TROY — This one came out of left field: RPI men’s hockey coach Dave Smith has been helping to coach the Engineers’ softball team this spring.
This one comes from even farther out of left field: the hockey team will be going to Alaska during the 2021-22 season.
RPI finalized its schedule last week, and the centerpiece of the non-conference part of it is a cross-country trip to play four games against the Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Smith has experience with this excursion, having coached in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association as an assistant at Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green when Alaska was also a member of the CCHA.
He scheduled non-conference games to Alaska when he was head coach at Canisius, also.
It’s the kind of road trip that can build team identity and also gets the Engineers some extra games, since games played in Alaska are exempt from the NCAA limit of 34.
So RPI will play 38 games in the regular season, which will begin in October.
“Lots of little reasons [for the Alaska trip]. One, it’s a team-building trip,” Smith said. “It’ll go four games over 10 days, so you get the guys together, you get a unique experience. I like to get the guys up to Alaska at least once every four years.
“We want to get the extra games. Because it’s an Alaska trip, you get the extra games. Especially in the first half and before Christmas, I thought it was important.”
RPI will play an exhibition against Brock University on Oct. 2, then open the regular season with games at home against Bowling Green on Oct. 8-9.
After the Engineers did not play in 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a schedule to look forward to in the fall is a welcome return to normalcy.
“Excitement. Really, the vaccine and the improvement in New York state and the societal pressures to keep moving forward, I think our guys are feeling that, as well,” Smith said. “And we’ve made it a point for everybody to do their best to get the vaccine in a timely manner.
“But every year at this time, there’s no announcement that, ‘Hey, we’re playing.’ So we said let’s get through the semester, then let’s have a great summer of training and come back and be ready to go and deal with the challenges.
“From here on in should be more normal than anything up to today.”
Besides the Alaska trip and Bowling Green games at Houston Field House, the non-conference schedule includes a home-and-home against Northeastern, Vermont, Army, and two games against Canisius.
Also, RPI will play Union in the annual Mayor’s Cup at the Times Union Center on Jan. 29. Their ECAC Hockey home-and-home will take place on Oct. 29-30.
Smith’s previous trips to Alaska have been two-game sets, so the four games will be an interesting twist on the experience and will afford the Engineers to explore the state a little bit more than they would with two games.
Under former head coach Seth Appert, RPI traveled to the state in 2015 for games against Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks as part of the Alaska Goal Rush tournament.
“It’s a unique travel day, but depending on the time of year that you go, the sun coming all the way up or not coming all the way up, it just feels a little different,” Smith said. “The scenery is spectacular. Once you get to the rink, everything is the same.
“But the experience of being in Alaska, and Fairbanks . . . we’ve done some things in the past after the Saturday night game, we can get on the bus for a short trip up to the hot springs and sit out in the natural sulfur hot springs. That’s a pretty cool experience. At different times you can go dog-sledding, if you can get that set up.”
The itinerary likely will entail leaving that Wednesday to allow for a recovery and skate day on Thursday, games on Friday and Saturday, a day off Sunday, then team-building experiences as a bridge to the Tuesday-Wednesday games, followed by a red-eye flight back.
“One year, we actually toured the prison up there, which was unique, because at that time it was a minimum, medium and maximum security prison, all in the same facility,” Smith said. “Anything, really, of a different experience. I say a different land, I know it’s still America, but it’s a different place.”
Losing the 2020-21 season to the pandemic gave Smith incentive to add extra games to the 2021-22 season.
“We’re not a young team, if you just look at freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, but we have an inexperienced younger group,” he said. “The younger half of our roster hasn’t played a lot of games. So that’s a four-game set and instead of getting 34, we get 38.
“And before Christmas, to me, is important, because they get to go home, then they come back different, typically.”
Besides preparing for the upcoming season, Smith has been assisting head coach Amber Maisonet with the RPI softball team, which was 10-4 overall heading into Wednesday’s Liberty League semifinals.
“I grew up playing the game, actually, and Amber, the coach, who I think does a great job, asked if I’d be able to help, and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Smith said.