January 25, 2011

From NEHJ: Dartmouth's Mello makes most of chance

by Phil Perry

Dartmouth goalie James Mello: 'You just have to sit there and bide your time and play hard in practice. Then once you get your chance, you've got to take it and run with it.' (photo: David Silverman)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

When James Mello was a freshman, hockey was a waiting game. Night after night, he sat patiently on Dartmouth’s bench, ever confident, ready for his name to be called to take over in net.

It happened just once all season.

“It was definitely difficult,” said Mello, a Rehoboth, Mass. native. “But it comes along with the game. You just have to sit there and bide your time and play hard in practice. Then once you get your chance, you’ve got to take it and run with it.”

Now a junior, Mello has done exactly that.

In two years, the Big Green goalie has risen from benchwarmer to one of the nation’s elite at his position. As his team made its way into the holiday break, Mello ranked second in the nation in goals-against (1.66) and save percentage (.945). And with him between the pipes, Dartmouth (5-2-1, 6-4-1) has established itself early on as one of the best defensive teams in ECAC.

“He’s patient. He’s not flopping around back there. He’s very stable,” Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet (Saugus, Mass.) said. “With the style we have, he’s a really good complement for the rest of our team. We should be a really good, solid team, and he’ll be a big part of it.”

When Mello arrived to Hanover, N.H., his teammate Evan Stephens remembered him as a “toothpick.” He stood at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, almost a full 100 pounds lighter than the team’s biggest skater.

That year, Dartmouth gave the starting goalie job to another freshman, Jody O’Neil, who eventually won ECAC and Ivy League Rookie of the Year awards.

“James never complained,” Gaudet said. “He’s a confident guy. He never wanted anything to be sugar-coated. He knew (his time on the bench) was never a reflection on him. It was more of a reflection on Jody and him being on a roll. James just prepared himself each week in practice, and if his number was called, he was going come in and do the job.”

In order to win more ice time for his sophomore season, Mello knew he had to get stronger. In the offseason, he began to eat like he never had before. He ate until it almost hurt. For breakfast, he often had seven eggs and washed them down with a protein shake. He’d follow that several more meals throughout the day.

At the same time, he seriously immersed himself in weight training for the first time. Four or five days a week, he was in the weight room with his teammates, focusing on his lower-body strength in order to be more explosive in his crease. He put on 20 pounds of muscle in the second half of his freshman year.

“I went abroad that spring, and when I came back, he had totally filled out,” said Stephens, a senior defenseman. “It definitely helped him bring his game to the next level.”

Mello was awarded with starts during the second half of his sophomore season. He played in 16 games and tallied a .912 save percentage.

Even with the added size, Mello — who now tips the scales at 165 pounds — is on the small side for a goalie. But his style and his positioning are so technically sound that it doesn’t matter that he’s not physically filling the net; he always seems to be in the right spot.

“I try to keep things as simple as possible,” Mello said. “I don’t get too jittery. I like to stay in my crease and just manage my area.”

Gaudet — a former goaltender and Dartmouth’s de facto goalies coach — has watched Mello come up through junior hockey when he played for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs with Gaudet’s sons, Jim and Joe. He still marvels at Mello’s style.

“He does things almost effortlessly. He has good positioning and great hands,” Gaudet said. “He’s unflappable.”

Part of Mello’s ability to slow down the game as might be due in part to his time as a roller hockey (or inline hockey) goalie.

Mello moved to Massachusetts as a freshman in high school, but before that he had taken up inline as a 12-year-old in Downers Grove, Ill. Teams play four-on-four, with no offsides, no icing and no checking. It’s a more open, faster game than ice hockey, and it forced Mello to be solid in his positioning.

“Some of the slap shots have been clocked at 105, 106 (mph) so it’s a little quicker,” he said. “It helps reflexes, but I think it helped my decision-making more. You can’t shuffle or slide like on ice. You have to have good angles. You can’t make desperation saves because you can’t move as much.”

At 17, Mello made the U.S. national inline hockey team and traveled to the Inline Hockey World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. There, he teamed up with several former AHL and NHL players to help the Americans win a gold medal.

“That was the first time I got to play with some older guys,” Mello said. “They definitely gave me a lot of advice that I still carry with me today. I hadn’t been able to sit around with a pro hockey player before — never mind be on the same team. It was pretty cool.”

Though small, Mello came to Dartmouth as a more mature freshman because of the experience. And now that he’s been handed the starting goalie job, he’s exuding confidence to his teammates from between the pipes that’s helped put the Big Green on track to significantly improve upon last season’s ninth-place ECAC finish.

“We knew we had what it takes to make some noise in this league this year,” Mello said. “Confidence can go a long way. When you finally realize you can do something, it speaks volumes.”

Who would know better than him?

Phil Perry can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com