Leaders don’t always need to be recognized, but often the best are immortalized in hockey with a letter on their chest. In September, J.C. Gulch was named the newest captain of the Ohio Bobcats hockey team. He then, due to an undisclosed injury, missed the first half of the season until the end of the winter break.
On January 3rd, Gulch was cleared for play once again. He made an impact right away, helping lead the team to a 7-3 victory over CSCHL rival Lindenwood. Two games later, he had one assist and was back on his way home to Athens to finally make his debut in Bird Arena for the 2013-14 season.
“It was obviously it’s one of those things, you get butterflies every time you come out on the ice and see the fans and they cheer for you,” said Gulch. “Being my first time this season, it was extra special. Good that we got the win, we just have to keep going on from here.”
The first weekend back to class from Winter Break, Gulch was named a starter against Iowa State alongside Mike Kretz. He finished the first game with two shots on goal, three massive hits, and his second assist of the season.
Among his biggest issues on such a comeback is conditioning, yet despite sitting out for months, Gulch was fleet of foot and was able to win footraces with opposing forwards.
“Gulch is a great player, it’s great to have him back,” said Bobcats head coach Jonathan Sheridan. “I’d say he’s one of the most consistent defensemen we have, probably in the nation. It always makes a coach happy when you have a kid like that on the back to help out. He’s doing the small things right. He’s still working on a little conditioning-wise, but I think he’s good to go and he showed us.”
His true homecoming came with three minutes left in the first period against Iowa State on Friday, meeting a big wing play trying to carry the puck in at the blue line. With a quick step forward, Gulch blew up the play and exploded on the winger with an incredible hit, getting the fans jumping in the process.
Gulch has a focus on defensive play that has followed him throughout his career. While playing on an exciting and offensive team, Gulch has only managed a career-high of 26 points in 38 games in his junior season. Now as a senior, he’s leading the powerplay and making smart plays to follow forwards and stall offenses.
“Ever since I was a young-kid, when I was growing up, my coaches have taught me defense first,” said Gulch. “So I try to live and learn by that, and you know, I just put my best effort out every night and just hope for the best.”
His only assist at home thus far was on the powerplay, holding the point and directing the offense toward the left. This is now customary with him, as he’s produced a lot of opportunities that simply didn’t come together either through his direction or by jumping into the rush.
“I think he’s working on getting there,” said Sheridan. “I don’t think he’s the Gulch of old, but he’s working on it. He knows that, so we’re sticking with him and I expect more from him.”
While the comeback is massive, it’s not without some issues. A loss in his second game back home humbled the defenseman, but as a leader he has stepped up to help the younger players understand how to handle all situations.
“As a young guy, you tend to get too high or too low at times,” said Gulch. “You know if you get a goal scored on you or you score a goal, so myself and the older guys, we try to be the mediator and keep them at an even-keel so they don’t go too high or too low. That way everybody stays at the same page and keep working hard.”
Gulch has been aggressive in all three zones this season, and is now leading the Bobcats on a charge toward the top of the ACHA rankings and a hopeful berth into the national tournament in March. Meanwhile enjoying his favorite part of all — playing Bobcats hockey.
“Obviously I love the winning aspect, but I think just being around the guys in the locker room again and having that feeling of putting on the pads and coming out in front of these great fans that support us day in and day out,” said Gulch. “That’s the best feeling you can have.”
Perhaps the best way to define Gulch’s play is to let it speak for itself, in the first period on Friday against Illinois, he and Kretz were chasing a forward back to the zone. Kretz was unable to force the turnover, but Gulch slid in hard and perfectly positioned to stop a shooting or passing chance.
He didn’t record a statistic on the play, sometimes you don’t have to. Gulch is simply focused on the little things, making plays and winning games. With the leader back in tow, the Bobcats are looking good.