22 years’ worth of signed jerseys and sticks neatly tacked up on the facility’s walls. Appreciating the program’s past includes celebrating the talent and passion of former players who helped move the team into the future. Players like George Dickinson ’05, Jeff Guy ’07, Dave Nowicki ’12, Chris Kunnen ’13 and Drew O’Brien ’16, and close to 175 more, have been essential to maintaining a winning tradition and “a hockey family feel that has transcended years and class,” adds Frost. “It’s really incredible that these high-caliber hockey players and high-caliber students and people came together at Hope to play the sport they loved so much. The relationships around the team, including unending support of the players’ families, have been extraordinary.”
VT couldn’t agree more. For a guy with a bachelor’s degree in geology who planned to become a national park ranger until he caught the coaching bug, he is grateful for the years of torch-carrying by dedicated players who chose Hope for its academics first. “Most of the guys we recruit could have gone on to play junior hockey, but they wanted to start their education instead,” says the coach whose off-season profession is in commercial construction. “These are guys we want at Hope, the ones who want to be doctors and lawyers and businessmen and they just happen to play hockey.”
Digison, a mechanical engineer for a Holland-area company, was one of those guys. As a former player — and one of the program’s career leaders in assists — who now works alongside his former coach, he sees more clearly both sides of the team bench now.
“VT holds a very high standard and I think that as a player that was what kept driving me because I felt like I had to keep proving myself to that guy,” says Digison. “Honestly, playing for him was stressful at times, but I felt like I grew up a lot. By the time I graduated, I looked at him and I was like, ‘That guy changed my life, for sure.’”
Solid relationships. Passionate play. Teeming talent. High standards. It was only a matter of time before those recurrent ingredients created one rare thing. They brewed together long enough to make Hope hockey what it always hoped to be: national champions on ice.