Frozen Four: Union College's unlikely rise to the top
PHILADELPHIA — Oddity is commonplace at Union College.
The tiny liberal-arts school in Schenectady has a bizarre motto — “We All Become Brothers Under the Laws of Minerva”. Its campus contains one of the world’s only 16-sided buildings. And it’s had not one but two presidents with the first name Eliphalet.
So no one should be shocked if, odd as it sounds, this college of 2,100 students, with no athletic scholarships and a sports budget comparable to what its three Frozen Four rivals spend on hockey alone, departs Philadelphia this weekend as the 2014 NCAA men’s ice hockey champions.
Division I college hockey is still a small enough universe — 59 schools in six leagues — that an obscure, under-resourced school like Union can seriously contend for a title, an unthinkable ambition in almost any other sport. Last year, for example, Yale beat Quinnipiac in the title game.
Union, the NCAA tourney’s overall third seed behind No. 1 Minnesota and Boston College, is making its second Frozen Four appearance, both in the last three seasons. By comparison, the other three teams in Thursday’s Wells Fargo Center semifinals — Union-BC is at 5, Minnesota-North Dakota at 8:30 — have a combined 65.
“Our coaching staff doesn’t focus on what we don’t have when it comes to some of the budgets and facilities we’re up against,” explained Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin. “We focus on what we can control.”
Union’s roster includes just one NHL draftee, Flyers prospect Shayne Gostisbehere. North Dakota and Minnesota have 14 each, Boston College 10. Yet the East Region-champion Dutchmen were ranked No. 1 nationally for a first time in 2013-14 and arrive in Philadelphia with a 30-6-4 record and a nation-best 15-game unbeaten streak.
Not bad for a program that can’t offer scholarships to offset its $46,785 annual tuition, plays in a 2,000-seat arena and has demanding academic standards. U.S. News & World Report ranks Union 41st among the nation’s liberal arts colleges.
With all that to overcome, Union continues to win recruiting battles for the best prospects in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.
“We feel like we can offer the best of both worlds,” said Union coach Rick Bennett, a onetime Hershey Bear. “We feel you can really become both a tremendous student and hockey player here.
“Sure, it’s tough (to be without scholarships),” admitted Bennett. “In today’s economy, if you have a full scholarship, nine times out of ten, that’s where you’re going to go. But if you have a family that’s put money away for a child’s education and they value life after hockey, then I think a school like Union stands a very good chance.”
A third of its 27 players are from Canada. The rest hail from nine different states, two from the Delaware Valley — defenseman Charlie Vasaturo of Sewell, N.J. and forward Nick Cruice from Dresher.
Union’s best player, the offensive-minded defenseman Gostisbehere, is from Florida, an indication of how hockey’s talent pool and Union’s search area is widening.
“What sold me on Union,” Gostisbehere said, “is that they were looking for character first.”
But hockey’s growth could threaten the success of small schools like Union. More players means more demand and it wouldn’t surprise many in college hockey if more large state schools followed the lead of Penn State, which ascended to Division I from club status this season.
That doesn’t concern Bennett, 46, whose NHL career lasted nine games with the Rangers in the early ‘90s.
“If the game expands,” he said, “it means there are more hockey players. And if there are more hockey players, there’s more we can recruit. We’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Union hockey dates back more than 100 years. World War II killed the program and it wasn’t until the 1970s that it returned, at the Division III level
Ex-NHL coach Ned Harkness built the on-campus Achilles Center as well as a powerful team that hoped to jump to Division I. But a recruiting scandal and its messy aftermath ended both the ambitions and Harkness’ career there.
Then in 1990, ECAC Hockey, a league comprised of several Ivy and Patriot League schools, asked Union to become its 12th member.
“The driving force behind our going Division I was that we were going to be associated with a great group of institutions that had similar philosophies,” said McLaughlin, a former small-college all-American football player at Union. “We were excited to accept.”
The real turnaround began after 1998 when Kevin Sneddon became coach and formed a hockey boosters group, the Garnet Blades.
That group, a school spokesman confirmed, will raise about $200,000 this season. Union reported spending $273,250 on hockey in 2013. The booster funds not only supplement normal revenues, McLaughlin said, but allow for expanded recruiting and facility upgrades.
Primarily because it includes no scholarship expense, that $273,250 is a half-million less than the expenditures of the other Frozen Four competitors.
As the Dutchmen improved, so did their home-ice advantage. The tiny Achilles Center, its domed roof rebounding all the noise students generate, now provides, according to McLaughlin, “one of the greatest atmospheres in college hockey”.
“It (a hockey game) is the thing to do on campus on weekends,” said the AD, noting that next year Michigan will visit the Achilles Center for a first time.
Following a disappointing 2006-07 season, coach Nate Leaman had his players do conditioning drills in the snow and mud, a messy session that Bennett credits with triggering the success that’s followed.
“It helped make us a team,” said Bennett, an assistant then.
In 2011-12, with Bennett the head man, the Dutchmen made it to their first Frozen Four, losing to Ferris State, 3-1.
“We went to Tampa and they didn’t really enjoy it,” Bennett recalled. “Everyone was worried and not sure what was happening. And it all happened so fast that we never really had a chance to take it all in. This time we want to take it all in, enjoy the experience.”