Due to the pandemic, Union men’s hockey will have to integrate two recruiting classes

Union College men's hockey head coach Rick Bennett, right, looks on as Taylor Brierley, left, and Fletcher Fineman participate in a drill during a practice on Oct. 15, 2020, at Messa Rink. (Union Athletics photo)

Union College men's hockey head coach Rick Bennett, right, looks on as Taylor Brierley, left, and Fletcher Fineman participate in a drill during a practice on Oct. 15, 2020, at Messa Rink. (Union Athletics photo)

SCHENECTADY There will be plenty of new players who will be wearing Union men’s hockey uniforms when the Dutchmen face rival RPI in an exhibition game Oct. 2 at Messa Rink in their first contest since March 2020. 

Between last season’s recruiting class and this season’s recruiting class, which was announced Thursday, 16 players will make their Union debut. Seven of those players had to sit out last year because the Dutchmen, along with seven other ECAC Hockey schools, canceled their season because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Union is one of many area programs that will be dealing with adding a pair of recruiting classes this season. Integrating 16 new players with the returnees will make for interesting practices leading up to the exhibition game. Union opens the regular season Oct. 8 at New Hampshire, and conducts its preseason’s first team meeting Sept. 13 before starting workouts the next day.

“To sit here and say that I know [what’s going to happen with] having two first-year classes, I don’t,” said Rick Bennett, who begins his 10th season as the Dutchmen’s head coach, “And that’s going to be the fun it. When we talk to our staff and when we talk to the players Sept. 13, that’s the message. Last year was last year. It’s over. That’s yesterday.

“We are more focused in what we’re going to be doing here in September and try to get together as a team as quickly as possible because we have an exhibition game Oct. 2. We can’t waste a single day.”

And that will make preseason workouts more challenging. The returning players may not be guaranteed regular playing time, especially after a 2019-20 season that saw the Dutchmen finish 8-25-4 overall, the first time they failed to reach double digits in wins since the 1999-2000 season when they also won eight games.

“It’s going to be a training camp from that first opening meeting,” Bennett said. “Obviously that’s not a physical meeting, it’s a mental meeting. . . . We’re really looking forward to getting out there with the guys.”

Recruiting was difficult for Bennett and his assistant coach John Ronan. Due to the pandemic, the NCAA banned coaches from traveling. Instead of seeing recruits play in person, coaches had to watch them on video and chat with them on the phone. The junior and prep teams that were able to play only had a limited number of games because of the pandemic. Not everyone got to play full seasons.

Bennett praised Ronan for his work.

“I want to be perfectly clear that this class embodies John Ronan,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to leave out [former associate head coach] Jason Tapp, as well, with some of these players here. The work that John did on the computer and just with all the calls was, honestly, very impressive. It was tireless. It [took] many hours to get that done. He made the most of the situation, and John did an excellent job.”

Union had ice last season and had some practices and intrasquad games. Bennett liked what he saw.

“It was really exciting,” Bennett said. “We saw a lot, especially from the sophomore class that were first-years last year. We like the size of them and the skill. They really add a lot to the team. I really felt that.”

RPI is in the same situation as Union. The Engineers sat out last season because of the pandemic. Unlike the Dutchmen, the Engineers didn’t have ice at Houston Field House, so any workouts were done remotely.

RPI head coach Dave Smith has 16 new players coming to the team.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Smith said. “We have to bring our team together. There’s some obvious challenges of different systems, different characters and different chemistry. What we do as coaches is we’ve got to bring these guys together and form a team as quickly as possible.”

PLAYER PROFILES

Here’s a look at the nine newest Union players.

Cullen Ferguson (defenseman): Played in 36 games for the North American Hockey League’s Aberdeen Wings last season and had six goals and 15 assists with a plus/minus defensive rating of +33.

Collin Graf (forward): Saw action in 42 games for the National Collegiate Development Conference’s Boston Jr. Bruins last season. He was fourth in the league in scoring with 54 points (19 goals, 35 assists).

Michael Hodge (forward): Had 10 goals and 19 assists in a shortened 16-game season for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Josh Phillips (defenseman): Split time between the U.S. Hockey League’s Sioux Falls Stampede and the NAHL’s Minnesota Wilderness last season. Played in 46 games for the Wilderness, collecting four goals and five assists.

Thomas Richter (forward): The son of former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter had three goals and six assists in a shortened 20-game season for the British Columbia Hockey League’s Penticton Vees.

Andrew Seaman (forward): Registered 10 goals and six assists in 17 games for the BCHL’s Prince George Spruce Kings.

Joe Sharib (goalie): Had a 10-7-3 record with a 3.10 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage in 21 games for the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the NCDC.

Caden Villegas (forward): Played in 42 games for the USHL’s Tri-City Storm and had eight goals and nine assists.

Connor Murphy (goalie): The Hudson Falls native is a transfer from Northeastern and will be a junior. He was 9-9-3 for the Huskies last season with a 2.72 GAA, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts.

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