SCHENECTADY — Since elevating from NCAA Division III to Division I in the 1991-92 season, the Union men’s hockey team has never awarded athletic scholarships. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when the program was able to get players based on financial need.
But things could be changing by the end of January, not only for the men’s team, but the women’s team as well.
The NCAA will vote during the NCAA convention Jan. 19-22 in Indianapolis on legislation that will allow Division III schools that sponsor a Division I sport that currently does not award athletic scholarships to do so. The vote will take place on the final day of the convention.
The other hockey program that will benefit from the change is RIT.
Union is one of four ECAC Hockey schools that are Division III institutions that play Division I hockey. The others are Clarkson, RPI and St. Lawrence. Those three offer athletic scholarships for hockey.
Two other ECACH schools, Division I institutions Colgate and Quinnipiac, offer athletic scholarships. The six Ivy League schools that play in ECACH, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, don’t give out athletic scholarships.
Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said that the school, along with RIT, are sponsoring the legislation.
“We’ve been looking at this for more than a year,” McLaughlin said. “Seeing the real possibility of significant changes on the horizon on the NCAA landscape, we felt we had to come together to put some things in place in order to sustain competitiveness for our programs.”
The legislation has the blessing of the Division III Presidents Council, which gave its support last month. Three other Division III schools that sponsor a Division I sport that don’t give out athletic scholarships are Hobart (men’s lacrosse), Franklin & Marshall (wrestling) and MIT (rowing).
Ten schools in Division III currently sponsor a sport in Division I, with five of them able to offer athletics aid dating back to a waiver granted in 2004.
“As we are gearing up for what will be a historic Convention for the NCAA, we had great dialogue surrounding how we are best supporting our student-athletes,” Fayneese Miller, chair of the Presidents Council and president at Hamline, said in a statement. “The DIII membership includes a variety of types of institutions and athletic experiences. It is therefore expected that sometimes difficult, but always thoughtful conversation will arise with any proposal submitted for consideration.”
If the legislation passes, the Union hockey teams can immediately begin offering athletic scholarships.
“It expands our pool,” McLaughlin said. “We’re able to talk to more individuals and identify the best fit to make offers to for our men’s and women’s ice hockey program.”
McLaughlin said the additional dollars needed to support scholarships will be donor funded.
“It will not impact the financial aid budget available to all students and Union will continue to meet full financial need for all students,” McLaughlin said.
The Union men’s team became one of the top programs in the country last decade. The Dutchmen won four ECAC Hockey regular season titles (2010-11, 2011-12, 2013-14 and 2016-17) and three straight ECACH tournament titles (2012, 2013 and 2014). They played in five NCAA tournaments, reaching the Frozen Four in 2012 and 2014 and winning the national title in 2014.
But since that national title, Union has only been to one NCAA tournament (2017). In 2019-20, the last season the Dutchmen played prior to the coronavirus pandemic, they went 8-25-4, their worst record under head coach Rick Bennett.
Union men’s head coach Rick Bennett, who has been with the program since 2005-06, believes having the ability to offer athletic scholarships is a game changer for the program.
“It puts Union College, it puts RIT on an equitable ball field,” Bennett said. “Recently, that just hasn’t been the case. It’s about time that the ball field was the same.”
The women’s hockey team would greatly benefit from offering athletic scholarships. The Dutchwomen have not had a winning season since becoming a Division I program in 2003-04. They have never made the ECACH tournament. Their highest finish has been 10th.
“Just the ability to have scholarships would be huge for our program,” said Josh Sciba, who has been the Dutchwomen’s head coach since 2016-17. “Obviously, it’s a huge game changer. I think when you look at our program right now, when players come to campus, they love the school, they love the education, they love the degree. The return on investment is fantastic in terms of what they’re getting.
“But I think the big thing that sets us apart is the cost. The tuition keeps going up. That’s the big thing for families. For us, we want equity. We want to level the playing field. We want to make sure that we’re doing what everybody else is doing, and having the opportunity to offer athletic scholarships gives us that ability.”
Bennett and Sciba said it was too early to determine if any of the current players would be considered for athletic scholarships.