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Union men's hockey looking for a few good men

Union men's hockey looking for a few good men

With just three returning seniors, Dutchmen need to identify leaders, while trying to build cohesivenss
Union men's hockey looking for a few good men
Union men's hockey head coach Rick Bennett is gearing up for the 2019-2020 season.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY -- Greek life is an integral part of the culture at many colleges.

But this was no frat party.

A company called The Program, whose logo is the round Spartan shield with the Greek symbol lambda on it, sent two representatives to Union College last weekend to impress upon the men's hockey team "the experience of shared adversity."

Staffed by former officers from the U.S. Marines, Navy SEALs, Army and Special Forces, The Program came to Frank Bailey Field and drilled and grilled the Dutchmen. The goal was not physical fitness, but to teach them leadership and team skills befitting the ancient Spartans, who would hold their shields to the right or left to guard their fellow warriors and not themselves.

Head coach Rick Bennett had wanted to hire the company for a few years, anyway, after having heard founder Eric Kapitulik speak at the annual NCAA convention. But this looks like a year when this type of experience could hold the most value for Union, which had the core of its roster gutted by graduation, a serious knee injury to productive forward Jack Adams and the early departure to the pros by Liam Morgan.

The Dutchmen were picked eighth of 12 in the ECAC Hockey preseason coaches poll, but they've closed ranks while shrugging off what could be a college hockey world that takes Union lightly.

"Well, that's their mistake, if they choose to do so," said senior defenseman Vas Kolias, sounding a lot like Gerard Butler in the movie "300."

Union lost nine seniors from a 2018-19 team that won 20 games overall, finished seventh in the ECACH regular season and took eventual conference tournament runner-up Cornell to three games in the quarterfinals.

Bennett and his staff knew they were going to rely in part on a large freshman class this season, but bad news came in early summer, when the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Adams blew out his knee at the Detroit Red Wings' NHL Prospects Development Camp in early summer. Bennett said Adams has been rehabilitating his knee post-surgery and will be back this season, but wouldn't offer a timetable.

A month later, Morgan signed with the Belfast Giants of the Elite Ice Hockey League in the United Kingdom. So the Dutchmen lost what would've been their top returning point scorer, while having to wait on the recovery of Adams, who comes into his junior season as the second-leading returning scorer, behind senior Anthony Rinaldi.

"I know it was a little bit of a hectic summer, as far as what happened to us, but, quite honestly, for our staff, we slept just fine," Bennett said. "It was kind of exciting. This is the first time our staff has been in this position with a lot of new players. It's been kind of fun. We know there's going to be a lot of hiccups along the way. But we've got 13 new guys, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see how they blend in with the rest of them."

Bennett will tell the team on Saturday whom he's picked as captain and alternates.

Among the 13 new players is junior Drew Blackmun, a transfer from Northeastern University.

The other 12 are freshmen who got a crash course in team-building on Frank Bailey Field last weekend, side-by-side with a group of upperclassmen who will be looking to carve out their own identities as leaders.

The military drills designed by The Program are supposed to help with that.

"Watching our guys go through it, it's almost like you want to go through it with them, but we were advised to sit back and observe," Bennett said. "It was really impressive, how they learned so much in a short period of time. You have to see it to appreciate it."

"It was awesome," Kolias said. "It was very hard, one of the more difficult things you'll do, for sure. But you learn a lot about yourself and about the team. It was revealing."

"Their life depends on being part of a good team, so they came in and helped us out over the weekend, and we learned a lot and became much closer as a group," junior goalie Darion Hanson said. "They weren't easy. That's the thing, you've got to be able to pick each other up, be able to think when you're facing adversity."

One position that isn't a question mark is goalie, where Hanson is the clear No. 1 after a season-long competition with now-graduated Jake Kupsky for starts.

Union's other goalies, Garrett Nieto and Merek Pipes, are freshmen.

"It's way different. For me, personally, it's not so much the hockey aspect," Hanson said. "With Jake and [graduated] Joe [Young], they were the older brothers, and now I'm kind of the older brother. That's different. Hockey-wise, preparation-wise, practice-wise, nothing changes. It was the same for me last year when I wasn't playing. You want to stay stable from the mental aspect.

"If I don't play well, I'm not going to be in the net. Rick Bennett doesn't care if I'm a senior and the other two guys are freshmen or where we came from, you've got to go out and perform, and if you don't someone's going to take your job."

One characteristic of the incoming class that Bennett is looking forward to seeing against Union's opponents -- the first of whom is Boston University at Messa Rink on Oct. 5 -- is its size.

If nothing else, the Dutchmen will be bigger this year by virtue of the newcomers. Besides Rinaldi and Kolias, the only other senior on the 29-man roster is Zachary Emelifeonwu.

"You can definitely see a difference in size, they've been very attentive, and the one thing our coaching staff has liked the most is how competitive they are," Bennett said. "I think we've thrown more hits in four practices than we did all last year at times. I kind of like that."

"I think we're going to be a big, heavy team," Hanson said. "I think this is a team people aren't going to want to play."

"We're not young, we're new," Kolias said with a grin.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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