The disappointment in not fulfilling the goal of winning an NCAA hockey title was etched on the face of every Union player being interviewed after the team’s season ended in Thursday’s NCAA Frozen Four semifinals.
But the Dutchmen’s 21st season at the Division I level can be considered nothing but a success. And despite the loss of five players — seniors Nolan Julseth-White, Taylor Reid, Brian Yanovitch and Kelly Zajac and junior Jeremy Welsh — the Dutchmen’s future certainly looks bright.
Union concluded its most successful season ever, going 26-8-7. The Dutchmen, under first-year head coach Rick Bennett, won their second straight ECAC Hockey regular-season title, captured their first-ever ECACH tournament championship and reached the
Frozen Four for the first time by winning the NCAA East Regional.
The goal of winning an NCAA title championship fell short in a 3-1 decision to Ferris State in the semifinal.
“It hurts,” said Welsh, the center who gave up his final year of eligibility when he signed with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes late Thursday night. “We had every opportunity to win a national championship. That’s something our school and [the players] would remember for the rest of our lives. To do it with a group of guys that you love being around, it would be really special. That’s the hard part. The hard part is not losing in the semifinals. The hard part is losing the opportunity at a national championship.”
Welsh believes the Dutchmen can get back to the Frozen Four, just by doing the same things that got them there this season.
“Hard work, team defense. Those are our staples,” Welsh said. “That’ll continue. The culture has been 10, 20 years longer than any individual’s been here. Just get back to those things. We had a great maturity level now. Guys coming now are expecting to win, expecting to get to the tournament every year and expecting to be here. That makes all the difference in the world.”
Union will definitely miss Welsh’s 27 goals and 17 assists he had this season, and 53 goals and 47 assists he had in his career. The Dutchmen will also miss center Zajac’s eight goals and 34 assists. He finished second on Union’s Division I career scoring list with 128 points.
Welsh and Zajac were two-thirds of Union’s leadership group, serving as alternate captains. Defenseman Julseth-White was the team captain. Together, the trio provided great leadership.
“The leadership thing is going to be a question for us,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “We’re going to lose three tremendous leaders. Throughout this course run here, that’s a huge part of this program.”
But Bennett is excited for his second year as head coach because of the talent he will have returning, and some of the players coming into the program next season.
Sophomore left winger Daniel Carr scored 20 goals for the second straight year, becoming the first Dutchmen Division I player to do that, and he had a career-best 20 assists. Junior right winger Wayne Simpson finished with a career-high 18 goals. After collecting just 22 points in his first two years, junior center Kyle Bodie was the team’s most improved player with six goals and 24 assists. Sophomore right winger Josh Jooris had a great postseason, and finished with eight goals and 20 assists.
On defense, sophomore Mat Bodie (8-21-29) had another outstanding season. Freshman Shayne Gostisbehere (5-17-22) is another offensive threat from the blue line.
And while Union hasn’t officially announced its 2012-13 recruiting class, there are a couple of impact players coming in.
Brook Bandits left winger Matt Wilkins was the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s leading scorer this year with 34 goals and 65 assists in 60 games. He scored 14 power-play goals, which makes him a perfect replacement for Welsh.
Center Andrew Johnston of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Humboldt Broncos had 29 goals and 52 assists this season. He could be Zajac’s replacement.
“We like what’s in the locker room. We really do,” Bennett said. “Obviously, I can’t comment on the young’uns coming in. We’re extremely excited.”
Sophomore Troy Grosenick had an outstanding season in his first season as the Dutchmen’s top goalie after Keith Kinkaid gave up his final two years of eligibility last April to sign with the New Jersey Devils. Grosenick was 22-6-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and five shutouts.
Grosenick has been getting looked at by several NHL teams. But Bennett believes another year at Union will help his game.
“Hopefully, Troy’s going to make the right decision,” Bennett said. “We’ll sit down and talk to him, as well.
“I think the future’s bright, but we have to realize how hard it’s going to be next year for us. That’s going to be our first meeting when we get back.”