With the drop of the puck and look to the sky, a new era began for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on October 8.
The drop of the puck signified the first game that RPI would play as a Division I women’s hockey program. The look to the sky was for Bill Cahill — this was, after all, one of his goals.
As the day grew close and the reality of the situation set in, you couldn’t help but turn your thoughts to the gentleman whose charm, charisma and knowledge had left a lasting imprint on so many people. One of Cahill’s visions was coming to fruition, two years after his passing.
On October 5, 2003, the call went out to many — a call that was met with shock and sadness. Bill Cahill, the women’s head hockey coach at RPI, had passed away from a heart attack at the age of 53.
There wasn’t a lot that anyone could say or do. The biggest tribute was to carry on. And RPI did. Men’s assistant coach John Burke was named the head coach and the team went on to a second-place finish in the ECAC East, narrowly missing an NCAA tournament bid.
But what happened halfway through that season was something that “BC” had dreamed about, part of what he was working towards. In January of 2004, Rensselaer president Shirley Ann Jackson announced that the school would elevate women’s ice hockey to the Division I level.
“I am thrilled, and the members of the women’s team are thrilled,” said Burke at the time. “We have an opportunity to carry out one of Bill’s goals, which was to compete successfully at the highest level, and we are elated.”
“There’s no denying that Bill Cahill’s presence made the decision an easy one,” said RPI athletic director Ken Ralph.
BC’s goal was to compete at that highest level and now Burke had been given the tools to carry out that goal. With the plan in hand, Burke got to work.
The Engineers will cycle through 18 scholarships over the course of four years. Instead of giving out all 18 in one year, Rensselaer will hand them out in increments to move the program forward to the full-scholarship route.
As the process moved along, the reminders were still there. That became even more apparent earlier this year, when the American Hockey Coaches Association named Cahill the recipient of the Joe Burke Award, which presented annually to the person who has given outstanding contribution, support, and dedication to women’s hockey.
“Bill had a genuine passion for the game of hockey and loved to talk about the game as much as he loved coaching,” said MIT head coach Julie Sasner in her nomination of Cahill. “He was supportive of all hockey, men’s and women’s, girls’ and boys’, and not just his own team. He would talk the ears off of anyone who would listen to his ideas about drills and systems. He was a friend to anyone who loved the game of hockey.
“Bill was a true friend and the kind of guy who loved moving the salt and pepper shakers around to demonstrate a forecheck after you played his team. He was generous with his time and knowledge. Few people could match Bill’s tremendous enthusiasm for the game. His early passing is a huge loss to the hockey community.”
The Engineers continued to work towards that highest level, and when practice started in September, it was clear that the Engineers were getting ready. They were getting going; they were getting ready to compete.
They looked to the sky and smiled.
The highest level arrived at Houston Fieldhouse on October 8. There was a little bit of nervousness and a lot of reflection.
“Part of me will be thinking of Bill, and how he was working towards this,” said Burke before the game. “And part of me will be thinking about how it’s a new chapter and it’s been a long time coming.”
The building was electric. You could feel the excitement and as game time approached you could sense him. You could feel Bill Cahill getting ready to watch the game.
“He’s seeing it,” said Burke. “He’s trying to get his Red Sox squared away, but he’s really looking forward to the season. Even though he’s not here, he is here. He’ll always be a part of this program and of RPI hockey.”
The Engineers, armed with their first scholarship recipients, shut down Sacred Heart 4-0. BC was smiling — you just knew that he was. The next afternoon the Engineers swept the Pioneers, 11-1. And you knew his smile was even broader.
Last weekend came a bigger test for the Engineers. They played a home-and-home with Colgate, an established ECACHL playoff team.
With the heads high and the dreams large, the Engineers took a 2-0 lead in the second period. Colgate came back to tie the game in the third period, dominating play.
But in overtime, senior Kari Rabatin, one of the five Engineers who played under Cahill, scored the game-winner.
And surely, Cahill smiled again.
The next night the Engineers scored late in the third period and tied Colgate, 1-1, to move to 3-0-1 on the season. Rosina Schiff, the senior goaltender who also played under Cahill, was named the USCHO.com Defensive Player of the Week for her efforts in goal.
The schedule this season doesn’t have the Minnesotas, St. Lawrences, Dartmouths and Harvards — that will come next year when RPI enters that ECACHL.
But this year, as an independent, there’s plenty of time and room to grow. Plenty to prove, plenty to smile about and plenty for BC to see.
“He’ll always be around,” said Ralph. “I won’t ever be able to picture Rensselaer without Bill Cahill. With the staff that we have in place we’re going to ensure that he always will be here. The players that Bill recruited may be rotating out of the program, but he’ll always be a constant presence.”
The Engineers are upon the dream, working towards the goal. They’re where BC wanted them to be. And you know he’s smiling that smile.