With One Game to go: Recap of a Magical Night in Philly

Union Hockey

ON CLOUD NINE, PHILLY — Union is now 2-0 all-time against Boston College. That’s just an outrageous statement. A few years ago very few people outside of  Schenectady — the small Upstate New York town that’s home to the Dutchmen — had heard of Union. Now they’re undefeated against arguably the greatest college hockey program of the last decade.

But if you’ve been following college hockey you know that’s no longer that crazy. Union has now been in four straight NCAA tournaments — a big accomplishment when only 16 teams in the nation make it. They’ve won three Cleary Cups in the last four years (awarded to the regular season champion of the ECAC conference), and three straight Whitelaws (the trophy for the ECAC tournament winner). This season marked their second trip to the Frozen Four in the last three years.

Last time they made it was my senior year at Union, and the games were in Tampa Bay, Fla. Armed with a press pass and a place to stay I made the trip, only to see them fall flat in the final period to Ferris State; a closer game than the 3-1 score indicates. I stayed to watch BC dismantle Minnesota. Even came back that Saturday to watch BC win its third national title in six years. All that did was build the legend of BC and Jerry York in my mind, making this 2-0 record even more mind-blowing.

This year I didn’t think I’d be able to make the trip. There was no way I’d miss the championship on Saturday, but Thursday was proving to be difficult. On Wednesday that all changed. I got a call from a friend who had an extra ticket and, when my boss realized I was a Union alum, I was offered the day off. It was a sign. I took the day and the ticket, and was ready for my trip to Philly.

Parking proved to be a problem. It didn’t matter. I was making it rain in every and any attempt to make it to the game on time. Unfortunately I arrived a couple minutes into the first period. I was walking up the stairs when the buzzer sounded for the first BC goal.

Down 1-0 is never a time to panic. That didn’t stop my inbox from filling up with texts from panicked friends. But I was there with Zach Pearce. My WRUC Sports Talk radio co-host, and partner for the Union Hockey fan blog. One of the few guys who might be as big an optimist as I am. “Ya Gotta Believe” should be tattooed to our foreheads.

I realized it was the third straight year I had made a trip to an NCAA Final Four. Two years ago it was for Union in the Frozen Four. Last year it was for Syracuse in the Final Four (I went to Syracuse for grad school), and, of course, now this year for Union once again. The last two times my team lost in the semis, while I stayed around and watched some other team hoist the trophy. “This time,” Zach told me, “It’s going to be different.”

It’s crazy, but I hadn’t seen Zach since we graduated back in 2012. Zach is not the easiest person to get a hold of, even for a text or phone call. But he’s oddly dependable when it comes to hockey, and that’s what it took for the two of us to finally catch up after almost two years. Sports can ultimately be viewed as meaningless but they have a strange way of bringing people together, whether it’s old friends or complete strangers hugging over the outcome of a game.

When Union scored their first goal there were no strangers in our section. Everyone yelled, jumped, hugged and high-fived. After the 2012 Frozen Four loss to Ferris State, and the 5-1 loss last year to Quinnipiac it’s hard to take goals for granted in these games. Each one is like winning the lottery, and Union added a second for good measure. BC added their own goal to tie it at 2-2 before the period had ended, but the tone had been set. Union could hang with the big boys in this one.

You just shouldn’t have bothered telling that to us. We literally walked laps around the arena until the next period started in an attempt to lower our heart-rate and calm ourselves down. It didn’t really work.

Our mind was only taken off the game when a nervous undergrad from Penn State walked up to us. He was a writer for his school’s paper and was working on a story. Penn State had recently changed their hockey program from a club sport to Division I. With Union’s recent ascension, he was trying to find a way the Nittany Lions could make a similar climb.

To be honest, it’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer, and have never found someone who could answer it. The three things I settled on was 1) Great coaching. Both in terms of improving skill level, and building a strong in-game system. 2) Players who both fit into the system and buy into a team approach. 3) Depth. This point plays into the first two, but this school isn’t built on stars. Union has never had a top recruiting class, and only one player on the team has been drafted (And that was after his freshman year, while most college prospects are drafted before they commit to college). In contrast BC had 10, and Minnesota and North Dakota each had 14. Without relying on a top-line or player, Union doesn’t worry about rough stretches. There is always a player that manages to step up.

The third period was tense. No one made a sound until Union took the lead again with a power play goal. It was Daniel Ciampini’s second goal of the night, and I’m pretty sure I lost my voice right then and there. But with any great game there are as many lows as there are highs.

After throwing a vicious hit, Union forward Matt Hatch was tagged with a major penalty that sent him to the locker room and gave BC a five-minute power play. It was a moment that could not only give BC the lead, but bury Union before they could get their fifth skater back on the ice. And yet, I wasn’t worried.

It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s that I fully believed in this team. That’s probably one of the main characteristics of this team: they don’t get flustered. They have been through every situation imaginable and have found ways to win. If there was a team that could fight off this penalty, they were on the ice draped in garnet.

To just say they killed the penalty would be an insult to their effort. BC only managed three shots on goal; they barely had time to set up before a Union player would send the puck sliding down the ice. It was arguably the greatest penalty kill I have ever seen in my lifetime. The entire section knew what was happening before it was over. With three minutes left in the power play everyone was on their feet screaming, clapping, buzzing and getting louder each time the puck hit the far wall.

When the power play ended Union did us one better. With a steal in the neutral zone, Kevin Sullivan had the puck on his stick and flew down the ice on a breakaway. Two BC defenders were at his side trying to catch up and knock the puck away. Sullivan was able to get the shot off, and when the puck rebounded right back to him as he and the two BC defenders flew to the right of the net, he somehow managed to throw the puck back into the slot where a trailing Mike Vecchione was there for an easy goal.

To spare you from repetition I’ll simply state that we went crazy after that goal. Crazier than we had for any other goal that game. And that process repeated itself for each subsequent goal.

With a 4-2 lead you’d think you could rest easy, but with less than two minutes left BC made it a one-goal game again. They pulled their goalie with over two minutes left, and with the extra attacker knocked in their third goal.

After a center-ice faceoff the Golden Eagles were setting up in the Union zone again, but this time Union defenseman Mat Bodie was able to intercept the puck and fling it down ice. Ciampini was ahead of the play, killing any chance of an icing, and easily tapped in an empty-netter to give Union a two-goal lead once again.

BC made one final attempt scoring a fourth goal with just over four seconds left, but that was as close as they’d come. And just like that Union was heading to the national championship game. The moment wasn’t lost on anyone.

No, Union wasn’t a heavy underdog in this one. If you isolate the event, a win wasn’t shocking. But for a program that had never made it to a national title game, that less than a decade ago was a joke in their own conference, a win against BC in the Frozen Four meant everything.

People came out of the woodwork to either congratulate the team or book their tickets for Saturday. No matter how closely they followed, no one wants to miss the chance to see Union win its first national championship.

Zach and I celebrated the only way we knew how. We hugged and cheered with everyone in the rink until the very last person had left. We then went to the lobby and did the same. Finally we found the one bar in the rink and had one to celebrate. They gave us our drink in a souvenir Flyers cup, and even that didn’t affect the taste. Not today, nothing could chase the taste of victory from my mouth.

At the bar we met an older looking Union fan. We quickly started up a conversation with him. We thought if this meant a lot to us, it must be indescribable to him — presumably a fan for a lot longer. To our surprise he wasn’t a Union alum. In fact, he had played hockey for St. Lawrence, one of Union’s ECAC foes. He was donning Union apparel because his son was on the team.

His son was Mark Bennett, a player who was a freshman when we were seniors. The crazy part is Zach and I were talking about him during the game. It was another example of how deep this Dutchmen team is.

Our senior year Bennett seemed like one of the top recruits. He was a hard-nosed player, who played the game the right way. We both thought he had a bright future ahead of him. But he was a healthy scratch for the game against BC, and might be one again on Saturday.

His dad was upset, obviously. Any parent wants to see their kid playing in the big game. But Mark didn’t complain and, when pressed, his dad didn’t really either. “How do you complain about a guy who’s led his team to two Frozen Fours?” he said. Even he realized this team was incredibly deep, and that — not any shortcomings from his son — was the reason Mark was on the bench for this one.

We got one more story out of the interaction: what the recruiting process was like. When Bennett was recruited, Nate Leaman was still the head coach (he has since moved on to Providence — a school that can give out athletic scholarships — while Rick Bennett (no relation) has taken over as head coach). Leaman told Bennett that he had personally gone to seven games of his. That he saw immense talent and projected him to be a top-six forward and a special teams contributor. He told him no other ECAC coach could honestly say he spent as much time scouting him.

It goes back to the question posed by the Penn State student. What made Union College so good? That story gives us a glimpse of their recruiting. They find the players that fit in their system, that fit the qualifications they’re looking for, and they get them. For one last example, look to Ciampini. The junior had a hat trick against BC, and has been one of Union’s top players all season. When asked why he picked Union he simply said, “They were the only ones that offered.”

Now he and the Dutchmen have a chance to face another college hockey powerhouse in Minnesota, one win away from the ultimate prize.


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