They played their way into a top ranking in an arena where one of the greatest stories in sports unfolded 34 years ago.
The Dutchmen of Union College aren’t a bad story, either, as they chase their own Miracle on Ice.
At first glance, they shouldn’t even be playing Division I hockey. With just 2,100 students — and no athletic scholarships — Union can’t be expected to compete with the big boys of hockey like Minnesota, Boston College or North Dakota.
But compete they do, making it all the way to the Frozen Four two years ago in the first of their improbable runs. They’re back this year with the longest unbeaten streak in the nation (12-0-1) and the No. 1 ranking in the nation in the USCHO.com poll after winning the ECAC championship over the weekend in Lake Placid.
“We always aim high and we expect to be good,” said star defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. “Every year you set your goals and every year we’ve always set the same goal of winning a national championship.”
A lofty goal, considering the tiny liberal arts school in Schenectady, N.Y., plays Division I in only one sport. This year they’re doing it with only one true NHL prospect, along with a GPA that might make them the smartest team on ice.
Pretty heady stuff for a school that dates back more than 200 years and prides itself on being the first college in the U.S. to be designed as part of a master plan.
“It’s one of those things you almost have to pinch yourself,” said Stephen Ainlay, the school’s president. “It’s truly amazing.”
For a while it appeared Union would be defined this season by a brawl that went viral and got coach Rick Bennett a two-game suspension. But the third year coach — who had a brief stint with the New York Rangers — kept his team together and the Dutchmen haven’t lost since his return.
They face Vermont in the first game Friday of the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn.
“It’s awful tough for a coach who is part of a team to stand up there and try and deliver a message when you know you have done something wrong,” Bennett said. “I explained to my team what happens when you do make a bad choice like I did. I think they rallied around it.”
Bennett took Union to the Frozen Four in his first year as head coach after six years as an assistant under current Providence College coach Nate Leaman. Before that he was an assistant at Providence, where his career as a coach nearly came to an end.
“Honestly, I got fired at Providence when the new coach came in,” he said. “The other assistants stayed and I got walking papers. I was really fortunate I got this opportunity a few weeks later.”
Bennett’s passion for hockey and his team spilled over in January when a brawl erupted at the end of Union’s loss to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and he went after Engineers coach Seth Appert and appeared to shove him. The Dutchmen lost their next game while Bennett was serving a suspension, but haven’t lost since.
“I’m very sorry it happened and I’ve done everything to turn it into a positive going forward,” Bennett said. “It was something that just unfolded in the heat of the moment. I’ll just chalk it up to sports.”
Gostisbehere, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as hockey’s top college player, is a big reason for the team’s late surge. The third round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 not only anchors the team’s defense but has 29 points in 38 games.
He could have gone to any of the big hockey schools. But, like many who visit Union’s charming campus, he fell in love at first sight.
“What attracted me to Union was the mix of a small school with good academics and good sports,” Gostisbehere said. “When recruiting me the coaches also focused on character and I liked that.”
When Union beat Colgate 5-2 on Saturday to win the conference title, it was the third straight year Gostisbehere helped hoist the ECAC trophy. The win came on the same ice where the U.S. upset the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics in the Miracle on Ice.
But while the school has become a hockey powerhouse, it’s far from an athletic factory. It has players who know their roles and play smart, something vital to compete in an NCAA tournament where four teams each have 10 NHL draft picks and North Dakota has 15.
There’s a heavy emphasis on academics, and Ainlay said the five seniors on the team — who had to do their senior thesis during the season — have a GPA of 3.93.
“The thing noteworthy here is these are truly outstanding student athletes, not just hockey players,” the university president said. “When you look at what they do in the classroom it’s hard not to like them. These aren’t just good students, they’re exceptional students.”
Exceptional students who will soon find out if they’re playing on an exceptional team.