Thanksgiving is really the first pause button for the college hockey world after the season starts in October.
The day-to-day grind is two months old by now, and league races are starting to take shape and hold even though the season is still relatively young. The holiday weekend falls as the season passes its one-third marker pole, so storylines are developed, even if they aren’t finalized.
The holiday pause is an important date because teams spend so much time in battle during practice and in games. It’s a one-day holiday even during travel situations, and for teams playing at or close to home, it becomes an important way for everyone – from players to coaches – to spend time with family.
“I’ll get to spend some time with the family, which will be nice,” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said. “We have (players with) local family that pick up a bunch of the guys. Five to seven guys will get together at a local hotel with their families that come in (to Boston). We won’t leave anyone alone. We’re a team and a family, and we make sure that everyone has someone to spend Thanksgiving with.”
For Bentley, the one-day holiday represents the calm before a local storm weekend of games. The Falcons will head to Boston College for the programs’ first-ever meeting on Friday before heading to Holy Cross for the next chapter in one of Atlantic Hockey’s most physical rivalries.
Bentley holds a reputation as something of a giant killer against Hockey East. It holds eight wins over the past ten years against the conference, including an overtime win at UMass Lowell last season. The Falcons infamously pounded a Boston University team with nine NHL draft picks in 2013 by a 4-1 score, and they hold wins over Northeastern in three different seasons, including a two-game sweep in 2015-16. Though the Falcons lost to both Merrimack and UML earlier this season, Friday represents the next opportunity to pick off a win against Boston’s biggest hockey conference.
“It’s our first game against BC so it will be a fun environment to for us to play in,” Soderquist said following Bentley’s 4-2 win over Army West Point last Saturday. “We needed (Saturday) to get points in the league, and now we get to take a deep breath to play a non-conference game on Friday. I think it will be a good building block for us.”
Friday will represent a good crossroads for both teams.
The Eagles are starting to turn the corner after a rough start to the season, and the Falcons are starting to gather momentum after last weekend’s split against Army West Point. In the first game, Bentley twice jumped out to leads but couldn’t hold, first giving up a goal in the first period after scoring 1:46 into the frame, then surrendering a 2-1 lead in the third after scoring at the 6:41 lead.
They reversed course on Saturday, though. Michael Zuffante scored to break a 23-minute drought between the two teams, but his team gave up the tying goal 46 seconds later after losing two players on the same exchange. First, Ryner Gorowsky earned a tripping minor, followed by a butt-ending major to Connor Brassard that included a game misconduct. The Black Knights scored almost immediately on the 5-on-3, putting the Falcons back on their heels.
The team dug in, though, and Jonathan Desbiens roofed a turnover for his third tuck of the season. It gave Bentley a lead they wouldn’t surrender when Alexey Solovyev added the eventual game-winner halfway through the period. It was a watershed moment for a team that had previously blown three third period leads.
“Our third period was our best period,” Soderquist said. “The guys answered the call. You have to want to learn how to win, and they did a great job. It’s staying simple and playing north-south hockey. Our D core was remarkable over the course of the game, even down a man for the majority of it.”
Bentley takes that momentum into a weekend where the non-conference game appears before a key league game. Saturday’s two points pushed them from ninth place up into sixth, and the Falcons enter this weekend tied with Mercyhurst for a position right behind RIT with both Canisius and Robert Morris hot on their trail. The Golden Griffins are one point behind in eighth, and the Colonials sit one game further back with five points.
The Lakers and Colonials play each other twice, meaning they lose one of the three games in hand over the Falcons, while Canisius hosts Sacred Heart for two. It emphasizes the pressure of the Bentley-Holy Cross game, which itself is a rematch of a 7-4 shootout from October. It’s also just the sixth game for Bentley at the Hart Center since the 2013-2014 season.
“You always look to balance the games, but the easiest way is to go one game at a time,” Soderquist said. “We can’t look at Saturday and ask how we’re going to play on Friday. I think you just have to play Friday’s game, throw the cards on the table and see what happens, then get back up on Saturday.”
Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday for a number of reasons. Part of that is, of course, discovering how much turkey is needed to induce an hour-long nap, but the rest of it is steeped in family time and tradition. In New England, it’s particularly special, and I look forward to feeling the heat and warmth of a family kitchen as I escape the frigid temperatures we’re apparently getting up here. Every year seems to bring a new tradition into the fold, even as I’m celebrating the old ones.
(I’m going to do a cut scene here. My wife’s high school plays my high school as a Thanksgiving Day football rivalry in Massachusetts. We always enjoy some good-natured trash talk, and by “we,” I really mean “me.” I’m adding this here because I know she’s going to read this at some point. Honey – I love you, but MC is going to win again.)
Being in Atlantic Hockey provides unique perspective because of the two military academies playing hockey within its ranks. I had an opportunity to ask Army West Point coach Brian Riley what his team is doing for the holiday, and he told me that there will be an opportunity for the players to be around their families.
“It’ll be pretty nice,” Army West Point forward Brendan Soucie said. “This will week will be tough, but then we have four days off. We’ll have families there (at West Point) and have a big family meal together. We’ll stay in the hotels with our families and it’ll just be nice not to have to be in the day-to-day at West Point.”
There’s always a perspective that comes with a holiday, and I’m exceptionally grateful for the chance to share it with those that I love. I hope all of you have that opportunity as well. Hockey is a family of a community as much as teams are family in their locker rooms, and we’re all incredibly lucky to share each other’s company and discussion throughout the season.