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This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Champion magazine.
By Gary Brown
Most kids who answer “firefighter” to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” don’t actually become one.
Norwich ice hockey defenseman Shawn Baker is also a volunteer firefighter with the Northfield Fire Department.
Shawn Baker is an exception. The Norwich senior ice hockey defenseman is so intent on it that being able to volunteer with the Northfield (Vermont) Fire Department influenced his decision to come to the 2,300-student Division III school located there.
Well, the hockey thing had something to do with it, too. And it wasn’t long before the Canadian-born Baker made a difference, helping the perennial-power Cadets win the Division III championship his sophomore year and advance to the semifinals last season.
“I wanted to win something and Norwich was where I wanted to do it,” Baker said of the college choice.
While Baker is pretty cool off the ice, he’s awfully hot on it. When asked about his style of play, Baker said it wasn’t his job to make friends.
“Not that I am interested in injuring anyone,” Baker said modestly, “but if I can stop the guy and make sure he’s not going to come back on my side…
“I always have played with that sense of being a ‘D-man’ type of player. Off the ice, I am very different.”
Longtime Norwich assistant coach Steve Mattson can vouch for that.
Sport: Ice hockey.
School: Norwich University in Northfield, Vt.
Major: Criminal justice.
Athletics accomplishments: Team captain for 2011-12; started all 31 games last year and skated in 30 of 31 contests in 2009-10 when the Cadets led the nation in scoring defense and won the Division III championship.
Academic achievements: Member of the Criminal Justice Fraternity (Alpha Phi Sigma); ECAC East All-Academic Team (2011); dean’s list every semester.
What you didn’t know: Baker, who speaks with a French accent, knew very little English before attending college but now speaks the language eloquently. “My hometown north of Quebec has about 10,000 people. If you speak English there, people look at you like you’re an alien. I thought I would be good at it since I took an English class in Quebec, but people here speak fast and I had to follow my teammates everywhere just to get by. I ordered the same thing all the time in restaurants.”
“Shawn was notorious as a ‘tough guy’ at St. Jerome (Baker’s junior league team in Canada), but to meet him in person you would never think he could even punch a punching bag,” Mattson said. “He’s a very soft-spoken, nice guy. We needed someone with some guts and a tough guy in the back. He’s developed into a tremendous team guy and has really helped our defense.”
Baker’s impact has been such that he was named the team captain this year.
That kind of leadership is evident in his firefighting commitments, too. Baker actually earned a degree at the Academy of Firefighting at Mirabel the year before he came to Northfield. He’s a criminal justice major at Norwich, which was the most similar academic path he could find in the States – and it fits nicely with his family background, since his father is a police officer.
Baker wears a beeper around the clock and has been called at all hours.
“I tell my teachers that if I have to leave promptly, it’s not because I don’t like the class,” he quipped. “They understand and they don’t give me any trouble about it – actually, they are happy for me to serve in this role.”
So are his peers at the Northfield Fire Department. Baker said they took to him right away and would do just about anything for him now. He and his crew have been on dozens of calls, even helping out during the flooding that took place after Hurricane Irene in August.
“I ended up working 11 hours that day,” Baker said. “There are some nights that I don’t get much sleep. We had a game two years ago against Middlebury that I didn’t sleep the night before because I was fighting a fire. I didn’t tell coach.”
Not that head coach Mike McShane would have minded. Mattson, meanwhile, is just happy Baker is part of the squad.
Baker hopes to continue as a firefighter back home in Canada.
“He is such a good role model for the other players,” Mattson said. “He’s sort of a John Wayne type – a quiet, big kid, but just well-rounded and well-respected. He’s not the kind of guy who would ever pick a fight, but he’s also not the kind of guy who would ever back away if there’s trouble.”
Baker is prepared to face a lot of trouble in the future since he wants to continue his firefighting pursuits back in Canada, where he can be close to longtime friends and family members. But he is grateful for his experience at Norwich.
“What I am most proud of right now is the amount of life experience I’ve gained,” Baker said. “The fact that I’ve played junior hockey, gone to the United States to get a degree, gone to the firefighting academy – all of that has helped me grow up and become who I am right now.”