March 28, 2012

ECAC Journal: Bennett leads Union into Frozen Four

By Dan Guttenplan

As Union prepares to represent ECAC Hockey in the Frozen Four, it's almost difficult to remember that, less than a year ago, the school seemed to be on the brink of a rebuilding period. 

Coach Rick Bennett's Dutchmen will look to become the first ECAC team to win a national championship since Harvard won it all in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Union College Athletics)

That's when reigning ECAC Hockey Coach of the Year Nate Leaman left Union to accept a dream job as the head coach at Providence College. The decision made all the sense in the world.

After all, Providence had so many things Union was lacking: athletic scholarship money, a commitment to improve its home rink, more money for coaching contracts. The ECAC lost a great coach, but there was no injustice. ECAC Hockey seemed destined to forever live in the shadow of Hockey East.

Fast forward almost 11 months, and Union is two games shy of capturing the ECAC's first national championship since Harvard achieved the feat in 1989. Hockey East has the exact same number of schools (one) in the Frozen Four as the ECAC.

First-year Union coach Rick Bennett proved every bit the architect of a hockey team as Leaman, earning ECAC Hockey Coach of the Year honors in addition to leading the Dutchmen to a conference regular-season and tournament titles. It's not entirely fair to say Leaman's decision to leave Union looks bad after Year 1.

For one thing, who among us would turn down more money over a six-year contract -- even if our new place of employment wasn't up to speed with the new one? For another, Leaman had plenty of success in Year 1 at Providence. He took the Friars to the Hockey East tournament after they fell short of qualifying for the same tournament the year prior. The Friars also won a Hockey East tourney series, knocking off eventual NCAA tournament qualifier UMass-Lowell.

But it will take Leaman time to build at PC what he had at Union -- a rabid home fan base, a defensive-minded system and a recruiting machine, despite the lack of a geographical draw. He may get to the Frozen Four eventually, but for now, he'll have to serve as an interested observer more than anything else.

But how's this for symmetry? Leaman has already offered advice to one coach in the Frozen Four, and surprisingly, it's the coach opposing Union Thursday afternoon.

Leaman called Ferris State coach Bob Daniels prior to the start of the NCAA tournament. Daniels led Ferris State to a CCHA regular-season title this season, only to watch his team fall in the quarterfinal round of the conference tourney after its first-round bye. Ferris State then earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Leaman had been there before. His Union squad last season won an ECAC regular-season title before falling in the quarterfinal round of the conference tourney -- only to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.

Union didn't experience any success in the NCAA tournament last season, but Leaman thought he'd learned a lesson. He passed that message on to Daniels, who then led his team through the Midwest Regional with wins over Denver and Cornell.

It wasn't the first time Leaman had factored in a victory over Cornell and its coach, Mike Schafer. The question is: Who will Leaman be calling in the lead-up to next Thursday's game?

Game of the Week

Frozen Four

Tampa Bay Times Forum

National semifinals

Thursday, April 5

Union (26-7-7) vs. Ferris State (25-11-5), 4:30 p.m.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Union (26-7-7, 14-4-4 ECAC)

2. Cornell (19-9-7, 12-4-6)

 3. Harvard (13-10-11, 8-5-9)

4. Colgate (19-17-3, 11-10-1)

5. RPI (12-24-3, 7-12-3)

 6. Yale (16-16-3, 10-10-2)

7. Quinnipiac (19-12-6, 9-8-5)

8. Dartmouth (13-14-4, 8-11-3)

9. Clarkson (16-16-7, 9-9-4)

10. St. Lawrence (14-19-3, 10-11-1)

11. Princeton (9-16-7, 6-12-4)

12. Brown (9-18-5, 5-13-4)

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.