A team and a city say thanks to each other
It was the Union College hockey team’s turn to cheer on the crowd.
As the national champions arrived at City Hall on fire trucks after a parade from campus Thursday afternoon, the players started wndmilling their arms to whip the crowd of about a 1,000 into a frenzy. Among the throng of players in jerseys and beads, the NCAA title trophy was held aloft by goalie Colin Stevens, as the house band played “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
This was a celebration of the first hockey title for the tiny Schenectady college, but it also served as a thank you to fans who have supported the team through the tribulations of its early Division I days in the 1990s, and its ascension — first as a respectable team, then a power, and finally a national champion.
No matter where you looked, whether it be the steps of City Hall, the campus or all the people who waited — some for hours — on Jay Street for the team to arrive, it’s clear this team has a bond with the surrounding community that is genuine.
“You guys are champions,” coach Rick Bennett told the gathered fans to thunderous cheers that echoed up and down a street that served to scale as Schenectady’s own Canyon of Heroes.
There were hard core fans to be sure, but there were others swept up in Union’s run to a title. Sometimes sports is about more than sports. In setting the stage prior to the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey game between Team USA and the USSR, announcer Al Michaels adroitly noted that moment transcended games.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who do not know the difference between a blue line and a clothesline,” he said. “It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter.”
In Schenectady, this was a celebration of a team, a college, a city and region.
Mayor Gary McCarthy presented the Key to the City to Bennett and Captain Mat Bodie. “What a great day for our community. What a great day for Union College,” he said. “This team will walk together forever.”
On this day even the politicians got cheered.
“Today the city that 'Lights and Hauls the World’ recognizes a national champion hockey team that lit up the scoreboard Saturday night,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
Union won the title at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia Saturday night by beating five-time national champion Minnesota 7-4. Union was making its second trip to the Frozen Four, the first coming in 2012.
Even before the parade finished its 1.3 route from campus, there was a party atmosphere. Mark Mindel, Class of 1974, said he’s pretty sure — no, absolutely sure — he had never danced before to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” But there he was, arms folded, swaying his hips to the music.
“This is awesome,” the Malta man said, looking around. “Just awesome.”
After the team disembarked from the trucks, players made their way through velvet ropes down a red carpet, slapping hands with kids and adults alike as “We Are the Champions” played for a second time.
From the steps of City Hall, college, local and regional dignitaries addressed the fans, who were decked out in all sorts and styles of Union gear. Behind the speakers sat youth hockey players. The distinctive NCAA trophy rested in a place of prominence on a pedestal to the left of the dais and the right of the team.
Bodie represented his teammates in addressing the celebration from the steps.
“It was a little more nerve-wracking than playing the game,” he said afterward. “But it was an honor to speak for the team.”
He looked around at the crowd. “Overwhelming ... but not surprising,” he said. “This is just another example of the fans” the team has.
“It was a surreal moment,” Bennett said a few minutes later. “It really is.”
After the celebration officially ended, players and fans milled together in front of City Hall. Matt Hatch, trophy in hand, gladly posed with any fan who asked. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to leave.
“That was pretty cool,” Daniel Carr said. “On behalf of the team, thank you.”
The fans assembled were saying the same.