Senior defenseman Mat Bodie stepped off the coach bus and raised the NCAA trophy over his head as a roar of cheers erupted from a packed crowd awash in garnet.
The Dutchmen captain led a procession of teammates through a throng of adoring fans from both from Union College and the surrounding community gathered at the rear of Messa Rink on Sunday afternoon. With just three hours of sleep after the biggest hockey game of his career, an unshaven Bodie looked ready for some shuteye.
But with a homecoming fit for national champions and an almost palpable energy radiating from the crowd, Bodie understood there would be time for sleep later. Now was a time to embrace the community of fans that had cheered the Dutchmen through their historic season.
“It’s fantastic,” he said later to crowd of reporters. “Union fans are tremendous.”
For nearly an hour, the champions posed for pictures with the trophy and signed autographs for fans as they unloaded gear from the bus. The whirlwind journey that brought national acclaim to the small-but-highly competitive liberal arts college was concluding where it started almost six months ago to the day.
Like several players before him, junior forward Daniel Ciampini took a knee to sign the jersey of 7-year-old Ben Grossman of Schenectady. A diehard Union fan and hockey player himself, the boy was awestruck by the team’s return and his chance to meet the players he watched win a championship on national television the night before.
“It was awesome,” said Grossman, who one day hopes to play for the college.
The Dutchmen were rightly greeted as heroes by a crowd of hundreds after getting a police escort to the campus. Chants of “Let’s go Union” rose from the crowd and Queen’s “We are the Champions” boomed from a speaker system set up near the rink.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, who was first in a line of dignitaries welcoming the team home, praised their accomplishment in Philadelphia and said a parade is being planned to honor the Dutchmen later this week. He said the positive recognition brought to the city is on par with 1954 World Series victory by the Little League of Schenectady.
“It brings a level of community pride and recognition you just can’t replicate in any other way,” he said.
All around, there was an overwhelming sense of pride in what the team had accomplished. The team itself could hardly be called the underdog in this year’s Frozen Four, but the Union hockey program could easily be.
The Dutchmen were able to achieve a standard rarely reached by much larger universities with the ability attract top athletes with full-ride scholarships. Union offers no athletic scholarships. Athletes must pay their way and complete the same rigorous course load as their classmates, meaning there is no easy ride to a degree.
“You have two full-time jobs, as we like to say around here,” said Rick Bennett, the team’s coach.
Union’s recruitment efforts focus beyond what players can do on the ice. Part of the recruiting process is assessing character, explained Stephen Ainlay, the college’s president.
Players selected for the program are strong in character and understand their work extends outside of the ice rink. Ainlay said they come to Union with the expectation of investing in a top-notch education that will help them long after their hockey-playing days are over.
“This is a team that recruits for character,” he said. “And I think you see that in them.”
The Dutchmen are also a team with a bond with one another not easily broken.
Some speculated that star defenseman and Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Shayne Gostisbehere might turn pro after the stupendous performance he put on at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday evening.
Gostisbehere, a junior, could have inked a contract with the Flyers and joined the team Sunday. Instead, he boarded a bus bound for Schenectady with the rest of his teammates.
State Assemblyman James Tedisco praised Union’s achievement as a shining example of how superior athletics and educational excellence can still coexist. A former Union graduate and standout athlete himself, he also lauded the sudden sense of pride the team instilled in the city.
“There is just tremendous pride,” he said amid the throngs of fans. “If there was ever a city in need of a self-esteem boost, it’s Schenectady.”
This pride naturally extended to the college’s staff, especially the ones who contend with the Dutchmen in their capacity as students. Susan Pascazio, a worker in the registrar’s office, embraced towering sophomore defenseman Sebastian Gingras, a student she met at the start of the academic year and with whom she’s remained friendly on campus.
“You feel so happy for them,” she beamed. “I just had to give him a big hug.”
The team’s victory Saturday was also a satisfying reward for the tireless work of the Garnet Blades, a devoted group of fans and former players established to help raise money for the Dutchmen. Founded in 2001, the group now has a membership base of more than 200 people and has raised more than $1 million to support the team.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment to be on the top now, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Tim Meigher a Union alumnus who heads the organization. “It’s living proof that if you really believe in something and you have people who are like-minded and believe in the same thing, you never quit.”
Never quitting for the Dutchmen will also mean they’ll have to get back to work. On Sunday evening, the team was scheduled to pick up their studies after their nearly week-long hiatus from classes last week.
“There’s a study hall tonight,” said Sherrie Lyons, the team’s academic adviser. “But I baked them a cake.”