Men’s Hockey: The Price of Winning

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By Dan Greene

The 2010-2011 hockey season was the most historic one in the history of Union College. The Dutchmen broke many individual and program records, won their first Cleary Cup and made their first appearance in the NCAA Division I Tournament. But now, Union must pay the price: the price for winning, that is.

Last week, the Dutchmen’s backbone and architect left the program for bigger and better things within a five-day span. On Monday, sophomore goaltender Keith Kinkaid announced that he will forgo his final two years of eligibility and sign an entry level pro contract with the New Jersey Devils. Then on Friday, head coach Nate Leaman announced that he will be leaving Union after eight seasons to take the same position at Providence College of the Hockey East conference. His replacement is Union’s associate head coach Rick Bennett, who after 11 years of being an assistant coach is finally achieving his goal of becoming the head honcho.

So, in the blink of an eye, the Dutchmen lost a 2011 First Team All-American goaltender and the 2011 Spencer Penrose Award winner (college hockey’s Division I Coach of the Year). Both Kinkaid and Leaman were also named the top goaltender and coach, respectively, in the ECAC this season.

This is just the way college athletics works. Great players leave school early for the pros, and great coaches move on to bigger projects.

Kinkaid joins a list of college players who left school early to pursue their pro careers after an outstanding stint in college. The decision is a tough one considering you’re basically choosing between money and your dreams or education. Making matters more complicated, there is no guarantee that you will find success in the professional ranks.

On one hand you can be like Jonathan Toews, who after accumulating 85 points in 76 games in two seasons at the University of North Dakota decided to leave for the NHL and sign with the Chicago Blackhawks where he has already won the Stanley Cup and is one of the league’s top young players.

Or, you can be like former Union star T.J. Fox, who left school after the 2006-2007 season to sign with the San Jose Sharks only to knock around the minors for a few years and never make it to the NHL. Toews can definitely say he made the right decision, while Fox might be regretting his choice.

Money and the possibility of achieving your life-long goal can be very enticing, but you need to see if leaving school early will be good in the long run. We will not know if Kinkaid made the right decision for a few years, but right now it seems to be a smart move.

The Devils organization is the perfect organization for a young goaltender to join at this time. Not only will he be able to learn from legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur, but he has a legitimate shot of being his successor. Brodeur is currently 38 years old and is in the twilight of his career. The goaltenders behind him within the system don’t seem to be on the fast track to be the next starting goaltender. The backup in New Jersey is 37-year-old Johan Hedberg, and the goaltenders in the Devils’ minor league system (Jeff Frazee, Mike McKenna, and Dave Caruso) are not very impressive and have limited NHL experience.

If Kinkaid performs well in the minors, he could become the starting goaltender in New Jersey in a few years. There are not many better opportunities like this for a young goaltender these days.

Like Kinkaid, Coach Leaman is not the first coach to make a move like this. This was also a tough decision to make. Leaman could have either stayed at Union where his job security is guaranteed for life and he knows what to expect with the school or move to a bigger program where there is a pay increase.

Most of the all-time great college hockey coaches have found success at smaller schools and have parlayed their success into getting better jobs. Examples include three of the four winningest college hockey coaches of all time: Ron Mason (Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Michigan State), Jerry York (Clarkson, Bowling Green, Boston College), and Rick Comely (Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Michigan State).

You have to assume that Leaman looked at his decision in this light. He has now used his success at Union to get a head coaching job in the highly regarded Hockey East conference, and can try to use his success at Providence to get a job with a college hockey power.

Legendary coaches like Boston College’s Jerry York (65), Boston University Jack Parker (66), and Michigan’s Red Berenson (71) are not getting any younger, and will need replacements down the line. It is not farfetched to say that if Leaman has a repeat performance at Providence, he could succeed one of these coaches and become an all-time great coach.

Both Kinkaid and Leaman will forever be Union hockey legends, and when they look back on where their success began they will both look at Union as the foundation for their success. Let’s hope the Dutchmen continue this new found success, but remember that it will come at a price.

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