Most SUNY Potsdam student-athletes make the choice to become a Bear over the many other interested institutions. Howie Vandermast, an All-American defenseman with the men's hockey team from 1984-88, believes it was Potsdam that really chose him.
Vandermast was playing hockey in the Garden State Games before his senior year in high school when he was spotted by one of the Bears' players who was from New Jersey. Potsdam's then head coach and fellow Bears Hall of Famer John Horan had told his player that the team could use a defenseman and to keep an eye out for one.
“He saw that I was a defenseman and asked if he could give me some information about Potsdam,” Vandermast said. “I mentioned this to my high school coach who had grown up in Canton, played for St. Lawrence and played against John in high school and when he was at Providence. My coach made a phone call to John and that's how the ball got rolling. Potsdam was pretty much the only place I was looking to go.”
When the Long Beach, N.Y. native arrived on campus to visit, he liked what he saw.
“I loved that the rink was right on campus and that the dorms and classrooms were all together in one area,” said Vandermast. “Everything was close. You didn't need a vehicle. If you wanted to go downtown it wasn't very far. It just seemed like a really nice college community, which was what I liked very much.”
When Vandermast finally suited up for the Bears in the fall of 1984, Horan knew he had a good one.
“Howie was one of the best players of his era,” said Horan. “He processed a terrific shot and was physically intimidating. He could change the course of a game with a blast from the point as well as a check.”
As a freshman, Vandermast finished the 1984-85 season tied for fourth on the team in scoring with eight goals and 23 assists for 31 points as the Bears skated to a 14-14 mark. He was even better as a sophomore, finishing with career-high 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists), just a point behind his roommate Luc Boileau for the team lead. That season Vandermast was named the SUNYAC Co-Player of the Year, first team all-conference and a member of the All-SUNYAC tournament team.
Vandermast worked hard to build on the success of his first two years.
“I took it very seriously,” he said. “I was always in shape. I never went out the night or two nights before a game.”
He peaked in his junior season, leading the team in scoring with 21 goals and 16 assists for 37 points. Again he received first team All-SUNYAC honors and joined former teammates Brian Bell and Dave Palmisano as the third Bears All-American in as many seasons.
“I was very proud of it,” Vandermast said of his All-American status. “We won our fair share of games, but to be selected as an All-American on an average team was a big honor. But it wasn't just me. The players around me helped make me better. My coaches put me in situations where I had the opportunity to shine. If it wasn't for them believing in me, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.”
His play caught the attention of the New York Islanders, who picked him 12th in the first round of the 1987 NHL Supplemental Draft. However, after learning that the Islanders wouldn't be offering him a contract that season regardless of his training camp performance, Vandermast declined his invitation and returned to Potsdam for his senior year.
He closed out his career with seven goals and eight assists for 15 points in 1987-88. In his four seasons, the blue liner totaled 51 goals and 72 assists for 123 points, which ranks him ninth on the Bears' all-time scoring list.
After Potsdam, Vandermast stayed in the North Country working several jobs, while he found his niche. He also stayed involved with hockey, serving as an assistant hockey coach at Potsdam High School for several seasons. Vandermast's calling turned out to be the food industry. He has spent 20 years working with food and is currently the territorial sales manager for U.S. Foods in Northern New York. He resides in Massena and has two daughters, Makaul (14) and Larsyn (11).
Vandermast very honored to learn of his selection to the Bears Hall of Fame and his former coach was happy he finally got there.
“Howie came to us as a raw talent,” said Horan. “He developed each year to be one of the best to wear a Bears uniform. He richly deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
While Vandermast is mostly known for what he accomplished on the ice at Potsdam, he is grateful for his entire time as both a student and an athlete.
“I wouldn't trade my experience at Potsdam for anything. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Vandermast will be inducted to the Bears Hall of Fame this Saturday.