June 11, 2014

Bennett, Dutchmen make it back-to-back crowns for the ECAC

By Andrew Merritt

Union freshman Mike Vecchione (Saugus, Mass.) scores a goal past BC’s Thatcher Demko in the NCAA semifinals. The Dutchmen beat BC, then toppled Minnesota to win the program's first NCAA title in Philadelphia. Below, Vecchione takes a spin on the Wells Fargo Center ice with the NCAA trophy. (Photos/Elsa/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — When Mike Vecchione told his friends where he was going to college, he had some explaining to do.

“When I first committed, I was like, ‘I committed to Union College,’ and they were like, ‘What? What’s that?’ ” said the Saugus, Mass., native. “They were like, ‘Where is it?’ I was like, ‘Schenectady,’ and they were like, ‘Where is that?’ It took a little getting used to for them to understand where it is.”

Suffice to say Vecchione’s friends — and a whole lot more people — know where Union is now.

Bolstered by a four-goal first period that included a strike from Vecchione, Union stormed past Minnesota on April 12 at the Wells Fargo Center, beating the Golden Gophers 7-4 to win the program’s first hockey national championship and the school’s first in any sport in more than 80 years.

While the championship might have come as a shock to those less versed in the current state of college hockey, it was both an affirmation of the wide-open field of contenders and the culmination of a building and growing process at the tiny school in Schenectady, N.Y. Over the past 13 years, the Dutchmen have gone from a team that routinely won fewer than 10 games a season to one that consistently competes.

It started with current Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, who created a booster group for the team around the turn of the century to help stabilize funding. It continued with current Providence coach Nate Leaman, who over the course of eight seasons brought the Dutchmen’s on-ice performance from mediocrity to its first regular-season ECAC title and NCAA Division 1 tournament appearance in 2011.

But it was Rick Bennett, a Springfield, Mass., native and Providence alumnus, who finally brought Union to the mountaintop. The Dutchmen came close in 2012, winning their first ECAC tournament title and reaching the Frozen Four before losing to Ferris State in the national semifinals.

That trip to Tampa, Fla., fit the classic Cinderella story plot, until Ferris ran away with two goals late in the game. This time around, the Dutchmen refused to just be tourists.

“(Bennett) makes sure that we get better every day. Like he said before, it was a business trip this time,” said junior defenseman Charlie Vasaturo. “We were jumping around last time in Tampa Bay. This was a business trip, and he made sure we knew that.”

Bennett, who was an assistant under Leaman, assembled a staff full of New England connections. Jason Tapp, the goalie coach who eventually became the defense specialist, tended goal at Boston University from 1998-2002. Joe Dumais, who is in charge of the forwards, is a Quinnipiac alum and was an assistant at UConn before coming to Union. And John Ronan, who volunteered as an assistant coach this year, is a South Boston native who played at Maine from 2001-05.

“He’s level-headed, he’s an incredible leader,” Vasaturo said of Bennett. “Coach Tapp, Coach Dumais, Coach Ronan, they feed off each other. They’re an incredible group, the coaching staff as a whole. The team here, we’re a unit, and together we’re a great group.”

That cohesiveness was on display throughout the Frozen Four weekend in Philadelphia. The Dutchmen earned their spot in the national title game by beating Boston College, 5-4, in the semifinals on April 10, thwarting Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau and the mighty Eagles despite Gaudreau’s three-point night. Vecchione scored midway through the third period off an assist from Darien, Conn., native Kevin Sullivan, giving Union a 4-2 lead, and while the Eagles made it interesting with late goals from Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.) and Patrick Brown, Union was able to hold on thanks to Daniel Ciampini’s empty-netter — his third goal of the game.

That set up the Dutchmen’s clash with Minnesota, which reached the national championship game via a wild and unforgettable semifinal. The Gophers beat rival North Dakota on a stunning goal by defenseman Justin Holl with just 0.6 seconds to go in what had been a tightly contested 1-1 tie. Holl slotted his desperation shot past Bruins prospect Zane Gothberg, and the Gophers had one of the most memorable Frozen Four victories in the tournament’s history.

Minnesota is the owner of five NCAA titles, and a giant in college hockey. Union is a school so remote that its players have to explain to their friends how to find it on a map. But that’s where the David and Goliath story ends. The Dutchmen were clearly the better team in the title game, and after allowing an early goal to Minnesota’s Justin Kloos, they woke up and dominated the final 15 minutes of the first period. Shayne Gostisbehere, the heralded defenseman and Flyers draft pick who was playing on what should someday soon be his home ice, got Union on the board 9:26 into the period.

When Sam Warning retook the lead for Minnesota just 39 seconds later, it only served to add more fire to Union, and the Dutchmen got three goals — from Vecchione, Eli Lichtenwald and Ciampini — in the final five minutes of the first.

“It’s a big momentum swing,” said Sullivan, who later assisted on the game-winner and scored a goal of his own. “There’s a lot of momentum swings in hockey, and (those) were huge goals. I think Eli scored, and once he scored, it really got the bottom lines going pretty good. Everyone was contributing, and that gave us a lot of momentum, those goals.”

Minnesota picked up a goal from Taylor Cammarata early in the second, but Max Novak made it 5-3 Union with 14:29 to go in the third, tipping Sullivan’s shot past Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox. The Gophers had one last gasp when Hudson Fasching scored on the power play with 3:40 to go, but Union’s defense — led by the highly touted Gostisbehere and to no lesser extent by senior Mat Bodie — locked the game down. Sullivan rifled a nifty wrister through Wilcox with 1:22 to go, and the party was on.

When Bodie made a strong defensive play to steal the puck and flip it all the way into the empty net from his own blue line with 44 seconds to go, the Dutchmen could finally start to celebrate something the program, which started in 1903-04, has waited a century to accomplish.

Union’s title is also the second in as many years for an ECAC school after Yale surprised just about everyone a season ago, and it’s the third time in four years that a school has won its first national title.

After the game ended, while the Dutchmen were taking turns with the NCAA trophy, snapping photos and waving to their friends and family in the crowd, Sullivan momentarily stood atop the thousands of pieces of confetti that showered onto the ice when the buzzer sounded, looking off into the distance, caught up in the moment.

“I honestly thought it was a dream at first,” Sullivan said later in a noisy, happy Union locker room. “It was just an awesome feeling. I was looking up because I was just trying to take it all in.

“You hope for it to be possible,” he said. “You know it’s going to be hard. You want it to be possible, but it’s one of the hardest tasks in the nation for a team to do.”

And as for Vecchione’s friends?

“Yeah, Schenectady’s definitely on the map now,” he said. “They all know where it is.”

This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com