The 2022 college hockey year will be one to remember.
One coach left before the 2021-22 season ended. Another coach was left hanging as he waited for a contract. The Union hockey programs received some assistance in January. ECAC Hockey will be looking for a new commissioner, and a postseason format change is coming.
Here are my five top stories from the past 12 months.
1. BENNETT RESIGNS
Rick Bennett is the Union College men’s hockey program’s most successful head coach. He guided the Dutchmen to two Frozen Four appearances, winning the 2014 national title.
But on Jan. 20 came the news that Bennett was being placed on administrative leave by the Union athletic department after it received an email about his coaching style.
A press release issued from Union’s athletic department stated Bennett’s resignation “follows an allegation about his coaching style and practices that was substantiated through an investigation.”
It was a sad way for Bennett to end his 17-year career at Union, the last 11 as head coach.
“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 when I spoke with him shortly after the announcement. “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.”
Assistant coach John Ronan took over and guided the Dutchmen to an 8-8-1 record over the final 17 games, including a 2-0 win over RPI in the Mayor’s Cup game the day after Bennett’s resignation, and a sweep of Princeton in the best-of-three ECAC Hockey tournament first-round series.
Union’s season ended in the quarterfinals when Clarkson took a pair of overtime victories. And it would be Clarkson where Union would get Bennett’s replacement. Josh Hauge, who was an assistant/associate head coach at Clarkson, was named the Dutchmen’s head coach on April 15. Ronan remained as an assistant coach.
The Dutchmen are 6-10-1 under Hauge as they get set to host New Hampshire for a two-game series Friday and Saturday at Messa Rink.
2. ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIPS
The Union men’s and women’s hockey teams were unable to offer athletic scholarships because the college was a NCAA Division III institution with a Division I program.
That changed on Jan. 22.
Proposal 4, which grants multi-divisional programs the ability to apply all Division I legislation to its Division I programs, including financial aid, was passed by the NCAA Division III membership at the NCAA convention in Indianapolis. The vote was 388 in favor, 18 opposed and 39 abstained.
The men’s and women’s teams will begin phasing in the athletic scholarships next season with an allotment of five, then five in 2024-25, five on 2025-26 before having a full 18 for programs in 2026-27.
3. SMITH GETS NEW CONTRACT … FINALLY
The contract of RPI men’s hockey head coach Dave Smith was set to end at the completion of the school’s academic year in May. RPI said Smith was its coach, and it would be working on a new contract with him.
March turned into April. April changed to May. Then it was June and July. Nothing. Crickets. No new contract for Smith, who had guided RPI to ECACH tournament quarterfinals the last two times the Engineers played. RPI never got to play in the 2020 quarterfinals because the season was canceled at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and its 2020-21 season was canceled because of the pandemic.
What was taking so long?
Finally, on Aug. 18, Smith received a five-year deal.
“I’ve said to many of you that Dave Smith is our coach,” RPI athletic director Lee McElroy said during a news conference after the deal was finalized. “But anytime you’re in a contracting situation, particularly with a renewal, there are a lot of things that need to be worked out. And it’s very, very extensive, very involved and very comprehensive. So we don’t look at it this [taking] time, we look at it as making the appropriate decision. And we made the right decision, obviously, because he’s got the five-year extension.”
Smith was never worried about his job status.
“My first feeling is [I’m] really just grateful and appreciative of the opportunity to continue to build what we’ve started,” Smith said. “Relief, it’s a word that’s in the description, but it’s not at the top. It’s just an appreciation. It’s an excitement to keep building, and really looking forward to a road ahead.”
Still, it just seemed strange. RPI turned an easy situation into an unnecessary soap opera.
4. HAGWELL STEPPING DOWN
After serving ECAC Hockey for more than two decades, a vast majority as commissioner, Steve Hagwell announced last Thursday that he will leave his role at the end of this season.
“Having had the honor, privilege and blessing to serve ECAC Hockey for 24 years, including 18 as commissioner, I have decided that it is time for me to conclude my tenure with the league,” Hagwell said in a press release. “My love for ECAC Hockey is boundless but as much love as I have for the league, it is the administrators, coaches, student-athletes, staff, on-ice officials and volunteers, to whom I am forever indebted. I thank each and every one for allowing me to serve the greatest league within the NCAA structure for nearly a quarter of a century. It truly has been a blessing beyond anything I ever imagined.”
The news caught me by surprise. But maybe Hagwell thought the time was right.
Last decade was good to Hagwell and the ECACH, which saw conference teams win five national titles — two men’s teams (Yale in 2013 and Union in 2014), and three by the Clarkson women in 2014, 2017 and 2018.
Getting the ECACH tournament back to Lake Placid in 2014 after a 12-year absence was Hagwell’s best move. That erased the questionable decision to move the tournament from Albany to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for a three-year run in 2011. Attendance was awful.
5. POSTSEASON FORMAT CHANGE
The ECACH recently announced changes to its tournament format for the men’s and women’s leagues. It was good news for the women, but not so much for the men.
Beginning in 2024, the women’s tournament will expand from eight to 12. It was time for the women to mirror the men’s tournament, which has taken all 12 teams to the tournament since 2003.
The first round of the men’s tournament will have a new look this March. Instead of a best-of-three series, it will be a single elimination game, followed by a best-of-three quarterfinal round (the women will also have that format).
A number of men’s coaches I spoke with were not pleased with the change — one coach told me that their vote was 12-0 to keep the current format — and I agree with them. I fear that an 11th or 12th seed will pull off an upset to advance to the next round. A team should earn its way to the quarterfinals by going through a best-of-three. Not a good look.
MAINE VISITS UNION ON WAY TO COLGATE
The Maine men’s hockey team plays a two-game series at Colgate in Hamilton on Friday and Saturday. The Black Bears and their head coach Ben Barr, the former RPI player and Union assistant coach, made a stop at Messa Rink on Wednesday to get a practice in.
It was Barr’s first visit to Union since the 2017-18 season, when he was an assistant coach at UMass and the Minutemen played a pair of games against the Dutchmen at Messa.
Barr was an assistant coach under Nate Leaman from 2008-11, and then moved to Providence when Leaman was named head coach there.
“I’ve got so many good memories,” Barr said during a telephone interview Thursday. “You kind of get nostalgic with things because the three years I was there, it was awesome.”
Barr didn’t publicize the visit to Union. But his former RPI teammates Kevin Broad, Scott Basiuk and Matt Murley stopped by.
“I didn’t mean to keep it a secret,” Barr said. “Honestly, I didn’t think about it that much because we set it up quite a while ago. You just kind of go day by day, and I’ve got three little kids, which is crazy in itself. I don’t even think about this stuff until the day before it happens. And then we were there [Wednesday], so it was cool.”
Barr is remembered for his two third-period shorthanded goals on the same penalty against Union goalie Kris Mayotte in Game 2 of the 2003 ECACH tournament first-round series that turned a 2-1 Dutchmen lead into a 3-2 RPI win and gave the Engineers a series sweep at Messa.
I asked Barr if he showed his players the spots on the ice where he scored those dramatic goals. Barr laughed.
“I didn’t even talk about it,” Barr said. “They don’t give a [crap] about my exploits.”
Contact Ken Schott by email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @slapschotts.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: College Sports, Sports, Sports, Union College