MacAdam: Ronan wasn’t chosen for his dream job with Union men’s hockey. But he stayed, anyway

John Ronan served as the Union men's hockey head coach for 17 games last season.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

John Ronan served as the Union men's hockey head coach for 17 games last season.

SCHENECTADY – He’ll always have the Mayor’s Cup.

John Ronan was a Union College men’s hockey assistant coach when the 2021-22 season started, and he has that same job, with the same responsibilities, on the same bench, for the start of the 2022-23 season on Saturday.

A few things happened between.

The 42-year-old from South Boston wants to be a college head coach someday, and got a brief taste of what that entails under extraordinary circumstances for a couple months last season.

Upon the administrative leave of absence of Rick Bennett, who coached the Dutchmen to the 2014 national championship, Ronan served as acting head coach. Upon Bennett’s stunning resignation eight days later, Ronan served on an interim basis the rest of the way.

He was the Union head coach of record for the last 17 games of a 14-19-4 season that included a 2-0 victory over fierce rival RPI in the annual Mayor’s Cup game on Jan. 29, the day after Bennett resigned, and two overtime losses to Clarkson in the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals that ended Union’s season.

Well-liked by the players and well-regarded by the school, Ronan was considered for the vacant head coaching job as one of five finalists, but ultimately Union turned to another assistant at another school, Josh Hauge, fresh off Clarkson’s quarterfinal win that Hauge contributed to while working for Casey Jones.

At this point, someone in Ronan’s position typically would’ve been sent packing off into the landscape of peripatetic assistant coaches, especially since the new guy likely would want to bring in his own people.

Or, the assistant, perhaps miffed at not getting the head coaching job despite performing admirably in that post during trying times, albeit briefly, leaves on his own to explore other opportunities.

Neither scenario happened, and Union should see a variety of benefits from Ronan’s return.

Coaching transition sometimes is difficult, but this one should be smoother than usual because the Dutchmen retain someone who commands respect from the players and knows the program up and down.

“I think it’s huge, to have the familiarity there, especially with two new coaches coming in,” junior forward Liam Robertson said. “John’s going to bring the offensive side to us. He’s going to be running the forwards again. He knows his stuff, and he’s familiar with all the guys here.

“He’s recruited pretty well every one of us, and all of us are very comfortable with him. Nothing but good to say about John.”

“He’s right there with me for everything,” Hauge said. “He and Lennie [new assistant Lennie Childs] have been outstanding.

“He’s calm. He’s got great player relationships. He’s going to work with our forwards and our power play. I think he’s really good in both those areas. He’ll be instrumental for us and somebody the guys can relate to to use as a sounding board if they need anything.”

Ronan has served in that capacity since 2016, but his Union resume traces back to that national championship season, when he was a grad assistant for Bennett, before leaving for two years.

So he can genuinely use that reference point when he’s on the recruiting trail. He was there.

Last season, Bennett was placed on paid administrative leave following an email to the athletic department alleging an incident of improper coaching methods.

The next day, Ronan found himself manning the bench at Messa Rink for a game against Brown. Besides Bennett, assistant TJ Manastersky was absent while observing COVID-19 protocols.

“I had zero head coaching experience and was on the bench for the first time with the head coach tag, and there was nobody next to me,” Ronan said on Monday, breaking into a laugh.

“So, it was wild. It was wild. But as far as approach, it’s being myself. Having a relationship with all the guys through the recruiting process, some guys that dated back, four, five, six years through that process. They knew me, I knew them. To me, it was just being myself and defining my conviction to them.”

Union won that game 3-1, lost to Yale in overtime the following night and won at Dartmouth four days later.

The next day, Bennett resigned, on the eve of the Mayor’s Cup.

The Dutchmen went 8-8-1 under Ronan, who was on the opposite bench from Hauge when Union’s season ended. Clarkson’s quarterfinal win hasn’t been a topic of conversation between them.

“Umm … no, we never dove into it,” Ronan said. “But, to his credit, as soon as he’s come on here, it’s been Union. It’s been how can we make this program better and take it to the next level. And that’s been exciting for me, having an opportunity with him, and Lennie now, is awesome.”

Hauge, who at 43 is 15 months older than Ronan, has been charting a parallel path in the ECACH, having been a Clarkson assistant since 2015 before Union hired him to his first college head coaching job.

Ronan and Manastersky attended Hauge’s intro press conference at Messa on April 15, but didn’t talk to the media, while Hauge acknowledged “the difficult situation” the two assistants faced.

Manastersky eventually left to become head coach at Brock University in Canada.

Ronan is happy he stayed, and hopes that whatever continuity and stability he can provide will help the team, especially the players who have known him for years.

“It’s been a kind of wild ride here for a little bit,” Ronan said. “When Josh took over, having a familiar face around might’ve been, for him, a little bit beneficial, having that relationship with the players and the people on campus. But as far as the players go, I like to think I have a relationship with them and pride myself on my relationship with our guys. I want to do right by them.

“Josh made the decision to retain me, and I was obviously appreciative of that. I didn’t seek anything else this summer, just out of respect for him. I was grateful he brought me back, and I didn’t want to leave him in a bad spot. It was kind of an interesting offseason, him in his position and me in my position.

“But we got to know each other, I think, and it’s two people who see the game the same way, get along really well, and I’m looking forward to working with him.”

Four weeks after Union hired Hauge, Bennett, who had been the face of Union men’s hockey since 2011, became the first head coach of the new ECHL franchise in Savannah, Georgia, the Ghost Pirates, an NHL affiliate of the Las Vegas Golden Knights and AHL affiliate of the Henderson Silver Knights.

Ronan stays in contact with his old boss.

“He’s doing really well,” he said. “He’s going into a great situation down in Savannah, He was hired by the Vegas organization, so I know he’s been bouncing around all summer with development camps, and out there for the Golden Knights camp and Henderson [Nevada] before he gets back to Savannah. So we chat every so often, and he’s doing well, but it’s a new challenge, and he’s looking forward to it.”

Ronan is looking forward to the Dutchmen’s opener against RIT, when he’ll be the familiar face on what, for him, is a familiar bench in a familiar rink.

As much as he would’ve preferred doing so as the Union head coach, he can look back on his short whirlwind of a head coaching stint last season with pride and appreciation for the first-hand experience of it.

“Yeah, it’s something that I definitely wanted and do have aspirations of being a head coach,” he said. “Should I have? I don’t know. There was so much going on last year that my sole focus was on the team, trying to get the guys to perform every day, and I was grateful for how they competed and showed up every day. So that’s pretty much that.”

And … he’s got a trophy to his credit.

With news of Bennett’s resignation still very much fresh, the Dutchmen were held to just 15 shots against RPI in the Mayor’s Cup, but Robertson scored on one of them in the first period, and Dutchmen goalie Connor Murphy did the rest, stopping 33 shots for the shutout.

“It was cool. Being here long enough, you know the pride on both sides. But what I remember from that game? Connor Murphy,” Ronan said with a laugh.

“It might’ve been a different game if it weren’t for him.”

Categories: College Sports, Sports, Sports, Union College

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