Middlebury students have been playing ice hockey for at least 150 years. Club teams began playing on frozen ponds in the 1860s, and students were no doubt competing in informal games before that. But it wasn’t until the 1922–1923 season that a Middlebury hockey team formally competed against other colleges. That team didn’t have a coach, substitute players, or enough sticks to go around (the goalkeeper played with a catcher’s mitt), and it lost all three of the games it played that season.
The Panther’s first victory did not come until the team’s third season, in 1924–1925, after a total of nine losses and one tie. But the team was improving rapidly, and in its fourth season it won the Vermont Championship. In 1926–1927, after the Panthers completed a 6-0 season and claimed their second consecutive Vermont Championship, ice hockey was officially granted minor-sport status at Middlebury.
In the decades since, the men’s ice hockey program has been shaped by three head coaches who have directed the Panthers for a total of 68 years: Walter “Duke” Nelson ’32, Wendell “Wendy” Forbes ’51, and William “Bill” Beaney. They have worked with generations of players to make Middlebury’s hockey program one of the best in the nation. And while the passing years have brought enormous changes in hockey facilities, equipment, and techniques, the coaches’ philosophy has always been the same. They have been dedicated not only to winning, but to developing their players as scholars and as men, recognizing that sports teach lifelong lessons of discipline, commitment, focus, and teamwork.
A standout player as a defenseman for the Panthers from 1929 to 1932, Duke Nelson remained with the team as coach following his graduation. He held that position for 22 years, with a 10-year hiatus in the mid-1930s and early ’40s. Nelson gradually built the hockey team into a powerhouse, and Middlebury became a dominant force in eastern collegiate hockey. He retired in 1964 with a career record of 208-166-6, one of the sport’s most respected coaches.
Nelson’s successor was one of his best players, Wendy Forbes, who coached the team for more than two decades. He was named national coach of the year in 1975 and took his team to the ECAC playoffs seven times, winning the ECAC Division II West title in 1978–1979. By the time he retired, he had compiled a record of 254-234-18.
Bill Beaney took over the hockey program in 1986 and led the team to five consecutive national championships (1995–1999), an NCAA record. The Panthers won another three-straight crowns between 2004 and 2006. Middlebury appeared in 13 straight NCAA tournaments (1995–2007) during his tenure, while winning eight NESCAC championships. In 2009–2010, the team again won the NESCAC title and made it to the NCAA quarterfinals. Beaney has also led his team to six ECAC tournaments, with a championship in the 1990–1991 season.
Over the years, ice hockey has become an integral part of Middlebury’s identity. Both the men’s and women’s teams have collected a legion of fans on campus and off. Hockey alumni list lessons learned on the ice and friendships formed there among the most important and cherished parts of their Middlebury experience. And every hockey season, the whole College community becomes more closely connected through a shared enthusiasm for the game and the Panthers’ winning tradition.