Bennett out as Union College men’s hockey head coach

Union College hockey coach Rick Bennett resigned on Friday.
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Union College hockey coach Rick Bennett resigned on Friday.

SCHENECTADY The Rick Bennett era at Union College has come to a stunning end.

Eight days after he was placed on paid administrative leave after the college received an email with an allegation against him, Bennett resigned as head coach of the school’s men’s hockey team. Bennett, who guided Union to the 2014 NCAA championship, was head coach for 11 seasons. Before that, he was the team’s assistant/associate head coach for six seasons under head coach Nate Leaman.

A press release issued from Union’s athletic department Friday stated Bennett’s resignation “follows an allegation about his coaching style and practices that was substantiated through an investigation.”

“We received an anonymous email late last Wednesday evening,” Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said at a Friday afternoon press conference at Messa Rink. “It came together very quickly to attempt to assess the situation. Given what we uncovered quickly, we decided it was in the best interest of everyone involved to make sure that we completed an investigation, do it thoroughly, do it swiftly.”

McLaughlin wouldn’t specify what the exact allegations were against Bennett.

“I can’t share that,” McLaughlin said. “This is obviously a personnel matter, and we can’t share the details of the investigation.”

Reached Friday evening, Union College President David Harris declined to comment.

Assistant coach John Ronan, who was serving as the acting head coach while Bennett was on leave, was named the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. The Dutchmen, who are 2-1 under Ronan and earned seven points in those three ECAC Hockey games (wins over Brown and Dartmouth and an overtime loss to Yale), face RPI in the ninth Mayor’s Cup game at 2 p.m. Saturday at MVP Arena.

McLaughlin said a search for a new permanent coach won’t start right away. He added that Ronan will be a candidate to replace Bennett, whose 192 wins at Union ranks him as the program’s all-time winningest head coach.

Bennett last coached Jan. 15 at Clarkson. The Dutchmen surrendered six first-period goals and lost 8-2. Asked if something happened during that game that could have caused someone to send a complaint to the athletic department, Bennett said there was not.

“There’s no games or anything,” Bennett said during an interview with The Daily Gazette, which was conducted prior to Friday’s press conference that did not include him. “That’s not the case. That’s not the reason for my resigning at all.”

In discussing stepping down as Union’s coach, Bennett — who compiled a 192-133-45 record with the Dutchmen — said the decision to do that was his to make. 

“It was basically, I have to say, it was a good time for me to go and to pursue other interests at this time. It really was,” Bennett said. “I feel at peace with my decision, and my family is, more importantly. I thank Jim McLaughlin, [Union] President [David] Harris and [Vice President] Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, also for basically all they’ve done for me while I’ve been there.

“It was time.”

Asked at Friday’s press conference if the school would have fired Bennett if the coach didn’t resign, McLaughlin said, “in discussions, Rick decided that it was in the best interest of the future of the hockey program for him to step away, so we never got there.”

McLaughlin offered praise Bennett for more than what his teams did on the ice.

“One of the things I appreciated is what Rick stood for and his support of the students in their off-ice activities,” Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said at a Friday afternoon press conference at Messa Rink. “This is a team that just last term saw them turn in a 3.4 GPA. It’s a team that’s done great things in our community.”

Bennett’s resignation comes six days after the NCAA voted to allow Union, a Division III institution that competes in Division I hockey, the ability to offer athletic scholarships starting next season. The transition into that era of Dutchmen hockey won’t include Bennett.

“It’s a sad day, a difficult day,” McLaughlin said. “Rick’s been part of Union hockey for 17 years. It was obviously the greatest run we’ve had in a 17-year period when he was a part of this. It’s a difficult day for me personally. It’s been a difficult week. It’s the same for our players, which is the group I care most about, our fans and our alumni. I’m very thankful for what Rick has done at Union College, and [I’m] looking forward to the future.”

McLaughlin said Bennett addressed the team Friday. No players were made available to reporters Friday during the school’s press conference.

“There were some stunned faces,” McLaughlin said. “Seeing them afterwards, it was something that they realized that is beyond their control right now.”

Bennett played college hockey at Providence. He was a Hobey Baker Award finalist in 1990. He played professionally for 10 seasons, mostly in the minors. He played in 12 games in parts of two seasons with the New York Rangers.

He broke into coaching as a player-assistant coach with the ECHL’s Jacksonville Lizard Kings in 1995. He joined the college ranks in 2000, returning to Providence.

In 2005, Union head coach Nate Leaman hired Bennett as an assistant coach. Two years later, Bennett was promoted to associate head coach.

When Leaman was hired as Providence College’s head coach following the 2010-11 season, Bennett was promoted to head coach. In his first season, the Dutchmen won their second straight ECACH regular season title. They won what would be the first of three consecutive ECACH tournament championships. Union then won the NCAA tournament East Regional, earning the program’s first trip to the Frozen Four at the Division I level. Union lost to Ferris State 3-1 in the semifinal.

Two years later, Bennett and the Dutchmen reached the pinnacle of college hockey, winning the national championship. They beat Boston College 5-4 in the semifinals, and then defeated Minnesota 7-4 in the title game.

Since then, Union shared the 2016-17 ECACH regular season title with Harvard and reached the NCAAs for the fifth time. There would be no trip to the Frozen Four that season as Union was trounced by Penn State 10-3 in the Midwest Regional semifinal.

Union had its worst season under Bennett in 2019-20, going 8-25-4. The Dutchmen lost in three games to Yale in the first round of the ECACH tournament. That would be the last game the Dutchmen played until this season; the team sat out last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Dutchmen had six 20-win seasons and just two losing seasons under Bennett. They had a program-best 32 wins in 2013-14.

That season was also marked by a brawl at the end of the Mayor’s Cup game against RPI. Bennett went after head coach Seth Appert as there were other skirmishes on the ice. Union suspended Bennett for two games, and the ECACH tacked on two more games.

Bennett said there will be many things he will miss.

“I never called it going to work,” Bennett said. “I called it going to the rink. I will miss that. I will miss the interactions with the coaching staff, [equipment manager] Dave Baglio, [trainer] Cheryl Rockwood, [administrative assistant] Kelli Hays, [sports psychologist] Dr. Wally Bzdell. Those are what I’ll miss and, honestly, working with the players [starting] as an assistant coach all the way to a week ago.

“I had an absolute blast as the head coach and as an assistant coach at Union College.”

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