As the ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series plays out between Union and Quinnipiac, one man will have a rooting interest on both sides.
Before joining the Bobcats, Quinnipiac assistant coach Bill Riga was an assistant at Union for five years. Now, it is his job to help squash the hopes and dreams of players he helped put in a Dutchmen uniform.
“I had a hand in recruiting a lot of those kids and I wish them the best, but at the same time, we’re going to do everything we can to beat them and get [to the semifinals] ourselves,” Riga said. “Certainly, there are parts of me that are torn, but at the end of the day, we have to do our job and try to win the games to get to Albany.”
To do that, the Bobcats have to take two of three from the Dutchmen this weekend, a tough task considering Union won both regular-season meetings between the teams.
The most recent matchup was played Feb. 20 at Messa Rink, a 7-3 Dutchmen victory on senior night. As the departing players were honored after the game, Riga was on hand to applaud and say goodbye.
“Him staying out there after the loss showed a lot of character,” said Rick Bennett, associate head coach at Union. “I think the biggest thing is you could see the respect the players had for him by going over to see him after.”
Bennett said one of Riga’s strengths as a coach was his ability to read the system of the opposing team. Riga would spend the first two periods upstairs picking apart the opposition’s game plan and report down to the Union bench.
The coaches still see each other at offseason camps and Bennett said a familiar face on the other bench, and the addition of bragging rights to a game, create a more exciting atmosphere.
“When it’s someone you know, you’ll see them in the summers and goof around a bit about the fact that, ‘We got you this year, we got you last year,’” Bennett said. “It wasn’t too long ago, I think they may have won four from us. This year, we were fortunate enough to get two.
“But guess what — it’s all washed away come playoff time, and it comes down to whoever shows up Friday night. It’s going to start a whole new war here. It’s going to be fun.”
Riga still speaks on the phone with Union head coach Nate Leaman about once each week. Leaman brought Riga on board during his first year at the helm.
Leaman said he was sad to see Riga go, because of Riga’s dedication to the job.
“He works 100 percent heart and soul,” he said. “He gives you everything he has. He pours everything into it. He’s not an assistant that has his bags packed and is looking for anything as a steppingstone.”
The split came on friendly terms, Riga said, as he saw an opportunity for a different challenge and took it.
He said he values the time he had with the Dutchmen.
“It was probably five of the best years of my life,” Riga said. “I learned so much, and Nate gave me my first college coaching opportunity. I’m fully appreciative of that, and he’s taught me so much.”
When he brought those lessons to Quinnipiac, he also took a knowledge of the Union program and players with him.
That knowledge, however, hasn’t led to wins, as the Dutchmen are 4-1 against the Bobcats over the last two seasons.
“In theory, it helps, but in reality, I guess it hasn’t,” Riga said. “Although I know their tendencies, their staff does a good job of knowing that I know their tendencies, so they tend to change things up. They know I’m familiar with them, and how they have done things in the past. They’re excellent coaches, and can make adjustments.”
The time for adjustments has passed, though, Leaman said. Union will strive for consistency and execution in this quarterfinal series.
A Quinnipiac win would give Riga his first trip to the semifinals, but to do it, he has to help keep Union from finally reaching the final four.
He said, though, he has to leave sentiment behind, and treat the Dutchmen like any other opponent.
“I can’t think like that, I don’t think like that,” Riga said. “I want nothing more than to beat them this weekend. That doesn’t mean if it doesn’t happen that I won’t be happy for those guys, for getting there. At the same time, I’ll be pretty upset if we don’t get it done. At the end of the day, I’m a Bobcat.”
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