April 11, 2012

ECAC Journal: Dutchmen proved they belonged on big stage

By Dan Guttenplan

The Union hockey team made for an easy Cinderella story at the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., last week. 

Union goalie Troy Grosenick had won nine of his last 10 starts heading into the Frozen Four semifinals. (Photo courtesy of Union College Athletics)

The story was told many ways by many news outlets, but the most common theme was that a small school of 2,200 students out of Schenectady, N.Y., with no athletic scholarship money made it to the big stage for the first time in program history. It was a cute story, but certainly not one that ended with any implication that Union's success would be sustained for longer than this season.

Union coach Rick Bennett (Springfield, Mass.) didn't particularly care for the Cinderella story template. As an assistant under former coach Nate Leaman, Bennett saw the program rise from the depths of ECAC Hockey to a perennial contender for a league title. Last season, Bennett was Leaman's top assistant on a Union squad that won its first ECAC Hockey regular-season title and the program's first bid to the NCAA tournament.

So forgive the first-year Union head coach if he didn't see the Frozen Four appearance as a Cinderella story. Rather, he saw it as one that was borne out of years of hard work.

"The on-the-rise thing was surprising," Bennett says. "As a coaching staff, we felt we were making a lot of strides for a long time. I guess we were a surprise nationally. But it was nice to put that myth to bed."

Union didn't play its best game in a 3-1 loss to Ferris State in the NCAA tournament semifinals, but the Dutchmen did prove they belonged on NCAA hockey's biggest stage. The Dutchmen's Frozen Four appearance, complete with clean-shaven players and polished interviews, should go a long way in helping the school's recruiting in the next few years.

Then again, Bennett understands a school with zero athletic scholarship money in small-town New York can not offer the same package as a school like national champion Boston College.

"I know in today's economic world, it's tougher to pay to come to Union," Bennett says. "But hopefully the parents of hockey players realize their boys can't play forever. They can pay four years for the rest of their sons' lives in the work force. That's the only way we stand a chance in recruiting. We run a program in a first-class manner. We offer the best of both worlds -- an excellent liberal arts degree with a program that can compete with anyone."

This year, that was certainly the case for Union, but it came with a great degree of difficulty. Who's to say if the Dutchmen can repeat the feat of winning ECAC Hockey's regular-season and tournament before posting two NCAA tournament victories next season?

"I'd like to think we have a chance to get back," Bennett says. "I've heard a lot of advice. Some say if you run the ship the same way, you have a great chance of getting back. Others say to enjoy this because you may never be back. We'll take the same approach as a coaching staff. I'm not saying we'll get back, but I'm not saying we won't either. We think we can win a lot of hockey games next year."

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.