NCAA Hockey Championship extra special for two native sons
CAPITAL REGION Colin Stevens wasn’t even in kindergarten when he started stopping street hockey balls shot in the driveway of his family’s Niskayuna home.
Jeff Taylor was only 2 when his father laced up skates with duct tape covering the blades so that he could get the feel of them by walking around his house in Clifton Park.
Several years later, their paths would cross as teammates on the Albany Storm, a youth hockey program drawing young players from around the Capital Region, where Stevens was the stalwart backstop and Taylor was a slick puck-moving defenseman.
They weren’t even teenagers at the time, but were already standing out. Ron Kuhl coached them both with the Storm and fondly recalls how driven they were to excel at the sport they both loved.
“Colin and Jeff both were just super hard workers,” he said. “It’s always hard to say whether they’ll be successful when they’re at a young age, but if their work ethic was any indication of their future success to come, then it was evident.”
Stevens and Taylor, now teammates on the Union College Dutchmen, have the distinction of being NCAA champions — a feat only a select few Division I hockey players share — at a school located in the area where they grew up. Their remarkable achievement is both a testament to their drive to succeed in hockey and an inspiration to other young Capital Region players hoping to follow in their footsteps one day.
“The best part about it is they’re inspiring a whole new generation of kids wanting to go play for their local school,” said Eric Cavosie, who coached them separately at Albany Academy.
Stevens, a psychology major completing his junior year at Union, started playing goalie because that’s what he was used to doing at home. His brother, older by seven years, and a group of his friends would have him backstop games in their driveway when Stevens was just 5.
“They always need a goalie, so they’d throw me in net and rip shots at me,” he recalled.
The experience prepared him well for the game on ice, which he started with the Schenectady Charges and carried on with the Storm. Stevens played a stint with the CD Selects and then left the area to join the Westchester Express during his early teen years.
As a high school sophomore, he returned to the Capital Region to attend prep school at Albany Academy. The Cadets, though, were going through a transition period in the program, which meant there was never any shortage of pucks to be stopped.
“I saw a lot of shots,” he said. “But I got a lot of experience and I think I benefited from that.”
Stevens took his game to the Junior Bruins in Boston, playing in the program for two years. It was there that his skill in net started to get noticed. Union Coach Rick Bennett paid a couple visits to watch him play and Stevens did his best to impress.
“I knew I was on their radar,” he said of Union. “I tried to bear down for those games too.”
For Stevens, Union wasn’t just a good school with an emerging hockey program. It was the school he grew up watching — his favorite college team.
“I’d go to the games with my father. I always looked up to the Union players, [former goaltenders] Justin Mrazek, Kris Mayotte,” he said. “I wanted to be out there one day.”
Taylor was barely walking when he first slipped on a pair of skates. Once he got the feel for them on dry land, his father started bring him to public skating sessions at the Knickerbocker Arena in Troy.
Soon after, Taylor started playing defense. He played in Mites hockey in Troy before the team folded and he landed with the Storm.
At 12, Taylor made the choice to join the Syracuse Stars, a hockey program more than two hours away from his home, while continuing to attend school at Shenendehowa. He and three others carpooled once a week to practice and then to games on the weekends.
“It was a lot of driving for four years,” he said. “Every game was an away game.”
But Taylor’s play caught the attention of Albany Academy, which invited him to attend during his junior year. And as a Cadet, Taylor quickly caught the attention of Union.
Ironically, Taylor grew up a fan of the Dutchmen’s local rival — RPI. His family had season tickets to the Engineers’ games and Taylor dreamed about one day suiting up in red and white.
“To be honest, that was the team,” he said.
Yet all it took was one visit to Union’s campus in Schenectady to shift his allegiance. At 16, Taylor toured the campus, and the Dutchmen just happened to be in the hunt for the ECAC playoffs.
“Once I visited it, I fell in love with it,” he said.
Of course, Union hockey wasn’t exactly uncharted territory. Jake Schwan, a forward who played with Union between 2004 and 2007, was his neighbor.
Taylor committed during his junior year at Academy. He spent a season with the United States Hockey Leagues’ Dubuque Fighting Saints in Iowa after graduation and then joined the Dutchmen as a freshman last fall.
“It’s about hard work,” he said of Union’s hockey program, something that mirrors its rigorous academics. “No one cares if you were a superstar. You get playing time for how hard you work.”
On Saturday — the day before his 20th birthday — he hoisted the NCAA trophy. On Thursday, he rode behind defensive partner Shayne Gostisbehere in a ladder truck from Clifton Park that wound through cheering throngs of Union fans gathered on the streets of Schenectady to celebrate the victory.
“It literally doesn’t get any better than this,” said Taylor, still in a state of elated shock.
Stevens rode in the basket of a Niskayuna ladder truck. Behind him, team captain Mat Bodie passed around the trophy.
“To win that trophy and bring it back to Schenectady is incredible,” said Stevens.
Their achievement, though, means so much more to hockey in the area. They reached an inspiring benchmark that no other Capital Region player has managed in their hometown.
“It was incredible to watch,” said Kuhl, their youth coach, who has a team photo with a young Stevens and Taylor hanging in his office. “It’s such a great testament to the work ethic of those kids, their families and everyone who supported them throughout the years.”