Column: State of the Union
Published: Thursday, April 5, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 16:08
Over spring break, I drove up to Schenectady, N.Y. to visit my buddy from high school at Union College. The Union College men’s hockey team happened to be playing in the first round of the ECAC Tournament against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, so my buddy and his friends helped sneak me into the students section for the start of their playoff run.
Union is a lot different from UConn. The school has a total enrollment of about 2,000 students, and the school attracts a large portion of its students from prep schools. Needless to say, the game environment was a lot different than what we’re used to here. There were no elaborate promotions, no slick intro videos and the student section was relatively small. Outside of my group (who were insane), the majority of the student section was fairly low-key, a far cry from the craziness you find regularly in Storrs.
But when the lights went down, “Levels” started playing and the team took the ice, one thing became apparent very quickly. Union’s hockey team was good. Really good.
Good enough, as it turned out, to eventually reach the Frozen Four.
Despite being a tiny, academically oriented school, Union has made tremendous strides as a Division I hockey program in the past few years. Last year, the Dutchmen won the ECAC for the first time, earning the program’s first ever NCAA tournament berth. They lost to Minnesota-Duluth, the eventual national champions, in the first round. In the offseason, head coach Nate Lehman departed and starting goalkeeper Keith Kinkaid was drafted by the New Jersey Devils.
Even with those losses, the Dutchmen regrouped and stormed through the regular season. They won the ECAC again, beat Michigan State 3-1 to claim the program’s first ever NCAA tournament win, and then beat UMass-Lowell 4-2 to reach the program’s first Frozen Four.
Even though Union fell in the national semifinal last night to Ferris State, this year will likely be remembered as “The Dream Season” for Union hockey, much like 1990 is for UConn basketball.
As most UConn fans know, 1990 was the year that put UConn basketball on the map. Tate George’s buzzer beater against Clemson in the Sweet 16 still ranks as one of the most memorable shots in UConn history, and it put the Huskies into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1964.
As history played itself out, 1990 also marked the turning point for the program. Chris Smith was just the beginning. Great players like Donyell Marshall and Ray Allen soon followed. UConn stopped surprising people, and by the time we won it all for the first time in 1999, people had begun to wonder what took so long.
Union’s roster is talented; starting goalie Troy Grosenick is one of the nation’s best keepers and both Kelly Zajac and Greg Coburn have brothers playing in the NHL. It’s not a stretch to say they might keep getting better, and possibly win bring a national championship home to a school that is an eighth the size of UConn.
The reason I bring any of this up is because in most college sports, it seems like there are just a handful of programs that have always dominated. Schools like Alabama in football or Kentucky in men’s basketball come to mind; after all, both schools just won national championships to add to their already crowded trophy cases. That being the case, every once in awhile a new power rises up, makes its mark, and then doesn’t go away.
That’s what UConn accomplished in 1990, and what Union may have accomplished this year. The fact that it happens is a testament to the fact that if you commit to excellence and invest the necessary resources into something, you can become a national player no matter who you are.
Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that UConn could never be a major player in hockey, especially if all of these rumors about the Huskies imminent admittance to the Hockey East wind up being true…
Follow Mac Cerullo on Twitter at @MacCerullo.