By Kirti Chakote
It was only about six months ago that Union College’s campus and the Dutchmen community was glued to the television as it watched its hockey team’s first Frozen Four appearance. After an incredible campaign last season (26-8-7 overall, 14-4-4 conference) that lead to another ECAC championship and a historical NCAA tournament run, Union is poised and determined more than ever to create yet another memorable season.
According to head coach Rick Bennett, who won the ECAC’s Tim Taylor Coach of the Year award last season during his first year on the job, the Dutchmen are all about winning the “fab five”: win the conference record, the Cleary Cup and the Whitelaw Cup, get to the NCAAs, and win a national championship. With 22 letter-winners returning, the team knows it still has the talent to reach these goals even after losing Jeremy Welsh ‘12, who set the single-season scoring record for Union and signed a pro-contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Kelly Zajac ‘12, second all-time leading scorer.
Notable returners are All-American and Hobey-Baker finalist Troy Grosenick ‘14, All-American defenseman Mat Bodie ‘14, team captain and top forward Daniel Carr ‘14 (20 goals and 20 assists) and Wayne Simpson ‘13 (18 goals and 13 assists). Also, senior forward Kyle Bodie ‘13 and defenseman Greg Coburn ‘13 will provide key veteran leadership at the assistant captain positions.
With this talent and a large target squarely on their backs, the Dutchmen know they have their work cut out for them to make sure they continue to play “Union hockey.” Last season, the team was near or at the top of nearly every team statistical category. Union was top in the nation in scoring defense (1.83 goals allowed per game), finished sixth in scoring offense (3.49 goals per game), and had the nation’s number four power play (24.2 percent) and number 12 penalty kill (84.5 percent).
“Coach always preaches defense. We led the country in goals against last year. That’s something we want to be again,” said Matt Bodie, discussing the team’s strategy for this year. “He wants us to be a hard team to play against.”
Unfortunately, the team could not reach this goal in its season opener at Messa rink against the Merrimack Warriors. After the banner ceremony to honor the highlights of last season in front of 2,087 fans, Union allowed Merrimack to take the first lead of the game early in the first period at 4:04. Union’s 16 of 34 shots on net would come in the opening period.
The Dutchmen would tie the game at 7:25 in the second quarter as Bodie’s fluttering shot from the right point deflected off a Merrimack skate and went into the net. However, within the first five minutes of the third period, Merrimack would score two goals to gain a 3-1 advantage. Union could not capitalize on a key power play later in the fourth at 14:18 to cut into the lead. The team would finish 0-5 on the man advantage, while the Warriors finished 0-4. The final score of the game would come at 18:57 when a goal was awarded to the Warriors as one of their players was tripped on his breakaway to an empty net.
From this loss, the team realized it is not at the elite level it was at the end of last season. The veterans could see that some of the inexperienced players were holding the stick a little too tight due to nerves. As a result, sloppy turnovers were made, and plays were poorly executed. Players know that it is a step by step process getting back to the playing level of last season, and with time, the new roster will develop chemistry competing at the fast collegiate level.
Hopefully, Union will start to clear out these cobwebs and get back into its strong defensive mindset in its upcoming slate of non-league games on the road. With a lot of new talent and a firm leadership core, the Dutchmen have what it takes to be better than last season.
“If the guys play every game and every shift like it’s their last, we are going to have success,” said Bodie. “Especially in college hockey, as compared to the NHL, when you only have 30 plus games for the season, every play means so much more. We have to go into every game thinking that it’s our last.”
The Dutchmen know that it is these first couple of weeks that start to set the tone for the rest of the season.
Consistency, focus, hard work and a sense of urgency are some of the principles that this team is using to play with. Union (0-1-0) will continue working to play at a higher level as they take on Bowling Green (0-0-1) this upcoming weekend.