SCHENECTADY — Back home after winning the 2014 East Regional in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it was one of the first topics of conversation at the house where several members of the Union College men’s hockey team lived.
How could they get Raymond Cook to the upcoming Frozen Four in Philadelphia?
It was a question that needed to be answered, and quickly.
“Because they weren’t going to Philly without ‘Cookie,’” said Frank Cermak, a Niskayuna native and Saratoga Springs resident who lived in the house while he attended Siena College.
“He had to be there,” said Sam Coatta, a junior forward on the Union team that won the 2014 national title.
Cook wasn’t technically on the team — but, to be clear, that was just a technicality. He was as much a part of the team as anyone, and a character who became a crucial piece to the fabric of the college as a whole during the exactly 30 years he worked at Union before the lifelong Schenectady resident died this past Thursday following several months of declining health. He was 57 years old, and died one day shy of starting his 31st year working for the college.
A Mont Pleasant High School graduate, Cook spent three decades working as a cleaner in facilities services at Union. A “kind, gentle soul,” Cook was a friendly face to the campus community, and someone “at the drop of a hat” who would volunteer to take on extra work, keeping guard for hours to make sure nobody stepped in freshly poured concrete or checking the campus’ lights to see if any needed replacing.
“He was one of a kind,” said Rich Patierne, Union’s manager of building services who is also a member of the Schenectady County Legislature. “He was our go-to guy in facilities.”
Cook largely dedicated his life to his role at Union, especially after his mother Edna Kowalski died in 2004. Along the way, he became a de facto member of the school’s athletic department. When his work shifts ended, he attended practices, watched games, and always had a positive message for the athletes and coaches he adored.
“And he didn’t show up for practice and stay for five minutes,” Union men’s hockey head coach Rick Bennett said. “He was there for the whole practice.”
Cook’s first name was rarely used. More often than not, he was greeted with a “Cooks,” “Cooksy,” “Cookie,” or “The Boss,” and the devout New York Yankees and Las Vegas Raiders fan would reply to all those terms of endearment with equal gusto.
“He was a legend,” said Colin Stevens, a Niskayuna native who was a junior goalie on the 2013-14 Union men’s hockey team. “We all loved him.”
So Cook needed to be at those Frozen Four games, which meant that hours after the team beat Providence to clinch its spot in Philadelphia, the program’s players passed along a message amongst themselves to each bring a few dollars to the team’s next practice for a collection to buy Cook his tickets to the game. It was decided that Cermak — tight with the Union hockey team since he was childhood friends with Stevens — would drive Cook to Philadelphia, and he’d stay with the family of then-Union junior defenseman Charlie Vasaturo in nearby Sewell, New Jersey.
When presented with the plan, Cook was initially speechless.
Then . . .
“But, guys,” Cook said, “I have to work.”
Cook was hired at Union several years after Patierne. In those three decades working together, Patierne said Cook “would go years and years” without taking a sick day and had to be reminded to take vacations. He was encouraged, though, to approach Patierne about the opportunity to head to the big games.
“And I said: ‘You put your time-off slip in right now,’” Patierne recalled.
Cook, though, didn’t look at the trip as a break from work. “Just win, baby,” was one of his favorite sayings, a nod to Raiders legend Al Davis, and he was as fired up as the players leading into the Frozen Four games.
“He told people he was going to Philly on a business trip,” Cermak said.
Cook had become particularly close with members of the Union men’s hockey team in the years leading up to the program’s national championship win against Minnesota. Helping to maintain a dormitory where some of the players lived was one of Cook’s main work responsibilities, and they gave him one of their free tickets prior to a regular-season game in 2012. Quickly, he became more involved with the Division I program, attending all the home games and writing pregame notes to the team.
“He endeared himself to them — and they looked out for him,” said Cheryl Rockwood, Union’s head athletic trainer.
So Cook made his way to Philadelphia, and watched Union win its national championship. He didn’t score any goals or make any defensive stops, but Union needed him there for those games.
“I’ll tell you, he was a big part of [us winning],” Bennett said. “There’s always stories behind the scenes, and he was one of them for us.”
After the final game, the team made sure to get Cook one of the official championship hats handed out on the ice — and, the players decided Cook needed a piece of the championship net, too. Cook was presented with the hat and piece of net at the post-game party at the team’s hotel.
“I just remember you could see it on his face. He got so emotional, and you could tell how much that meant to him,” Stevens said. “That’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
There was a constant reminder, too, of that moment.
“He didn’t take that hat off for seven years,” Cermak said.
The hat, though, was just part of Cook’s Union-centric wardrobe. He constantly wore Union gear, and that will remain true; a Union hockey jersey has been secured for Cook to wear when he is buried in the upcoming days, and his piece of the championship net will stay with him, too.
In the years after Union won its men’s hockey national championship, Chris Murphy — the school’s men’s basketball head coach — said Cook would often point to his hat and tell the 2006 Union graduate that “now it’s your turn.” When Murphy’s team won a Liberty League championship in 2017, breaking a drought of more than a decade between league titles, Cook’s excitement became one of the most vivid memories Murphy has from the celebration.
“He had such a pride of being a part of the Union community, Union athletics. Every time you talked to him, that would shine through. He was part of what made Union, Union,” Murphy said. “He always let us know how happy he was to be a part of our extended athletics family, and how we were a part of his family.”
Mary Ellen Burt, who recently retired as the school’s women’s basketball head coach and remains the college’s women’s golf head coach, echoed Murphy’s sentiment regarding the degree to which Cook developed into a campus fixture.
“When I talk to recruits, I say how Union is a great school, and we have great academic, great facilities — but that it’s the people at Union that are spectacular,” Burt said. “And ‘Cookie’ was one of those people. Everyone knew who ‘Cookie’ was.”
“He’s a hard guy not to love,” said Josh Kosack, a current member of the Union men’s hockey program. “He’s one of the best people I’ve met at Union.”
Watching Union teams practice and play provided Cook with entertainment. In return, he gave back more, providing unconditional support and constant encouragement.
“We were lucky to know him,” Bennett said.
The night after Cook died, Coatta said he sat outside with his father, telling stories about Cook. In addition to Union’s athletes, Cook became close with the families of those athletes, keeping up with them through text messages. On the deck of the family’s home in Minnesota, Coatta and his dad toasted Cook with some of his trademark Budweiser beers, and kept up with all the text messages buzzing into Coatta’s phone from old teammates regarding Cook.
“Honestly,” Coatta said of the man more than a couple decades older than him, “he was one of my best friends for the better part of my college career.”
Coatta said he knows he wasn’t the only one who felt that way about Cook.
“He,” Coatta said, “was a teammate to all of us.”