Have you heard? A small school made it to the Frozen Four again this year. Just two years after Rochester Institute of Technology crashed the Big Boys’ Party in Detroit, little Union of Schenectady, N.Y. — with all of its 2,133 undergraduates — found a way to sneak into the dance.
What other small schools have come within two wins of the national title? Well, there’s Capital District enemy Rensselaer, with fewer than 5,300 undergraduates. Denver has barely 5,000 undergrads, and Rocky Mountain rival Colorado College is even smaller than Union, with 2,040 students. Lake Superior State has 2,644. Even perennial powerhouse Boston College qualifies as modestly meager with under 10,000 undergraduate students — fewer than Miami, Bowling Green, Minnesota-Duluth, and even … wait a minute … RIT?
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Union’s underdog tale isn’t borne of the school’s size, because it has been established that undergraduate enrollment has diddly squat to do with athletic success: The “small schools” aforementioned have accounted for 18 of the 64 NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey championships.
The actual angle-of-interest here is that Union is one of only 10 D-I hockey programs to not offer athletic scholarships. The others? RIT, service academies Army and Air Force, and the six Ivy League programs: Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
The number of national titles between them? Three. One from Harvard (ECAC Hockey’s last crown, in 1989) and two from Cornell (1967 and 1970). Suffice to say, non-scholarship programs have been fighting an uphill battle.
Union has fought that fight well in recent years, thanks in large part to non-stop and exhaustive recruiting efforts by its coaches.
“Jason Tapp, Joe Dumais, before that Ben Barr, Bill Riga and [former head coach] Nate Leaman,” said first-year Dutchmen head coach Rick Bennett, who himself had been an assistant at Union for six years prior to Leaman’s departure. “Recruiting is a huge part of it, and … sometimes we get players, and sometimes we don’t. We don’t worry about the players that we don’t get; we’re just happy with the ones that we do get here.
“We kind of go everywhere. Good players will travel has kind of been our motto, so we rely a lot on the phone and then getting on the road, because it’s one thing to be on the phone, and it’s another to be on the road, kind of being in the now as far as knowing where these players are,” Bennett said. “It’s nice that we’ve got a good rapport with a lot of coaches throughout junior hockey and prep school hockey. We always try to be professional about it, and I think that’s kind of helped us here in the past.”
If an excellent staff is one major value in a recruit’s decision-making process, Union seems to have it. The program’s other primary selling point is a top-notch education. The institution placed in the top 30 nationally in Forbes‘ 2011 rankings, and 40th among liberal arts schools in the vaunted U.S. News & World Report assessment.
“For me, I tried to treat the recruiting process like I was picking any other school,” said sophomore goaltender and Hobey Baker Award candidate Troy Grosenick. “My mom told me that when she picked her college, she visited and she just knew: That’s where she belonged. That’s kind of how I approached it.
“The coaching staff, seeing a program on the rise, and being at the school — it’s a great academic school and the campus is absolutely unbelievable — it was just a combination of all of those things, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t getting a scholarship for hockey. It was just the culture of Union Hockey … and what the school gives you academically, it was a combination of all those factors, and I think that’s what a lot of guys would say on the team.”
The program isn’t hurt by its ECAC Hockey associations or the school’s longstanding ties to the Ivy League, either.
“It’s the best academic league in the country, and I don’t think anybody can dispute that,” Bennett said. “That goes a long way to being a student-athlete. That’s why you go to college. That’s why it says student first and athlete second.”
The Dutchmen hope to become the first non-Ivy, non-scholarship squad to hoist the trophy, and ultimately it’s a perfect combination of hard work, chemistry and determination by both staff and skaters alike that has allowed Union to come this far.
“We recruit character,” Bennett said of his program, and that’s more than just lip service. The Dutchmen must have character on the ice and in the dressing room, of course, but in the classroom and around campus as well. If they only cared about hockey, they wouldn’t have committed to Union in the first place.
“What it really came down to is that I felt absolutely comfortable here, and I really felt like the hard-working culture that has been built here … really spoke to me,” said Grosenick.
Simply by playing for Union, these players have said it all.