When Union hockey forward Josh Jooris decided late in July that he would give up his senior season to sign a contract with the NHL’s Calgary Flames, it meant another key loss for the Dutchmen.
Jooris’ departure meant Union would have to replace four of its top five scorers. The three others had graduated — forwards Wayne Simpson and Kyle Bodie and defenseman Greg Coburn. Add to that the graduations of defensemen Ryan Forgaard and Shawn Stuart and the early departure of junior goalie Troy Grosenick to the San Jose Sharks, and the Dutchmen appeared to be a team in transition.
After Jooris’ announcement, Union coach Rick Bennett had a conversation with his wife.
“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Let’s buckle up, because this one could be a long one,’ ” Bennett said.
It was a long season for the Dutchmen, but it ended up being a magical journey.
The Dutchmen are NCAA hockey champions for the first time. They completed that road to college hockey supremacy with their 7-4 win over Minnesota in the title game Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center. They also finished as the unanimous top-ranked team in the USCHO.com/NCAA and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.
“The more you talk to your staff and figure out what you’ve got coming in, and what’s in that locker room, you really get an appreciation of this is a good group,” Bennett said. “These guys have been through a lot of battles, and they proved that this season.”
The Dutchmen had excellent players coming back.
There was left winger Daniel Carr, who became the program’s all-time Division I leading scorer with 157 points and had his third 20-goal season of his career.
There was senior defenseman Mat Bodie, who was the team captain for the second straight year. He matured into his role as captain, and also became the first Union defenseman ever to record 100 points in a career, finishing with 124.
Then there was junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect only had another outstanding offensive season with nine goals and 25 assists. He shared the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and Best Defensive Defenseman awards, and wowed the hockey fans in Philadelphia with his one-goal, four-assist effort in the Frozen Four.
More importantly, Gostisbehere improved his defense. He had the best plus-minus defensive rating among defensemen with a plus-33.
There were other concerns for the Dutchmen. All were answered positively.
Niskayuna native Colin Stevens proved he could replace Grosenick in goal. Stevens won the Ken Dryden Award as the ECACH’s top goalie. He finished the season 28-4-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average, a 9.29 save percentage and a team-record six shutouts.
Scoring wasn’t a problem. Junior right winger Daniel Ciampini had his best season with 23 goals and 18 assists. Junior center Max Novak had 15 goals and 16 assists. Freshman center Mike Vecchione finished with 14 goals and 20 assists. Freshman right winger Michael Pontarelli, who came in a year early after Jooris’ departure, had 10 goals and 13 assists.
All told, the Dutchmen had 11 players finish with 20 or more points.
Bennett knows he will lose five seniors — Bodie, Carr, Matt Hatch, Cole Ikkala and Kevin Sullivan. The unknown is Gostisbehere. He is still thinking about whether to stay one more season or sign with the Flyers. Bennett also has to be wary if any of the players decide to leave early and sign a pro contract.
“I don’t want to say no because I’m just jinxing myself because I never thought Josh Jooris would leave,” Bennett said. “You just don’t know. I always say that it starts at home, but it’s a decision that they have to make. They have to have the ownership. If they ask me my opinion, I’ll be blatantly honest. I don’t think there’s anyone in the locker room that should leave, outside of one guy.”
As the players celebrated with the fans Sunday outside of Messa Rink, Bodie used a quote that the late Flyers coach Fred Shero wrote on the team’s locker room blackboard on May 19, 1974, the day Flyers beat the Boston Bruins in the Spectrum to win their first Stanley Cup.
It was an appropriate choice, given where the Dutchmen won their first NCAA title.
“This team is going to walk together forever,” Bodie said.