Watch Union for just a fleeting moment and even the casual observer would be able to pick out the team’s stars.
There’s Jeremy Welsh, a ferocious forechecker who combines a power game with an array of moves and patience. He broke the school’s single-season goal record and has drawn attention from the NHL.
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But those who watch the Dutchmen will also quickly recognize their success isn’t all about their top players. It’s a team with zero NHL draft picks that’s gotten this far thanks to contributions up and down the lineup, including their captain, senior defender Nolan Julseth-White.
Coach Rick Bennett was blunt when asked about what his captain, who enters Thursday’s national semifinal against Ferris State with no goals in 99 career games, means to his team.
“I don’t think we’re here without him; I really don’t,” Bennett said. “He’s paid his dues through the course of four years.”
That includes playing in two games his freshman year in 2008-09, which also was the last time Union finished with a losing ECAC record.
“I persevered; it was an uphill battle,” Julseth-White said, adding that a deep defensive group and his struggles to convert from one end to the other were the main reasons for spending most of the year in the stands.
“He really made a step this past summer,” Bennett said, pointing to his captain’s attendance at Paul Vincent’s skating camp in North Andover, Mass. “For a kid from British Columbia to stay and go to a skating camp in Massachusetts speaks volumes for his work ethic and character.”
Those traits have helped the senior captain, who’s known to his teammates as “Juice,” head a strong group of leaders among the Dutchmen’s upperclassmen.
“It’s meant so much,” Grosenick, a sophomore, said of the team’s veteran presence. “Nolan, Jeremy and Kelly each kind of bring something different to the table. Juice is always there to make sure the guys are taking it seriously. [Nothing] gets by Juice.”
The steady blueliner continues a line of strong leadership that Union has been fortunate to have. Bennett pointed to former Dutchmen players Brock Matheson, Matt Cook and Lane Caffaro as key figures in the program’s recent development.
“Nolan kind of has that father figure-type approach,” Bennett said. “But one thing that separates him from a lot of leaders is when he needs to talk to a player, [he can give] constructive criticism or sometimes he’s going to get in his face and give him the business. But he comes across where he’s not offensive. And I think that’s a gift, I really do. He’s done a great job with that.”
For the second year in a row, and second time in as many NCAA appearances, Union was sent to the Bridgeport, Conn., regional.
But while the Dutchmen fell 2-0 to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth last year, it was different this time.
“We can say it now, but it was huge,” Welsh said two weekends ago about making the NCAA tournament last season. “We had a huge selection show and everyone was patting us on the back. We felt like we had already accomplished something, being the first Union team in the NCAA tournament.
“This year it was a completely different mind-set. If we didn’t win two games it was going to be a disappointment. Last year we were happy to be here and it showed.”
That strict, calm and no-nonsense approach has defined Union through the ECAC playoffs and into the Frozen Four. If you’re looking for bushy playoff beards or wild locker room celebrations, you won’t find them here.
“You’d have to be in the locker room to see it,” Bennett said. “They are pretty calm, but on the same token they have a lot celebrate about. It’s not scripted; it’s not something that we go over. It’s just their demeanor. When we recruited them, that’s the stuff we really liked about them: their demeanor and the way they approach the game. When we recruit, character is No. 1 because that locker room is sacred.”
Still, once they got over the disappointment of their brief stint in the NCAA tournament last season, the Dutchmen were able to sit back and realize just how close they came against the eventual national champions.
“It hurt a little more when Duluth won because we were that close to them,” Welsh said when asked if the team had watched any of last year’s Frozen Four. “A week later, two weeks later, you look back and [realize] that you played the national champs to a pretty tight game. It gives you a little motivation. We came in this year knowing we could play with anyone.”