SCHENECTADY — I keep going back to “his coaching style and practices.”
These are the words Union College chose to describe what Rick Bennett did wrong, why he’s no longer the head coach of the men’s hockey team there, as of Friday afternoon.
It was a singular allegation — made in an anonymous email, to be clear — that germinated and grew over eight days into the thornbush that Bennett chose to extricate himself from by resigning. This, after 17 years with the program, the last 11 of which were as head coach and included a national championship in 2014.
One anonymous allegation — received four days after an 8-2 loss at Clarkson on Jan. 15 — somehow crystallized into a de facto indictment of the broader scope of Bennett’s coaching methods.
At a press conference Friday at Messa Rink in which the only speaker was Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin, he said his week-long investigation did not turn up “a pattern of a series of incidents over a long period of time.”
So it boiled down to this one moment.
Bennett did the honorable thing and resigned, removing Union from the position of potentially looking like the bad guy, firing a coach who won a national championship, whose players are active in community service and excel in the classroom. McLaughlin got to say a bunch of nice things about Bennett at the press conference, instead of grimly outlining his crime.
The coach apparently — suddenly — was too old-school for this school.
And I will say this, in a general sense, that I’ll be the last person to defend coaches who demand self-control and discipline from their players, while failing to practice those qualities themselves.
For his part, Bennett said in a phone interview Friday evening that the issue of whether he would be fired never entered the discussion, for the simple reason that the now ex-coach never let it get to that point, a point McLaughlin stressed at the press conference.
Bennett has always been a straight shooter, someone who doesn’t cut corners, doesn’t make excuses and doesn’t suffer soft play. When the Mayor’s Cup game against RPI got snowed out in 2019, he told me, in a wry tone, “The Bennett clan does not use snowblowers. We’ve got plenty of kids around here, and we use shovels. It’s the old Springfield, Mass., Rule. We’ll put these kids to work.”
So when he tells you that he came to a realization, while meeting with McLaughlin on Friday morning about what McLaughlin’s investigation had uncovered, that resigning would be the best move for everyone, you believe him. When he says the entire burden of the decision was on his shoulders, you believe him.
And when you ask him if being fired, or punished in some other way, was even on the table, you have to believe Bennett when he says, “No. That was my decision, solely my decision to resign, and that’s what I did.
“I took everything in, and that was nice about the week, just to think about your future and my time at Union. And I just felt it was time. I have to admit last year took a toll. But it was just time. I don’t know how else to explain it to someone. When you know, you know.”
If McLaughlin’s investigation of the anonymous email didn’t turn up a pattern or years of anything approaching abuse, perceived or otherwise, Bennett admitted that he had been aware of the need to “evolve” as a coach in recent years, and that didn’t happen, at least not quickly enough to keep up with the times.
He chuckled when I asked if coaching college kids is different nowadays, based on what is considered acceptable treatment and routines, compared to when he first coached.
“I would say that’s accurate,” he said. “My time at Providence many years ago was different than my last five years at Union. My first five years at Union were definitely different.
“And I’m not saying it’s good. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just different. And that’s life, that’s evolving. And that’s part of the decision. Could Rick Bennett evolve fast enough for this new era? A part of me thought I really was. The feedback I was getting from a person on our staff who works with a lot of programs was very helpful in that trying-to-evolve process.
“But that’s not the sole reason why. I think there a lot more players that I had a chance to work with that appreciated it versus the handful or so that didn’t.”
“There were some things that we uncovered that I shared with Rick, and he decided that it’d be best for him to move on and best for the future of the program,” McLaughlin said. “We have certain standards for our coaches, we have certain standards for all of the people that work at Union.
“With coaching, as far as demonstrating techniques and tactics and different things like that, that needs to be done appropriately, and we want to ensure that it does.”
As of Friday evening, Bennett was still in the process of wading through all the text messages he received, and he said the “regret” question has been coming up.
The answer to that one was also an emphatic “No.”
“I always felt like I tried to coach ’em as tough, but fair, as I could. And once we got off the ice, it was never personal. I cared about every player, and anytime they asked me for something, it got done that day or within the week, whatever they needed.
“And for the some that — I don’t even know the proper word, let’s just say disgruntled — you know, I’m sorry they left the program like that and had those feelings. But I believe in accountability and looking in the mirror, and hopefully those people do, too.”
If you’ve worked with him — I was the Union beat writer from 2016 to 2021 — your first instinct is to think that this is a lousy way to go out, but he won’t let you do that, either.
“Quite honestly, I’m at peace,” he said. “I’m at peace with the decision, my family, my kids, and I’m actually excited for a new beginning, whether that be another college somewhere at some point, or probably pro hockey to see what options are available there. We’ll see what’s out there.
“There’s so many good things going on with this program right now, and I wish you’d say that. The graduation rate, the GPA was one of the highest ever this past fall. And with all the things guys are doing, with three Olympians …”
We’ll never know if Bennett would’ve been fired if he hadn’t chosen to make the first move.
If you fire a coach, you have to justify it. You have to show cause. It would’ve been a different, uglier, side of the same PR coin for the school.
If the coach lets you off the hook by resigning, instead … well, that strikes me as one more gesture that demonstrates Bennett’s devotion and commitment to the program.
His last act was to fall on his sword, so you believe him when he says, “It’s good to know the program’s in a good spot. I’ll leave happy.”