The calendar may have turned to the next season in Utica but it is more of the same for the Pioneers. The fans that pack the Aud, leading the nation in attendance for the past two years, like their hockey fast and physical. The fans should love this yearâ€™s class of 11 freshman, half of which are six feet or over.
â€œWe lost a lot of quality in our lineup, guys who played key roles for us over four years, so we needed to bring in a large class to replace that quality,â€ said Utica coach Gary Heenan. â€œWeâ€™re a young team, playing a lot of youth, and it will be a big challenge of ours to gel as quickly as we can.â€
Utica lost a third of its scoring from last season, including Joe Watson who tallied 12 goals last year for the Pioneers. Adding to Uticaâ€™s woes are lingering injuries to two players, one returnee and one newbie.
Colin Kingston seriously broke his wrist in the final regular season game against Lebanon Valley last season and is still recovering from surgery.
Freshman Russell Anderson, who scored 20 goals last year in juniors, is recovering from shoulder surgery and isnâ€™t expected to take the ice for the Pioneers until after the holidays.
â€œThatâ€™s our leading scorer in Kingston and a freshman we were bringing in to score out, so we are two men short already,â€ said Heenan. â€œEarly on, weâ€™re going to have to play stellar defense because we are young and are banged up already.â€
All isnâ€™t lost for the Pioneers, though, as Utica brought in a deep class of youngsters to fill the ranks.
Three of the highlights are Mike Leone, Tim Coffman, and Jake Coyle.
â€œMike Leone is a skilled forward and won two championships in the North American Hockey league,â€ said Heenan. â€œTim Coffman was the Atlantic Junior Hockey league MVP last year and is another skilled forward. Jake Coyle was a leading scorer for his junior team.â€
Coach Heenan and his assistants even went out of their usual recruiting grounds to snag a prep school player.
â€œWe also took a prep school kid, which is unusual for us,â€ continued Heenan. â€œIt isnâ€™t a prime recruiting ground for us, but we got a call and pursued it. Brian Gibbons was an all star in Division II prep school and will play significant time for us.â€
Helping Utica this year is perhaps the most favorable schedule in all of college hockey. Including their exhibition game, 18 of the Pioneers 26 games this season are in the friendly confines of the Aud.
â€œWeâ€™ve been talking about it as a club,â€ said Heenan. â€œWeâ€™re setup with our number of home games and then the league schedule flip-flopped to our favor this year. Itâ€™s up to us to take advantage of that. We let a couple of home games go early last year that just shot us in the foot to get into the national picture. Itâ€™s going to be our challenge to focus every game.â€
If Utica can gel as a team, and score some goals, the Pioneers should be able to move up the standings quickly this season.