Sunday, March 25, 2012

Union College hockey comes of age

Until a couple of years ago, if you asked a sports fan about Union College in Schenectady, the response almost automatically would have something to do with the Dutchmen's Shoes, which is at stake each fall during football season when Union plays RPI. Until a few years ago, you might've laughed if you thought Union could compete with RPI, Clarkson, Cornell, et al, in hockey. All of that has changed.

It has been 27 years since RPI, with future NHL stars Adam Oates & Joey Juneau, won the NCAA championship. On April 5, Union is headed to Tampa for the NCAA Frozen Four, capping off the most successful season in the history of the school's hockey program. Mind you, this is a team that lost their head coach when Nate Leaman, the architect of the current Dutchmen team, left for Providence after last season. Current coach Rick Bennett simply picked up right where Leaman left off, and took it a few steps further. The Dutchmen won the ECAC regular season title, then the post-season tournament, knocking RPI out in the 2nd round en route to advancing to the NCAA's. One player from last year's team, goaltender Keith Kincaid, has already had a taste of the NHL, playing for New Jersey briefly this season before returning home to the AHL's Albany Devils, who are fighting for a postseason berth of their own.

Over the next few days, the local papers will be flooded with the predictable, inevitable comparisons between the '85 Engineers and the '12 Dutchmen as the hype builds toward the Frozen Four. Local fans had gotten accustomed in recent years to basketball teams from Siena and the University at Albany reaching the NCAA or other postseason tournaments. In fact, the Albany women's team went to the Big Dance for the first time in school history earlier this month, but went one-and-done, losing to Texas A & M in the first round, mirroring the men's first round ouster vs. Virginia just a couple of years ago. Now, Union has provided hope that between them & RPI, March Madness can extend to the ice a little more often.

The WWE bills next week's Wrestlemania match between John Cena and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as "Once in a Lifetime", when rumors claim that really won't be the case. In 1985, there were the pessimists that believed RPI's miracle run to the championship was once in a lifetime. The Engineers' up & down fortunes since then bear it out to be true. You have to believe Rick Bennett and the Union Dutchmen will try to build on this year's phenomenal success and build a winning tradition, so that it isn't once in a lifetime after all.

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