The hold that the men's hockey team at the University of Vermont has on this region edges close to complete. On a smaller but no less passionate scale, it is like college football in Lincoln, Neb., or college basketball in Lexington, Ky.
"If you put your name on a list right now for a season ticket," said Vermont Athletic Director Rick Farnham, "you'd be lucky if you got one in 20 years."
So it was a shock almost beyond comprehension on Jan. 14, when Vermont President Judith Ramaley, reacting to an ever-growing hazing scandal within the team, abruptly canceled the final 15 games of the season. She said it was because some players had lied to school officials and outside lawyers during a four-month investigation of allegations made by freshman walk-on goalie Corey LaTulippe that included players having to parade while holding each other's genitals during an Oct. 2 party.
"Honesty matters," Ramaley said during an interview in her office. "Hazing is an unacceptable behavior, but lying about hazing is worse."
Ramaley's action, a Division I president abruptly ending the season of its highest-revenue sport, may well be unprecedented. Last fall, three St. Lawrence University men's lacrosse players were expelled after a hazing incident that left some freshmen players so drunk that when they returned from an off-campus party fellow students called paramedics and security officers. Kent canceled the 1988-89 men's hockey season after a hazing incident in the preseason sent a freshman team member to the hospital.
Still to come is a report about the scandal, including possible criminal charges against some players, by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell. That report will be released Thursday afternoon, Sorrell said.
"This will be a very difficult report for the university to deal with," said Jean Richardson, an associate professor of environmental studies and president of the university's faculty senate. "This is a state that has always turned a blind eye to what the ice hockey team has done. . . . I've known some lads [who played hockey for the Catamounts]--and they said there was hazing, but nothing like this."
Gov. Howard Dean said in an interview that the attorney general's report should answer questions about how thoroughly school officials handled the investigations.
"Could the adults have prevented this?" he said. "Were they forthcoming? . . . Were they truthful?"
A school source said Dean was referring specifically to Coach Mike Gilligan, 51, who has compiled a 249-223-39 record in 16-plus seasons and led the Catamounts to the NCAA tournament final four in 1996. "It's clear to many of us," the source added, "that [Dean] wants somebody's head on this. Indications are that the head he wants is Mike Gilligan's."
Coaching colleagues and former players have rushed to Gilligan's defense.
"Nobody would question his integrity," said longtime Boston University coach Jack Parker, who has won nearly 600 games in 24 seasons. "The way he recruits or the type of game he plays."
Said Gilligan: "I knew absolutely nothing about the [Oct. 2 party]. I feel I'm as on top of things as all my [fellow coaches] are. . . . Late in the spring, I'm going to have to make a decision about whether coming back is good for the program or leaving is good for the program. But nobody's going to pressure me out of here."
Lawyers for LaTulippe, who withdrew from the university in mid-October after failing to make the team, say the issue could have been settled quickly and decisively had the school handled the initial allegations through normal channels, its office of judicial affairs.
"Some of the kids . . . were hazed in a more serious manner than Corey," LaTulippe's attorney, Gail Westgate, said. "It's our understanding that [players in] all four years of the current hockey team were all subjected to freshman hazing."
On Dec. 10, LaTulippe filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court here against Ramaley, Gilligan and team captain Kevin Karlander and assistant captains Matt Sanders and Andreas Moborg. That was about three months after Westgate first warned the university about hazing and more than a month after she was more specific about the allegations.
Ramaley said she was advised not to use the university judicial affairs office's procedure, in large part because the incident that sparked the bulk of the charges, the Oct. 2 party, occurred off campus. She added: "We've done, under the circumstances, the best we could with what we knew when we knew it."
The fallout has been immense.
"This makes you revisit [hazing] one more time, the 'thou shalt not,' " said Dartmouth Athletic Director Richard Jaeger. "It's a wake-up call."
University of Vermont officials and the team, which has stayed intact and continues to practice, have been amazed and dismayed for most of the past four months.
"Something new comes up every day that you never thought you'd experience as a college player," said junior forward Jerry Gernander, whose father is the chief scout for the NHL's Dallas Stars. "You come home from a road trip and get a letter from an attorney that you're under investigation. It's been a shock pretty much every week so far."
A Midseason Void
The 12-member Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference has had to adjust its schedules, its method of determining the regular season champion and the teams who advance to the postseason tournament. Instead of points, the system will be based on winning percentage. Vermont (5-9-3, 3-2-2 in the ECAC) will finish in last place.
"This diminishes all of us," Jaeger said. "It's like all of a sudden you don't have the Indians or Braves or Yankees [in major league baseball]. You go on, but you're missing someone important."
Dartmouth has been hit hardest, because it was Vermont's travel partner for weekend games. The teams would travel together to, say, Cornell and Colgate and play them on consecutive nights. The league has allowed Dartmouth at least one day between games to compensate for not having to play the well-rested team that did not play Vermont.
Farnham, the Vermont athletic director, said Vermont will pay Dartmouth for its additional expenses, such as extra lodging and meals. He added: "Some institutions call and say don't even think about what you owe us. Others say we need to think about that" for schools that will lose the revenue they would have received from a home game against Vermont.
The major monetary loss to Vermont is more than $200,000 from ticket sales to the 4,000-seat Gutterson Fieldhouse, a 37-year-old facility with mostly green-and-white benches but about 700 chairbacks at one end for officials and significant guests.
The radio station that broadcasts Catamounts games has made new arrangements with its sponsors. A supplier for the concessions stands figures he will lose about $45,000. Addy Gross, a freshman from Hershey, Pa., did the math for the time not spent helping clean Gutterson after three of the canceled home games and estimated her loss at $36.
Everyone agrees that the emotional loss cannot be measured.
"A very big void . . . devastating . . . so sad," Mary Anne Gucciardi, president of the school's all-sports booster club, said during halftime of the Vermont-Hartford basketball game on Saturday. "There's so much that we don't know, maybe never will know. I cried immediately when I heard [about the cancellation]. I could cry right now when I think about it."
Not Fun, Not Harmless
Schools at every level are becoming more and more aware of hazing. Alfred (N.Y.) University earlier this year completed a study that its president, Edward G. Coll, said showed that 80 percent of college athletes around the country are victims.
"Hazing ranges from wearing silly clothing and extra calisthenics to kidnappings, beatings and brandings," Coll wrote in the Burlington Free Press. "Athletes drink until they pass out, all in the guise of team-building tradition or harmless pranks. In the past we may have seen it, but we dismissed it as essentially harmless fun.
"We need to face athletic hazing directly and call it what it really is: degrading or humiliating behavior that often crosses the line into dangerous and illegal activities. [The study] found that hazing cuts across all NCAA divisions, all types and sizes of campuses, all regions, all sports. . . . More than one-quarter of a million students have been hazed in some fashion to join a college athletic team."
Because Vermont men's hockey, as Ramaley said, is "larger than life," hazing has been the hot conversational topic here for the past several weeks.
Local resident Susan Park, 39 and the mother of two small children, agreed with a popular opinion among some Vermont fans. "Why didn't [LaTulippe] just walk away?" she said.
The lawsuit emphasized that LaTulippe, 19, who grew up in nearby Williston, was "an avid fan of UVM hockey" and that he chose to attend the school, as a recruited walk-on, "for the express and exclusive purpose of playing hockey."
On Sept. 13, lawyer Westgate informed the university's division of student affairs about unspecified allegations of hazing and, according to the lawsuit, an upcoming "big night." Farnham, Gilligan and other athletic department officials said they then explained to each player in individual and team meetings what the school considered hazing and warned that participation could result in banishment from the team.
"There's no doubt in my mind that every single student-athlete understood what hazing activities were, what was acceptable and what wasn't," Farnham said. "No doubt. . . . None of them indicated they'd participated in anything like this. None of them indicated anything was planned or going on."
On Oct. 28, Westgate sent Ramaley, the university president, a letter with details about what happened on the "big night," Oct. 2. Each of the nine freshmen, the letter said, arrived wrapped in a toga and wearing female's thong underwear. All finger and toenails had been painted and public hair shaved.
The evening began, the letter continued: "with an elephant walk which consisted of nine freshman men walking in a line with their [genitals] between their legs held by the person behind them. Freshmen were then forced to drink warm beer and to lay on the floor . . . while upperclassmen on the team proceeded to warm beer in the oven, to spit and pour warm beer on them."
In addition, the letter alleged, the freshmen were forced to do "pushups naked and dip their [genitals] in a glass of beer with each pushup. Of course, at the end, depending on the number of pushups completed, you were either allowed to drink your own beer or someone else's."
The letter had other allegations and said LaTulippe was able to "escape" the continuing event sometime after midnight and "called his mother at 12:58 a.m. to advise that he was safe but not sober."
Shortly after that Oct. 28 letter, the university hired an outside law firm to conduct more interviews. In a Nov. 4 memo, Gilligan warned the players that "if you do not provide truthful and accurate information, you will be removed from the team in accordance with the procedures on page 37 of the [Student Athlete] Handbook."
At that point, a number of the players decided to retain attorneys. The investigation revealed incidents that included underage drinking, Farnham said, but nothing like the sensational allegations Westgate had made. In a Nov. 26 memo, Gilligan imposed four penalties, among them each player on the roster having to miss one game and the team having to participate in five to 10 hours of community service.
Meantime, on Nov. 11, Westgate had sent the school's associate general counsel, Pamela Heatlie, a letter suggesting a settlement for $350,000 "together with a pledge to secure Corey's continued NCAA eligibility." When no proposal came, the lawsuit for unspecified damages was filed Dec. 10.
Sometime between Dec. 10 and the second week of January, some players began to change their initial statements to university officials and the university's outside lawyers about the events of Oct. 2.
"Some of the attorneys, I think, in order to take care of their own clients, lobbied them to come completely clean," Gilligan said.
What Ramaley called "credible information" that some players had provided "intentionally misleading statements" started to surface a few days before the season was terminated. Within hours of confirming the new information, Ramaley said, she decided to terminate the season.
All of the players interviewed for this report declined to comment about the specific allegations of hazing and lying.
Sophomore forward Chris Hills from Columbia said Ramaley's decision was tough to respond to, but added: "I don't think taking any athlete's season away is justified. I'm sure they could have found other ways--community service, that type of thing--to teach people lessons. . . . This is a situation that got way out of control. I guess this was inevitable, regardless of what we had done."
The players praise Gilligan for sticking by them, and feel guilty about the pressure he's under.
"I definitely feel there was a level of trust that we did violate," said Jerry Gernander, whose twin brother, Jim, plays defense for the Catamounts. "Regrets? Definitely. It's very easy now to say you would have done something different. When it was at hand, we dealt with it the way we did. There's not much we can do now but pay the consequences."
LaTulippe's lawyers are among those who wonder why at least some of the players have not been expelled from school.
"I raised two sons," Ramaley said. "They're 28 and 31, and there are things I'm finding out now about what they were like in high school and college that I hadn't a clue about. Nothing unlawful. So I'm loath to pass judgment on other people.
"In general, I'm grateful [LaTulippe] spoke up. . . . If we learn more, we'll reconsider [punishment]. If we don't learn more, we'll move ahead and try to learn from this and, I hope, become a national model for how to deal with hazing."