Last year was a learning experience for the Pioneers, as they started from nothing and quickly built a team people noticed. Gary Heenan’s theme last season was that his team of freshmen needed to gain maturity and learn to play like sophomores and juniors in order to achieve their goal of making the playoffs.
The Pioneers fell just short of that goal, but gained a lot to carry into the coming season.
“I don’t know that we ultimately achieved that level of maturity last year,” said Heenan. “Talent-wise, I think we’re there, but I think maturity hurt us coming down the stretch last year. It is experience, and we didn’t have it. I don’t think it was ever a question of talent. It was a question of guys being really prepared and going after it 60 minutes at a time. We’re really excited to have guys back who can say they have experience now. It’s not that we’re a second-year team, it’s that we’ve been here already so there really are no excuses for lack of maturity this year.”
But with the success of last year’s inaugural season comes a downside. Utica won’t be able to take teams by surprise, and will instead need to fight for every win to achieve their lofty goals.
“In our league, you have to show up every day,” said Heenan. “We’ve got to be ready every game. I still believe it is the strongest conference in the country. And I believe that we fit into that conference. One thing I think we learned was that last year we may have surprised some guys; they weren’t expecting much from a first-year club. We’re not going to have that luxury this year.
“With our record and what we achieved last year, teams are going to be prepared for us and be prepared for a battle. We’ve got to work that much harder and execute that much more, for us to be successful. Our goal this year is to fight for that third spot in the playoffs. We were tremendously disappointed last year (to miss the playoffs) because we thought it was achievable. Playoffs will remain the goal, but we feel that we could achieve a third-place spot.”
There are two critical areas to address during the second and third year of building a college hockey team. The first of those is the need to balance the class size on the team. All but two members of last year’s Utica squad were freshmen. Obviously, a coach would like to remain loyal to those players who helped him to start the team. However, he also needs to continually recruit at least a handful of players each year in order to build a mix from freshmen to seniors over the first four years of the program.
Heenan worked towards that goal this year by bringing in six freshmen. And in doing so, he also began to address the second critical area. New teams can have so many glaring deficiencies that it is impossible to plug all of the holes at once. So a coach needs to prioritize them, and recruit players to fill the neediest places first.
Looking at last season, the Utica coaching staff felt that goal-scoring needed immediate attention.
“We brought in all of the freshmen for the purpose of scoring goals,” said Heenan. “We thought our goal production was down last year. Defensively we were pretty solid, we just need more goal-scoring.”
Good hands and puck handling skills are mentioned repeatedly as Heenan talks about his recruits.
He describes forward Trent Flory (Buffalo, OPJHL) as “a real hands guy, who when in tight, the puck is going to be in under the crossbar.”
Pat Caslin (Springfield, NAHL), another forward, continues the trend. “His puck protection skills are outstanding,” said Heenan. “He is a big kid, and should be one of the premier players in our league as a freshman.”
Shane Presley (Buffalo, OPJHL), a third freshman at forward, was recruited both for his puck skills as well as to add toughness to the forwards. “Shane is more of a power forward, a strong skater who finishes every hit,” said Heenan. “He is a workhorse who has strong hands.”
Not all of the recruits were forwards, but the same theme holds for the single defenseman recruited: Ed Mullen (Walpole, EJHL). “Eddie is a power play-type defenseman who will hopefully quarterback the power play for us,” said Heenan.
Guiding the freshmen, and the wagonload of sophomores on this young Pioneer team, will be sophomore captain Jimmy Sokol. Sokol led Utica in the scoring last year tallying 17 goals and 12 assists, and was named the ECAC West Rookie of the Year.
“On and off the ice, Jimmy is just a character person,” said Heenan. “He is one of those that not only do the guys want to look to, but that I’ll lean on as well for his opinion at times.”
A Toughie of a Schedule
Utica starts its season hosting Potsdam and Oswego, two tough teams that are expected to contend for top honors in the SUNYAC this season. This will put the Pioneers to the test early, but Heenan believes that playing the top teams around the nation will help develop his team into the elite class.
“I’ve been criticized quite a bit for the strength of our schedule,” said Heenan. “Adding Potsdam, Oswego, Hamilton twice, going to Norwich. I’d be surprised if we aren’t in the top ten in strength of schedule in the nation. It is my belief that if we are going to get better, we’ve got to play the best teams right now. As a recruiting tool, I want to sell schedule. I want to be in the rinks that are alive, and that really define college hockey.”
Utica follows up those two home games with six road contests, the first batch of what will be 15 games away from the friendly confines of the Utica Aud. This magnifies the importance of the first two games as Utica tries to build confidence from the start.
“Last year it was the other side. Year in, year out, [the number of home games] changes,” said Heenan. “When you play these top teams, it is tough for them to come to your rink. For a young team, it is tough to go on the road. It is a challenge. As long as we have success in those first two games at home to set the foundation, we should be all set. ”
One thing Heenan does like is the ECAC West travel partner system.
“Strangely enough, it was my idea to bring it to the table,” said Heenan. “It helps us. It takes out guys playing with the schedule to try and manipulate it to their advantage. It is kind of a check-and-balance that you do have to play Friday and Saturday, that you don’t have single-game weekends. I think it levels the playing field a little bit more.”
Continuing to Build
Continuing to build will be the theme for Utica. The Pioneers have established a foundation with the success of last year. Now they need to firm it up, proving that last year wasn’t a fluke, and take the next steps up the ladder towards the top of the league. More tools are brought to the table with this year’s freshman class. It’s up to Heenan to put those tools to good use.