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Union College hockey team shines light on school

Thursday, April 10, 2014
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Andy Weitz, a 1982 graduate of Union College, picked up five 2014 NCAA Division I Hockey Frozen Four t-shirts at the Union College Bookstore on April 1.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Andy Weitz, a 1982 graduate of Union College, picked up five 2014 NCAA Division I Hockey Frozen Four t-shirts at the Union College Bookstore on April 1.

— The high school senior from Fairfield, Conn., already accepted to Union College among a handful of other schools, walked the campus with his dad this week, gauging the factors he’s employing to make his final choice.

The size of the campus is one. Academics and what the students are like are two more. Then there’s another consideration.

“I think school spirit factors a lot,” said Mark Malone, 18. “It’s exciting. Academics are really important. But I want to have fun, too.”

That combination of academics and athletics brought him to look at Union. “And,” dad Bill Malone said, “it’s probably because of the hockey program.”

There’s a different vibe on the Union campus these days, different things to consider, to contemplate. And this Frozen Four run to the NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship, the second in three years, is different. Union doesn’t want to hear talk of slippers or Cinderella, or the just-happy-to-be-here blather of runners-up. That is so 2012. This is different.

“There’s just a greater expectation from all involved that this [title] is attainable, and a culture of success has led to this,” Athletic Director Jim McLaughin said. “Given the season we had, it wasn’t ‘shocking the nation,’ as the message appeared to be in our previous run.”

Two years ago, President Stephen Ainlay asked a rhetorical question: “How often does a highly selective liberal arts college with no scholarships get to a Frozen Four?”

The answer, of course, is more than once.

“I’m not sure we fully understand the impact of it,” said Ainlay, a fixture at Union hockey games. (You can keep up with the action on the Twitter account he personally feeds, @PresidentAinlay.) “For the school, certainly in the world of sports, Union is being thought of differently.”

And Union players are thinking differently. “It’s going to be a more businesslike approach this time around,” senior forward Cole Ikkala said. “Last time it was new to all of us.”

Ainlay said Union is not directly marketing the hockey program as a means of drawing students. (He is not above a “How ’bout them Dutchmen?” at public gatherings.) But the program has obvious benefits.

“There is a name visibility that comes with it,” Ainlay said, noting the NCAA hockey Frozen Four does not compare in scope to the March Madness that is men’s basketball. “There is a payoff there.”

And when an Ainlay or coach Rick Bennett talks about the hockey team, they are just as likely to be talking about the team’s 3.14 GPA as its goals against average.

“Do well in school, and it takes care of the hockey,” Bennett says. Ainlay says players doing well in school and hockey sends a message to every current and potential student.

“Where I think it really helps us a lot, though, is this marriage between a commitment to excellence on the ice, or on the field or in the pool or wherever, and the commitment to excellence in the classroom,” Ainlay said. “There is a real advantage to be able to say to people, ‘Come to Union College. We expect you to commit to excellence in everything that you do.’

“That’s the fundamental message of the hockey team: It allows us a device to talk about what we expect of every student. That is no small task. It’s a major commitment.”

Ainlay talked about how a team galvanizes and creates a sense of community, and keeps alumni involved. How would winning a national title affect the hard-to-quantify, off-ice benefits of the hockey program?

“That,” he said, “would be a very big deal. It’s hard to calculate.”

Don’t ask the team to try. At least not yet.

Matt Hatch isn’t sure when he’ll allow himself to kick back and think about what this all means, this second Frozen Four run.

“Not this week. Not next week,” the senior forward said. “I’m not sure if it will be months. It will be nice to sit down with classmates and talk about it someday.”

Not this day. Union hockey players and coaches are in full one-game-at-a-time mode, and that game is the Frozen Four semifinal today against Boston College (5 p.m., ESPN2).

“Our focus is just go in and get two wins,” junior forward Daniel Ciampini said. “The first time we made it, we were in awe. We want to do more now than just put us on a map.

“When you’re older,” Ciampini continued, “you can look back and say you did something great for this school.”

Or, as Ikkala said: “We will reflect when we’ve accomplished something.”

Right now Mark Malone, the prospective student, is reflecting, contemplating how hockey fits into the big picture of choosing a school.

“I do like hockey,” he said.

 
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