Union hockey coach Rick Bennett is doing his best to keep his focus on preparing his team for tonight’s non-conference game at American International.
But this game isn’t just an ordinary contest for Bennett. It will be a homecoming.
Bennett, a Springfield, Mass., native, won’t be too far from home. The game, which starts at 7:05 p.m., will be at the Olympia Ice Center in West Springfield, Mass.
“It’s going to be great to see friends and family, and ex-players that I played with and some against,” Bennett said. “It’s just nice to go back. More importantly, it’s not about the Rick Bennett show going back home. It’s more about a great test for our players. And what better way to have a great test than to go back and play in one of your hometowns. It’s kind of a nice trip.”
Bennett played hockey for Classical High School, and graduated in 1985. In 1984, Bennett helped the team win the 1984 Western Massachusetts title.
“I remember all the great times I had, and a lot of great teammates and excellent coaches,” Bennett said. “I learned so much from every coach that I ever played for. I still keep in contact with the high school coach who I thought the world of, Jim Carlin. That was one of the best moments that I could ever remember was winning the Western Mass. championship. That was a tremendous feeling, and I never forgot that. Coach Carlin was great.”
After graduating from Providence College in 1990 following a stellar career there, Bennett turned pro. He played two seasons in Springfield — the final year of the Indians’ franchise in 1993-94 before it relocated to Worcester, Mass., and then the first season of the expansion Falcons in 1994-95.
“It was kind of special to be a hometown guy and to be able to wear both those jerseys,” Bennett said. “I remember, back in the day, they used to play at the Coliseum in West Springfield. It reminds you of the gladiator-type days. That’s where we played our high school hockey.”
The eighth-ranked Dutchmen (2-1) haven’t played since taking a 4-1 win over Bowling Green on Oct. 13, which completed a two-game sweep of the Falcons. Rust could be an issue early on against Atlantic Hockey’s Yellow Jackets (1-2).
“There’s always going to be a test,” Bennett said. “Every weekend is going to present something different. This will, as well. We’ll just go on the road, same as we did a couple of weeks ago to Bowling Green — it’s just a different opponent — and be ready to play.”
The Yellow Jackets won’t be pushovers. In last year’s matchup at Messa Rink, Union had a 3-2 lead before late third-period goals by Daniel Ciampini and Max Novak helped the Dutchmen to a 5-2 victory. AIC goalie Ben Meisner made 53 saves in the game.
Meisner opened this season with a 61-save effort in a 3-2 overtime victory at Penn State Oct. 12. He followed that up with a 40-save effort in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Nittany Lions the next night. Meisner stopped 41 shots in a 6-2 loss to Holy Cross last Tuesday.
“I’m expecting a team that’s excellent in transition, so if you turn it over, they’re going to make you pay,” Bennett said. “The one thing I’ve noticed watching a lot of tape last year and this year is when you turn it over, that puck always seems to make it into your net. That’s just good coaching.”
This is Union’s first trip to AIC at the Division I level. The last time a Dutchmen team played there was during the Division III era. Union took a 7-6 win on Dec. 5, 1989.
There was a comment made on Twitter last week mocking Union, a Frozen Four team, playing a game at AIC. Bennett took issue with that. Union has played five times against AIC in the Division I era, all at Messa.
“If we’re trying to have the betterment of college hockey, it shouldn’t matter where you go. I’m a firm believer in that,” Bennett said. “There are plenty of coaches at the [national coaches] convention that stand up and promote that they want the best for college hockey, but they aren’t willing to travel, I have no respect for those people. I respect the guys that will play anywhere. That’s the type of team Union wants to be. As long as everything is reciprocated, we’ll travel.”
The Dutchmen visit another Atlantic Hockey team, Connecticut at 8 p.m. Saturday. . . .
Union is 14-0-3 in its last 17 games against Atlantic Hockey opponents. Overall, the Dutchmen are 41-6-7. . . .
The Dutchmen are 5-for-14 (37.5 percent) on the power play, and 12-for-14 (85.7 percent) on the penalty kill.