Opening Faceoff: RIT men’s hockey coach Wilson talks about being able to award athletic scholarships

RIT men's hockey coach Wayne Wilson. (RIT Athletics photo)

RIT men's hockey coach Wayne Wilson. (RIT Athletics photo)

HOCKEY Union College and RIT were hockey rivals for most of the 1980s during their NCAA Division III years. The Dutchmen beating the Tigers in four overtimes in the 1984 national semifinals on RIT’s home ice conjures up great memories for Union and bitter heartache for RIT.

The two schools continue to be rivals in Division III in the Liberty League. The hockey teams, not so much since Union plays in ECAC Hockey and RIT is in Atlantic Hockey.

But the two schools teamed to produce a big victory for their men’s and women’s hockey programs when the NCAA approved a measure that would allow Division III institutions, like RIT and Union to offer athletic scholarships for its Division I program. This also benefited Hobart men’s lacrosse, Franklin & Marshall wrestling and MIT women’s crew. The vote total was 388 in favor, 18 against and 39 abstentions.

I wrote several stories leading up to the Jan. 22 vote at the NCAA convention in Indianapolis. All those stories were focused on the Union men’s and women’s hockey teams.

With the RIT men’s team visiting Union for each team’s season opener at 7 p.m. Saturday at Messa Rink, it provided the perfect opportunity to get reaction from RIT and their head coach Wayne Wilson, who begins his 24th season running the Tigers.

Wilson was their coach when RIT made the decision to elevate its program from Division III to Division I at the start of the 2006-07 season. The Union men’s team went from D-III to D-I at the start of the 1991-92 campaign.

“We were trying to get scholarships for so long, we really didn’t know how it was going to go,” Wilson said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “I think the whole thing surprised me a little bit about how the voting went. The actual votes were one-sided.”

For the longest time, RIT was the only school trying to get the NCAA to change its policy. There was no support from anyone else.

“We were such a small voice,” Wilson said. “For a long time, we were the only ones fighting for it in a world that it didn’t affect anyone else in the Division III world. At the time, Union didn’t want. … We’re the only ones that wanted it. But we could never saddle up next to anyone.”

Then Union joined the cause. The Dutchmen had a great run between 2010-2014, winning three ECACH regular-season titles, three straight ECACH tournament titles, making four straight NCAA tournament appearances and appearing in two Frozen Fours, winning the NCAA title in 2014, all without athletic scholarships.

But Union has recently struggled to compete to attract quality players. Wilson was thankful that Union got on board.

“I think it was very important,” Wilson said. “We had another ally, and it’s another voice. Not being able to give a scholarship didn’t only affect one school, here’s another school that wants to do it, and I think that was important.

“I think the reputation of Union also is significant. It was a great partnership. It was good to work together on that. When you think back, and even though I never played against Union [Wilson played at Bowling Green], when I say that in the Division III days, I know there was a healthy rivalry and all that. But it was good to see two programs come together after all those years and be able to collaborate on something that is going to help both programs.”

Union College president David Harris admitted that had the vote gone against them, there was a possibility that the Dutchmen could return to Division III. I asked Wilson if that would have happened at RIT. He gave a very interesting answer.

“There was no talk here of that. But I can tell you, in my own mind, I was thinking that,” Wilson said. “I don’t mind saying that. I say that in that it was tough enough in the climate that Division I hockey was being played, let’s say 10 years ago. But in today’s age, and we’re not even finished with this whole transformation stuff, I don’t know if we could survive with the transfer portal and unlimited scholarships and all the things that might be coming down the pike. I don’t know how it could survive in that climate.”

While Union will begin phasing in athletic scholarships next season, RIT has started awarding them.

“We rewarded a number of players in our own program because what they’ve given to us, I didn’t want to just sit on the money, particularly the guys that are older,” Wilson said. “For your seniors, give it to them for paying for three years and their commitment to your program, and you’re getting them right back. We’ve rewarded our players with the scholarships and rewarded them for their commitment and their hard work and their efforts.”

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RIT IN ECACH?

There has been speculation over the years about RIT leaving Atlantic Hockey to join the ECACH. I asked Wilson about that, and he gave a very candid answer.

“We are happy to be in Atlantic Hockey,” Wilson said. “And I’m just saying this from my own personal view, and this is not anything else. I do think that we belong in ECAC. When I say that, we’ve got four institutions [Union, RPI, Clarkson and St. Lawrence] that we play in every other sport, and they are New York schools. There are a lot of similarities between us and the other three. And Colgate is close by, as well. I think that’s a more of a natural fit, more of a natural rivalry for our it than some of the teams in our league. And I say that respectfully. We’ve had some epic battles with Air Force in the past, but we just can’t get that rivalry going, whether it be because of location or both schools. There isn’t a similarity in both schools as far as institutions. So, for me personally, I think it would be a great fit.”

WALSH HONORED

Union women’s hockey freshman forward Riley Walsh was named ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Week earlier this week.

Walsh had a great first two games of her college career last weekend against New Hampshire. She scored twice, one on the power play and the other shorthanded, in the Dutchwomen’s 3-2 win last Friday, and she had a goal in the next day’s 5-2 loss.

Walsh became the first Dutchwomen player to have a power-play goal and shorthanded tally in the same game since Suzy Pocock had a power-play goal and two shorthanded tallies at Sacred Heart on Nov. 3, 2006.

ECACH FACEOFF SELECTIONS

With Union starting the regular season Saturday, it’s time for my ECAC Hockey Faceoff Selections.

It’s easy to play. After I post my picks at dailygazette.com, which is usually on Wednesdays, you can send me your picks to [email protected].

More: All Sports | All Union College

Categories: College Sports, Sports, Sports, Union College

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