Saturday, November 24, 2012

What's Union?

There has been a trend involving most of the Nittany Lions' strongest opponents this season, and it's not a positive one from a PSU perspective. Guy Gadowsky's crew (6-3-0, 5-2-0 NCAA DI) passed the first two significant challenges with a 2-1-0 combined record, but...
  • RIT: The Tigers opened their season with a split at Michigan prior to hosting Penn State, but have won exactly one game since then (against perennial Atlantic Hockey whipping boy AIC) and sit at 2-7-3.
  • Air Force: Since their two games at the Ice Pavilion, the Falcons have only taken the ice once, in a 2-1 loss at Connecticut Friday to drop to 3-5-3 overall. A tough early schedule contributed to that mark, so it may still be fair to consider the academy among the AHA favorites.

RIT has struggled mightily this season, and not just with Casey Bailey.

Looking ahead, there's...
  • Miami: With impressive weekends at Michigan (split), at Ferris State, last year's NCAA runners-up (split) and home against resurgent Providence (tie-win), the RedHawks are 7-2-3 and ranked fifth in the most recent polls. The problem? PSU might not actually play them.
  • Ohio State: The Buckeyes have muddled to a 5-3-3 start, although with a CCHA mark of 4-1-2, thanks largely to a sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend and a win over Lake Superior State Friday night. I suppose the good news is that the Nittany Lions are guaranteed to play one of OSU or Miami. The bad news is that getting paired with Robert Morris for the first game at the Three Rivers Classic took the possibility of both off the table.
  • Vermont: After being destroyed by Minnesota Friday night, the Catamounts are 2-6-2 and not likely to improve from there.
  • Michigan State: Sparty, which made the NCAA tournament last season, hasn't seemed to fully recover from being brutalized by Minnesota to open the season. While MSU did manage a tie with Miami last weekend and a win over Michigan the weekend before, they're just 4-6-2.
  • Wisconsin: The 1-6-2 Badgers have not only been a train wreck on the ice, they've also had to deal with the sudden departure of assistant coach Bill Butters, who was replaced this week by Matt Walsh.
Long story short, the bigger opponents on the schedule have either struggled or, as with Miami, there's no guarantee that they are, in fact, actual opponents.

Then there's Union, Penn State's first major-conference opponent, which hosts the Nittany Lions at 7:00 p.m. Saturday and 4:00 p.m. Sunday.

"What's Union?" was my dad's reaction when I mentioned the huge series on Thanksgiving. Since I use him as my "average Penn Stater" barometer, let's get into that a little bit, with apologies to any devoted college hockey or Union fans reading. Given that we're all sort of new to this and maybe can't talk about a Union with the same fluency as, say, Delaware or West Chester, I consider it one of my duties to offer background where possible. And hey, it's a learning experience for me too - between the ACHA and the NHL (a pro hockey league, if you've forgotten), I'd be lying if I claimed to be an NCAA hockey junkie before 2010 or so.

Anyway, Union College is a liberal arts school of 2,194 undergraduates in Schenectady, NY. It was founded in 1795 and is the alma mater of, among others, President Chester A. Arthur and former Secretary of State William Seward, who is probably best known for his purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Apparently, the school was a big deal early in its history.
[In 1800], Union was graduating as many students as any other college in America. Along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, it was known as one of the "big four."
So... right there with Harvard, Yale and Princeton five years after being chartered, eh? I'll take your word for it on that one, Union College website. Pretty impressive until considering that there were only 22 other colleges in the entire United States at the time Union started up.

An accounting of the school since dropping out of the "big four" around 1801 shows that, beyond its many prominent alumni (mostly in government), it did several things of note relative to our purposes here. First, between 1858 and 1879, it built the thing pictured just below this paragraph. It's called the Nott Memorial and is named after a guy who was Union's president for sixty-two years, from 1804 through 1866.

Okay, it has nothing to do with hockey, but pretty sick building.

In 1903, Union fielded its first hockey team. However, in a reality familiar to Penn State hockey history buffs, the Skating Dutchmen only played 142 games over 31 non-continuous seasons, ending in 1949.

A quarter-century later, Ned Harkness arrived in Schenectady. Harkness had long established himself as a coaching legend, thanks to his two previous college stops. In 1950, he oversaw the successful reboot of hockey at RPI, helping the Engineers to the 1954 national championship. He moved on to Cornell in 1963, where he accomplished even more, with four consecutive Frozen Fours, the 1967 and 1970 national titles (1970's capped a 29-0-0 season) and some guy named Ken Dryden. The Detroit Red Wings were impressed enough to make him their coach and later, general manager for a period that was... uhhh... less successful.

Harkness returned to college game and New York's Capital District to help Union start its program back up in 1975 at the NCAA Division III level. The 2,225-seat Frank L. Messa Rink at Achilles Center was completed that year, and Harkness immediately filled it with competitive teams capable of beating some of Division I's best until abruptly resigning early in the 1977-1978 season following a dispute over admission standards for hockey players.

Union fell backwards for a while after that, but recovered to become a top DIII team throughout the middle and late 1980s, including a surprise run to the 1984 national championship game and subsequent NCAA tournament appearances in 1985, 1986 and 1989. Harkness' initial vision for the Dutchmen - DI status - was finally realized in 1991. For the next 15 years, Union would more or less fill the entire spectrum of possible records between putrid (1998-1999's 3-26-3) and decent (1996-1997's 18-13-3).

In 2003, Nate Leaman took over and finally built the Dutchmen to consistent respectability beginning with 2009-2010, the program's first 20-win season of its time in DI. A first DI conference championship (the ECAC's regular season crown) and NCAA tournament came along the following season, and Leaman parlayed that success into a job at Providence, handing Union's reins to assistant Rick Bennett.

Troy Grosenick doesn't suck.

Last year saw unprecedented heights for Union hockey. Behind guys like goaltender Troy Grosenick, a Hobey Baker finalist, top scorers Jeremy Welsh and Kelly Zajac and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in June, the Dutchmen were one of the nation's best teams. Following a 20-7-7 regular season and a second consecutive Cleary Cup for the ECAC's regular season championship, Union plowed through the league tournament, beating Harvard in the final. They marched on to NCAAs, defeating Michigan State (with the help of this non-goal) and UMass-Lowell once there to reach the Frozen Four in Tampa, FL, before the ride ended with a semifinal loss to Ferris State.

Other than Welsh (who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes immediately after Union's season ended), Zajac (now with the AHL's Albany Devils) and captain Nolan Julseth-White, Union returns just about every significant piece from last season. The payoff has come in the form of a 6-2-1 record to date (3-1-0 ECAC) and the number eight slot in both the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey polls. Two things stand out from the team's schedule so far. One is an impressive 6-2 over No. 17/15 Harvard on November 9th. The other is an 8-0 win at AIC (which, of course, played a pair of overtime games with PSU on October 12th and 13th) on October 26th.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing for Dutchmen fans hoping that 2011-2012 was a beginning and not a zenith is the way guys like Kyle Bodie, Daniel Carr, Wayne Simpson and Josh Jooris have upped their point production to compensate for losing Welsh and Zajac - after all, successfully replacing big-time players on the fly is a process the perennial powers have mastered.

Gostisbehere is back to lead a defense that also includes standout Greg Coburn. PSU will get some respite in that department as Mat Bodie, another quality defenseman, is set to miss the series with a broken wrist. The Nittany Lions weren't quite as lucky with respect to Grosenick, whose right leg injury suffered in that Harvard game wasn't as serious as initially feared. He'll be available for the series, as will outstanding backup Colin Stevens.

What does Penn State have in its first-year NCAA program relative to the very best in college hockey? When these games are over, Union will have told us. Besides, if the Dutchmen don't, who will?

No comments:

Post a Comment