By Dan Greene
It was announced today at Messa Rink that Union head hockey coach Nate Leaman, who just recently received the 2011 Spencer Penrose Award college hockey’s top Division I Coach of the Year, will be leaving the program to take the same position at Providence College. Associate Head Coach Rick Bennett has been named as Leaman’s successor, while Assistant Coach Ben Barr will follow Leaman to Providence.
“This was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life because of my emotional ties to Union and to the players,” said Leaman. “It’s still hard to look them in the eye a little bit.”
“I’m ecstatic that they made the right decision to make Rick Bennett the head coach. He deserves it and is going to do a terrific job,” added Leaman. “I know that Rick Bennett will take care of the players and treat them fair. He is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around and I know he’s going to put his heart and soul into the program. I also know it’s going to take about one month for him to be the most liked guy on this campus.”
“I’m extremely honored,” said Bennett at the press conference. “I want to thank Union College and Jim McLaughlin for showing this faith in me to carry this program forward.”
Leaman’s departure is the second major departure the Union hockey program has faced this week as First Team All-American goaltender Keith Kinkaid decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility and sign a pro contract with the New Jersey Devils.
Today’s press conference marked the end of an era which saw Leaman build the program from a cellar-dweller to one of national prominence. Since taking over the program in 2003, Leaman has accumulated 138 wins and a .518 winning percentage, both of which are the highest of any coach in Union’s Division I history. In the past four seasons the Dutchmen have posted a winning record including the program’s first ECAC Top Four finish, first ECAC playoff series victory, first ECAC Championship game appearance, and first NCAA Tournament appearance. Leaman has also coached 91 All-ECAC Academic selections, 12 All-ECAC players, six All-ECAC Rookie players, three ECAC Student-Athletes of the Year, and two CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District Honorees.
“I think all that we can ask for from individuals is that they leave something in a better place then when they started it,” said Union Athletic Director Jim McLaughlin. “As I look back at this program, I look back at where we were eight years ago, I look at where we are now today there is no doubt in my mind that we’re in a much better place.”
“As proud as I am about my years here, I think I’m prouder about the health of the program and the direction the program is heading,” said Leaman.
Leaman has been the architect of Union’s recent success and has left a tremendous legacy here. He will look to repeat his performance at Providence, which has had a dormant hockey program for a number of years. The Friars have had five consecutive losing seasons and have not made the NCAA Tournament since 1996.
During his press conference Leaman said it was a very tough decision to make, but the move is the best thing for his family. The job with Providence is also enticing for a few reasons. One is that they play in the very highly regarded Hockey East conference, which has produced four of the past 11 national champions, while no ECAC team has made it to the championship game since 1990. Also, Leaman will have more resources in Providence, especially with athletic scholarships. Union does not offer athletic scholarships, but Leaman has been able to recruit players anyways. Imagine what he will be able to do at Providence with this at his disposal. It is also assumed that Leaman will get a raise in pay by moving to Providence.
While the program will sorely miss Leaman, the team is in good hands with Coach Bennett, who has been on the Union staff for the past six seasons.
McLaughlin called Bennett’s promotion the easiest decision he’s had to make in his time at Union and added, “we’re really looking forward to his leadership and what he’s going to do on this campus.”
Ironically, Bennett has major ties to Providence considering he was star for the Friar hockey teams from 1987 to 1990 where he was co-captain, a two-time team MVP, a Second Team All-American, and Hobey Baker Finalist. He was also an assistant coach at Providence for five years before joining Union in 2005.
Bennett his highly respected and is said to be a likable coach. He has played a major role in recruiting some of Union’s current stars such as Kelly Zajac ’12 and Jeremy Welsh ’13. Bennett has also been in charge of the Dutchmen’s defensive corps, which was the second ranked defense in the nation this past season. An important factor that Bennett will bring to the program is continuity. The current and incoming Dutchmen are all familiar with Bennett and know for the most part what to expect from him. On the other hand, Bennett knows the players and understands the culture that Leaman has left and will look to continue this success.
“This makes the transition pretty seamless. He’s been a huge part in helping out all the guys, and is a big reason why a lot of these guys are at this school,” said Welsh. “I know the guys are going to play hard for Coach Bennett.”
“We’re excited for a new beginning here, and ready to get back to work on Monday,” added junior defenseman Nolan Julseth-White.
For video of the press conference, go to the Union Hockey Blog at www.UnionHockeyBlog.blogspot.com.