Utica head coach Gary Heenan believes that an essential ingredient to a successful hockey program is building ties with its surrounding community. Last season, while on the road recruiting, he watched as local fans threw teddy bears and other stuffed animals onto the ice following the team’s first goal, all meant to benefit a local charity.
Coach Heenan knew a good idea when he saw one, and decided to bring the idea to the Utica community. Utica and nearby neighbor Hamilton College teamed up to hold their first Teddy Bear toss at this past Tuesday’s game.
“It was an awesome event,” said Heenan. “We stole the idea from a game I saw in North Bay [Canada] last year when I was up there recruiting.You could tell the town got into it and the town loved it. So we brought it here.”
A total of 459 teddy bears were thrown on the ice by fans at Tuesday’s game after Colin Kingston scored for Utica 7:30 into the first period. Heenan, who was an assistant at Hamilton before starting the Utica program, gained the support of the Hamilton team and then worked through the process with the league and the NCAA to ensure a successful charity event.
“We had to get a waiver from the NCAA and the ECAC so that we didn’t get a penalty,” said Heenan. “Hamilton was gracious enough to agree with it. The players from both teams went on the ice to pick up the bears. It was great to see.”
The teddy bears have been donated to Operation Sunshine, a charity administered by the Utica Observer-Dispatch that raises funds for food, clothing and toys for underprivileged residents in Oneida and Herkimer counties.
Utica players collect teddy bears donated to Operation Sunshine. (photo: Michael Doherty/Utica Observer-Dispatch)
Hobart has been quietly taking care of business so far this season. The Statesmen stumbled early in the season, dropping a pair of key league contests at Manhattanville and Utica, but since then have ripped off seven straight victories and achieved the highest national ranking in the history of the program. The Statesmen are ranked No. 8 in this week’s USCHO poll, surpassing their previous highest ranking at No. 9 achieved March 8, 2004.
Like several other ECAC West teams, the injury bug hit Hobart early and often this year. A rash of injuries to key players, including William Brame, Mike Polsonetti, Will Bodine and others has tested the depth of the Statesmen team.
“We haven’t had some of our key guys,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “Every game since before the Utica game, we have been without a regular guy. Guys have been rising to the occasion.”
Hobart’s upperclassmen have been getting the job done, scoring 39 of the team’s 53 goals so far. The Statesmen have outscored their opponents 44-12 during this stretch of wins.
“I like the way we have progressed in a lot of areas,” said Taylor. “We are able to get it done without the wheels falling off, even though we have a few injuries. We are not there yet, but I like the way individual guys are progressing. All of our cylinders aren’t firing. If we get everyone back on their “A” game, we can get going.”
With a four week break following the game against Amherst on Saturday, the Statesmen should be able to get healed and rejuvenated over the holidays for the second half of the season.
Not There Yet
After graduating his first class last spring, Utica head coach Gary Heenan knew it would be back to square one with a large class of freshmen this season. But after an up-and-down first half, Heenan has to keep reminding himself to stay patient.
“I’m not high on my team still,” said Heenan. “I don’t think we are playing as well as we could be. It is taking a little longer with this group to get where we want to be. For the first time this year, we actually competed [against Hamilton on Tuesday].”
Despite a 6-2 record so far, the Pioneers have been unable to string together more than a couple of straight wins. They had two long winning streaks last season, and were hoping for more of the same this year, but a rash of injuries and a boatload of freshmen forwards have combined to drop Utica’s average goals per game by over half a goal.
“Our ability to score is questionable right now,” said Heenan. “We always say that you need to score three or more to win, and we sometimes struggle to get those three goals. We have had some key injuries. [Nick] Lynch came back [versus Hamilton], but only played at 70 percent. The injury bug has kind of hurt us with key players.”
Tuesday’s game was Lynch’s first of the season. Utica will need him to recapture last year’s thirteen goal freshman season form quickly to aid the struggling offense.
But all isn’t doom and gloom for the Mohawk Valley’s favorite hockey team. The Utica defense is currently tied for sixth best in the nation, allowing a stingy 2.12 goals against per game. And the penalty kill is clicking along at a stellar 86.2 percent kill rate.
“Our goaltending is proven and I love our defensive corps,” said Heenan. “At this point, I don’t think we are close to where we can be. I like our team. Our leadership I would question overall. We just don’t seem to have the work effort of Utica teams of the past. If we can get that part of it, I think the talent is there but the discipline isn’t yet. The character of the team is strong, but we are young.”
As hockey pundits like to say, you build teams from the net out, and Utica appears to be strong in its defensive zone. If they can regain the determination that led them to the regular season title last season, the Pioneers may be able to chase down Manhattanville during the second half of the season.
Stay tuned next week when I will continue the review of the first half of the season by looking at Manhattanville, Elmira, Neumann and Lebanon Valley.