At a school with less than 3,000 students, being NCAA Division I defending champions doesn’t happen all that often. But I am sure you all know that is exactly what Union has on its hands right now. Head coach Rick Bennett and his boys dominated the ice and ultimately brought the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship title home.
With such an accomplished program, it’s hard to imagine the college without hockey, but the story of Dutchman hockey has extremely humble beginnings.
Before the puck could drop and our hockey program could begin, members of the Union community in 1904 had to find a rink. The students struggled to find places to play, and maintaining a rink in the city of Schenectady was close to impossible, so the number of games that could be played was greatly limited. Yet, these determined students found a way, and on Feb. 3, 1904, the Union club hockey team, in its first game, routed its opponent, the Union Classical Institute.
For most of its early years, the club team only played three games a season. In 1910, the Athletic Board granted the hockey team varsity status. Though it was recognized as an intercollegiate team, the team did not play any intercollegiate games for several years due to lack of funds. The team found its opponents in the form of the Golf and Boat Club.
After a short break from the program, Union Hockey returned in 1919. Warm weather and lack of money forced the team to cancel its games, and it was not until 1924 that the team truly became a varsity sport.
The program struggled to survive — pathetic rinks were made on top of tennis courts and paved chunks of land near the Field House, but the students of these early years were not deterred. Every time one rink failed, the students invested their time and money into a new one. Following the building of a rink by students and civil engineering Professor Anthony Hoadley in 1934, hope sprung anew, but that rink too was quickly made useless by warm weather and sitting water.
After dozens of attempts, it became obvious to the Athletic Board that hockey was not going to be in Union’s future. In 1949, the program was canceled altogether.
In the late ’60s, thanks to technological advances, a club hockey team began to take shape. The team slowly started with just practice, eventually playing in local games and finally playing junior-varsity teams. By the early ’70s, however, the team still had no place to call home.
On June 30, 1974, the hockey program was given an extremely generous gift from H. L. Achilles, the program’s coach from 1933-35. Achilles gave the college $500,000 to begin construction on a new indoor hockey rink. With the help of the President Thomas Bonner, a former president of Division I Men’s Ice Hockey members University of New Hampshire, a beautiful rink was made.
Achilles Center was dedicated on Nov. 15, 1975. Members of the community loved the new complex, and it became home to not only the hockey team, but also many indoor events (including a play, in 1978).
But the beauty of the new facility came with a large price tag. Bonner had greatly overdone himself and used up the $500,000 donation in the blink of an eye. The only way to pay off the cost of the new facility, in Bonner’s mind, would be to have a team that dominated the ice and filled the 2,504 seats with loyal fans. The answer to the president’s prayers came in the form of head coach Nevin Harkness.
A well-known professional hockey coach, Harkness could boast of more than 30 years of coaching, five of which were spent with the Detroit Red Wings. As such a high caliber coach, Harkness was able immediately to bring in 20 talented hockey players, most hailing from Canada. In his first season, Harkness would record a record of 19-4 — and two of the team’s losses were actually wins that the team was forced to forfeit because an ineligible player took part in the games.
During the inaugural season in Achilles Rink, the Dutchmen sold out every home game but ended up losing in the first round of the ECAC Division II playoffs to the Army Black Knights by a score of 2-3.
It was obvious to all that Union Hockey was a program to be feared. In the 1976 season, the Dutchmen won all but three of their 23 games and only lost twice. Hockey became so popular that students would often be denied access to the games due to a lack of seating.
Things were looking up for the revived program, but then a scandal rocked the campus. Documents were found showing that hockey players had received the most financial aid and were often far below the academic standards Union required for acceptance. The scandal deepened and Coach Harkness took much of the heat. On Dec. 23, 1977, Harkness announced his resignation. When Harkness left, his coaching staff and all but eight players on the hockey team went with him.
The team was reduced back to club hockey following the scandal, but in the spring of 1978, the Union Dutchmen were reborn. Charles Morrison was named head coach and proved to be a man who valued athletics and academics equally. Morrison slowly began to rebuild the program and bring Union Hockey to the top of the pack in Division II.
In 1981, the team made the NCAA tournament and consistently qualified for the ECAC playoffs. From 1979 to 1990, led by Morrison and then Bruce Delventhal in 1989, the team had an overall record of 147-136-14.
The team was eventually moved to Division I in 1991. Unfortunately, Morrison would never see the Dutchman reach the Division I level due to his untimely death in 1988.
The story of Union Hockey full of ups, downs and many devoted individuals who dreamed that one day Union could tell the world that they were national champions. Good luck to the Dutchmen as they face Route 7 rivals RPI for the Mayor’s Cup this weekend, and keep adding to the rich history of this extremely successful program!