SCHENECTADY — It was Monday, and Josh Hauge couldn’t contain his excitement.
The first-year head coach of the Union College men’s hockey team is ready to begin the season and his new assignment.
Hauge will make his college hockey head coaching debut Saturday at 7 p.m., when the Dutchmen host RIT in the season opener for both teams at Messa Rink. And Hauge won’t get much rest because the Dutchmen travel down Interstate 87 to face Army West Point at 4 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s starting to get real,” Hauge said during the team’s media day at Messa Rink. “It’s a little nerve wracking in the sense that there’s so much you want to cover and that you’re not going to get everything done. But the guys have been working hard. It’s a good group and cautiously optimistic.”
Hauge is expecting to be nervous the moment he steps behind the bench Saturday night.
“It’s a dream come true to be the head coach of the program, and you want everything to go perfect,” Hauge said. “And that’s not the way it’s going to go. But we just want the effort to be high and to have fun along the way.”
It’s the start of a new era for Union men’s hockey. It will be the first season opener without Rick Bennett guiding the Dutchmen. Bennett resigned in late January after an investigation into his coaching practices. Assistant coach John Ronan served as interim head coach following Bennett’s resignation. Union finished seventh in ECAC Hockey with a 9-11-2, and was 14-19-4 overall.
Union went to Clarkson to hire Hauge, where he served as an assistant coach. Ironically, Hauge and the Golden Knights eliminated Ronan and the Dutchmen in two overtime games in the best-of-three ECAC Hockey tournament quarterfinals.
The players have enthusiastically accepted Hauge, and like what he has done so far.
“Everything’s exciting,” said junior forward Liam Robertson, who had 13 goals, eight coming on the power play, and six assists in 35 games last season. “We know what we’re going to get now. We’ve had them here for a month and all spring. We love having him here. He’s been great so far, and I’m super excited to get going.”
Senior goalie and Hudson Falls native Connor Murphy, who started all 37 games last season and set a team record with 1,060 saves, agrees with Robertson.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of change going on here, but the excitement level hasn’t changed for us,” said Murphy, who was 14-18-3 with a 2.66 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and three shutouts. I know for myself, personally, I’m pumped to get going this weekend. First game at home, it’s pretty exciting, and I can probably say the same for a lot of the other guys on our team. Obviously, two new coaches [assistant coach Lennie Childs] and a lot of new guys coming in, so it’s going to be a good test for us. I think that we’re going to be ready to go this weekend and see what we can do.”
Hauge and the players are still getting to know each other. Union junior forward Chaz Smedsrud said Hauge has been encouraging during practices and in meetings.
“He knows what he’s talking about, and he knows how to get it done,” Smedsrud said. “It’s been really good for the guys to kind of get out there on the ice with him, and he’s working with us really well. It’s been good.”
Hauge has been leaning on the returning players like Murphy, Robertson and senior Owen Farris to help him get to know the players better and make things more comfortable for them.
“It’s their program,” Hauge said. “Right now, our staff might be steering the ship, but they’re the guys that compete hard every single night and they’re the ones who are going to score goals and make plays. It’s nice to rely on them and know how they want things done and what they like. Some things, they may like to keep the same, but there’s certain things that might be open to new ideas.
“We definitely want to give them a voice and let them have a say. At the end of the day, we’ve got to make the final call. But it’s nice to be able to rely on mature kids that are mature men that do things the right way.”
Farris likes the fire that Hauge brings to practices.
“He’s very passionate in everything that he does,” Farris said. “He wants us to do well. He wants us to succeed, and he’s willing to supply us with whatever we need in order to get there. I think that’s extremely key. And everyone feels his energy when he talks and what he demands from us. I think that’s kind of his key driver right now.”
The Dutchmen play eight non-conference games before opening ECAC Hockey on Oct. 28 at RPI. Hauge certainly wants to get victories, but he wants to see how players perform in certain situations.
“Finding what we have, I think, is the biggest thing,” Hauge said. “Certain guys are going to be better in different situations and trying to find that out as a staff. Overall, it’s just developing our culture of compete and making sure that we’re working really hard. Then we got to try to find ways to win hockey games early in the out-of-conference season. You’ve got to find ways to win hockey games to help your conference out and then put yourself in a position to do well in the conference season.”