Jan. 29, 2014
Notre Dame, Ind. –
By Craig Chval `15
If you look at Notre Dame hockey’s leading goal scorers so far in 2013-14, you won’t see too many surprises. Among the top four are T.J. Tynan, Mario Lucia and Bryan Rust, the top three returning scorers from last season.
But right there, near the top, is a player who had no goals and one assist in 13 games before this year, a breakout star for the Irish in sophomore left wing Sam Herr. With 12 goals in 25 games, Herr has become a critical player after dressing in less than one-third of the games in his rookie year.
After such a huge burst in production, one might imagine Herr made drastic changes in his game between then and now. But while he has worked physically to improve, he mostly credits a new mentality.
“Last year was hard because I wasn’t a regular lineup guy. When I was in the lineup, I was so worried about not making a mistake,” Herr says.
“So if I did make a mistake I felt like everything I did in the game was bad. It was frustrating, and it wasn’t allowing me to make plays that felt natural – I was just always worried about what I needed to do.”
Herr adds, “This year what I really tried to do was shake off mistakes. If I do make them, I just forget about it and be confident in myself that I’m going to go out there and make the right play the next time. Confidence was definitely the main thing that I needed to work on.”
Unlike most other sports in which non-playing reserves can still dress, only 18 skaters can be on the bench in college hockey. So missing being in the lineup for Herr meant watching from the stands.
But it may have been a blessing in disguise for the winger, who reaped benefits that contributed to his breakout year.
“Obviously it’s frustrating for any player sitting out – they want to play. But I learned so much from it,” Herr explains.
“Even after games I didn’t play, the coaches didn’t need to talk to me – I didn’t have an impact on the game. I was just in the stands, but they let me know, `Hey, what’d you see out there?'”
“I talked to Coach [Paul] Pooley a couple times in the airport on road trips when I wasn’t playing. He was like, `The most I learned from hockey was watching it.’ It’s like a self-check. You watch people out there that are playing consistently and you learn from it. You do what you can to make the lineup by learning what you could do on the ice out there. It was frustrating, but it helped me tremendously.”
One of the players Herr would watch was team captain Anders Lee, an All-CCHA player who tallied 116 points in his three-year career. Also a big-bodied forward, Herr tried to pick up what Lee did to make him so successful, and head coach Jeff Jackson has noticed the similarities this season.
“The comparison is good and bad, because Sammy still needs work on his skating, similar to Anders,” Jackson says.
“He needs to develop more agility to his game and first-step quickness, and Anders was the same way. But his body, his hockey sense, and his hands make him a formidable player.”
Having played on Lee’s USHL team, the Green Bay Gamblers (but not at the same time), Herr was familiar with his future teammate before coming to Notre Dame. During his freshman year he knew who to model his game after.
“I watched him every single game last year in the stands, and he was doing something right, so I just wanted to find out what it was,” Herr says.
“He was getting to the net, he was getting in the dirty areas that nobody was really going into. I took pride this summer in getting bigger, stronger and faster. Watching a guy like Anders, he got away with a lot because of his size and his ability down low to protect the puck with his body, so I definitely wanted to resemble that.”
In addition to picking up good habits from his teammates, Herr also developed his general hockey sense while watching games last season. Reviewing good plays as well as on-ice mistakes helped fashion a cerebral complement to his physical improvements.
One of the most important mindsets he had to construct was using his body to “play big.” Part of Herr’s adjustments responsible for his success this season has been whole-heartedly understanding and fulfilling that role: to get to the net, play physical, and create space.
“I feel like it’s sinking in more and more now,” he describes.
“I understand that’s my role and that’s what I need to do. But I definitely needed to hear it a lot last year and the beginning of this year.”
“Coach did a great job explaining situations where I was and where I could be. And it’s not necessarily just finishing a check. Obviously that comes with it, but getting to the net and being really hard for the defenseman to play against me is the goal of playing big, basically – just having a physical impact on the game.”
Herr’s steady approach has garnered him four game-winning goals, the most on the team. And although he is among the team leaders in goals, his commitment to this style of play makes him a better all-around player than what shows up in the scoring column. He leads all Irish forwards in +/- with a +9 rating.
“Being a complete player is one thing that I learned the most because everybody on this team can play offense,” Herr says.
“It’s doing the little things like back checking, getting the puck in deep. It’s amazing how doing something as simple as that over and over and over again can contribute so much later in the season or later in a game. Everyone starts panicking when it’s 2-2, `Oh, we need a goal!’ In the end the simple play is the best play.”
While it may be unusual for a sophomore to have such a mentality, it should be no surprise for Herr, especially considering whom he plays with. Skating on the team’s most productive line with senior alternate captains Bryan Rust and T.J. Tynan, Herr credits their success (64 points between them) to playing smart.
“Those two, they’re just two of the most dynamic players in college hockey that you’ll see,” he says.
“Their poise with the puck, the plays that they make are phenomenal. They realize that I’m going to do my best to create space for them, get to the net and they’re going to find me there.”
“I don’t know, we just understand each other’s roles on the line,” adds the 6-0, 206-pound forward.
“We play fast, we play hard, and we’re playing it right. I think that’s the main thing. We’re not cheating offensively, we’re not cheating defensively. We’re doing everything that needs to be done correctly.”
Although enjoying his success – and the extra playing time that comes with it – Herr knows he is not too far removed from his days of watching in the stands. He lets those experiences help him mentor players in a similar situation.
“I just try to reach out when I can,” Herr says.
“They understand that I went through a similar thing. Thirteen games last year isn’t a ton. I got a taste of college hockey, and I learned a good amount watching, so I kind of just let them know what I can. If they go out and play a game and don’t do as well as they want, I want to be there to say, `Hey this is what you need to be doing.’
“For instance, Ali [Thomas] made a play in practice that got a little close to [Steven] Summerhays. He kind of heard it from a couple teammates, `Hey, don’t get too close to our goalie,’ but that’s what he needs to be doing.”
“Obviously don’t run over Summerhays and don’t hurt Summerhays in practice, but you shouldn’t be yelled at for getting to the net – that’s what he needs to be doing. So I just kind of let him know, `That was a good play, that’s what you need to be doing. You’re a bigger body; just keep working on that. Be patient, your time will come.'” Having experienced both tremendous frustration and success in such a short span, Herr knows the benefits of being patient while perfecting his game.
“I want to play big, play hard, get to the net, play good defensively. Just play smart, and if I get rewarded for that, fantastic,” he says.
“I’m on the right track right now and I’ve got to keep building off it, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”