Since starting the Utica hockey team six years ago, coach Gary Heenan has built his team around a tough, hard-nosed defensive style of play that has earned the Pioneers a regular season title and two trips to the league playoffs. But with the changing of emphasis in the NCAA rules comes a change in philosophy at the Utica Aud this season.
“As a coaching staff, our philosophy as our program grows is changing,” said Heenan. “In the past, we preached clutch and grab defense to win games 2-1 or 1-0. We would like to evolve to the kind of team that can run and gun a little more and change with the rules that the NCAA is trying to encourage.”
The NCAA is emphasizing wide open hockey where the defensemen can barely touch the forward carrying the puck. Standing an attacker up at the blue is verboten. While preventing an opponent from scoring has always been a strength of the Pioneer teams, tallying goals of their own certainly has not.
“Defensively speaking, 5-on-5, PK, goaltending, we were outstanding last year,” said Heenan. “Where we struggled was offensively where we were last in most categories. What we looked for [in recruiting] was offense, speed, and skill.”
Unfortunately for coach Heenan and the rest of the Utica program, the change in the NCAA emphasis came at a time when there were no seniors on last year’s team. The painful reality of the situation was that the hard decisions had to be made, and several players from last year’s team were cut during tryouts last week.
“We didn’t graduate anybody, but as you sit back and analyze your team as a coach you can’t fool yourself and be happy with what you have,” said Heenan. “We have twelve freshmen on our roster. We have guys from all different leagues. We are going to introduce some faster guys than we have had in the past.”
To make room for those twelve newcomers, seven players were cut from last year’s roster. Amongst the more noteworthy names who got the pink slips were highly touted former-freshmen Tiger Marcotte, Zach Flora, Wade Collins, and would-be junior Vinny Rinaldi.
One area the new injection of youth for the Pioneers will need to make a big contribution towards is on the power play. Utica was dead last on the man advantage this past season, only scoring on 15.8% of its opportunities.
“Power play is an area where we have struggled in traditionally,” said Heenan. “Looking at the way refereeing is this year, it is ten or twelve power plays each game. Special teams have to be on the money from day one.”
The new-look Utica team will get a whopper of a test right out of the gate this season as they help Oswego inaugurate its gorgeous new barn on October 20th.
“It’s going to be a ton of fun,” said Heenan. “People are asking me if I am crazy, but I love to put my team in those atmospheres. It represents true college hockey. We are looking forward to the hoopla. Our freshman will get a great taste of what college hockey should be.”