The tiny college in Schenectady, N.Y., is now the biggest thing in college hockey.
For the first time since the Great Depression, and the first time in the history of its hockey program, Union College can call itself a national champion. The Dutchmen defeated Minnesota, 7-4, Saturday night to win the Division I men’s hockey championship.
The national title is a first for any Union College squad since the 1929 men’s lacrosse team.
At the Wells Fargo Center, banners of every school to win a Division I national hockey title hung in the rafters. Many had multiple years listed, like Minnesota, which has five championships to their name.
Now another will join its ranks: Union College (32-6-4).
Union fans, their garnet garb making them easy to spot in the home of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, their rooting interests registering loud as their team went against a school 20-plus times its enrollment. From the pregame warm-ups, it was clear the arena was a pro-Union crowd.
At the end, they erupted in continuous rolling cheers. As the final seconds ticked down, athletic director Jim McLaughlin stared up at the scoreboard. He had one thought: “It’s real. It’s happening.
“They deserve it, everybody,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone who was been part of this program the past 25 years, they deserve it.”
“It started way before us,” coach Rick Bennett said on the ice afterward.
A pair of classmates, Class of 1969, beamed as confetti fell from the rafters and the players celebrated on the ice.
“Unbelievable,” said Jeff Kurzius of Ridgewood, N.J. “This is the best David and Goliath story since David and Goliath.”
“And they are student athletes,” noted Donald Bentrovato of Niskayuna, highlighting the team’s high GPA. He them turned his attention back to the players celebrating on the ice.
“UUUUUUUUUU,” he said, dragging out the letter.
As it did versus Boston College, Union fell behind Minnesota 1-0. The teams then traded goals. Before Union exploded for three unanswered scores to lead 4-2 after one period.
Rich Malaczynski of Schenectady, who graduated from Union in 1991, was walking down a level to see friends and “complain how bad [the Dutchmen] were playing.”
“On the way down from where I was sitting, Union scored two goals,” he said.
Union President Stephen Ainlay could barely speak after its frenzied four-goal first period. “I hardly have a voice,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m going to make it through the next two periods.”
Union led 4-3 after two, and extended its advantage in the third. A pair of late goals iced it.
Union first made the Frozen Four in 2012. Prior to this trip, players and coaches alike said the Dutchmen’s first foray that deep in the postseason left them awestruck. The refrain for this year’s return venture is that tje experienced Union team was on more of a business trip.
Consider the deal struck.
It was a day unlike any other for the school founded in 1795. Its fans just a decade ago would have been overly optimistic if not foolhardy to envision such a crown.
Mike Ingoldsby stood off from the red carpet where the Union hockey team entered arena Saturday afternoon, wearing a Union hockey T-shirt with a No. 8 that still should have been his.
Ingoldsby, a defenseman, played half of his freshman year for the Dutchmen, until a series of concussions ended his career. He would have been part of this stellar senior class that led Union to the title.
“It’s a little bit weird — and a little bit more nerve-wracking,” he said of watching the Dutchmen. “When you’re playing, you can control things.”
Jim Knowlton, RPI’s athletic director, said beforehand it wouldn’t be weird as NCAA Hockey Committee chairman to hand over the title trophy to Bennett.
“How is it going to be handing it to Rick?” RPI coach Seth Appert asked Knowlton in a text before the game.
“It will be great,” he responded.
“For years, we’ve been trying to battle with the big boys,” Knowlton said. “After the last couple of years, ECAC Hockey is competing.”
Union fans teemed down the Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike Saturday. Hours before the game while traveling to Philadelphia, Malaczynski said that unlike the Dutchmen’s Frozen Four run in 2012, the tiny school goes in to this game as the “big boy.”
“It wouldn’t be shocking like the last time if they win,” he said. “I’m expecting them to win. It’s Minnesota who should be worried about Union.”
He was right. A long, frigid winter of college hockey ended under the most gorgeous of spring days in Philadelphia, allowing fans ideal tailgating weather. Mark Truesdell of Cobleskill and the Class of ’92, could not imagine such a game for Union when he was an undergrad.
“No. D-III maybe, but not on this stage,” Truesdell said before the game.
Now he doesn’t have to imagine a national title. As McLaughlin noted, it’s real. It happened.