Union ready to run with the big dogs

Posted: April 11, 2014

A FUNNY THING happens after the little dog earns his way to a seat at the main table. He not only knows he belongs, but also feels he has as much right to the big steak sitting there as everybody else.

Of the four schools that begin the Frozen Four tournament tonight at the Wells Fargo Center, two - Minnesota of the Big Ten and Boston College of the Atlantic Coast - are members of Bowl Championship Series conferences who need no introduction.

The University of North Dakota is fairly new to Division I athletics, transitioning up from Division II in 2004, but it has notoriety for being the school currently without a nickname until 2015 when it can legally replace "Fighting Sioux," which the NCAA deemed offensive to Native Americans and pressured the school to change.

And then there is Union College.

Unless you are a geek for Penn Athletics and know Union was the school football coach Al Bagnoli left to join the Quakers in 1991, you probably don't know much about the private liberal arts college in upstate New York.

"We're a small school in Schenectady," said Union defenseman Mat Bodie. "The community does a great job rallying around us.

"We may not play in a 10,000-seat arena, but we've got 2,500 every night. It's packed. It's loud and it's a tough place to play. I think it's just heart of the college hockey atmosphere. It doesn't matter if you're at a big school or small school. We're lucky that we chose Union College as a place to play."

Depending on who you talk to in college hockey, the Dutchmen are either an underdog or the favorite to win the 2014 NCAA title.

They are 30-6-4, ranked No. 1 in the country, and bring a 15-game unbeaten streak into their semifinal matchup with third-ranked Boston College (28-7-4).

Intimidation is not part of the equation.

"All that stuff doesn't come into the locker room, doesn't come into team conversations," Union senior forward Daniel Carr said. "It doesn't really affect us whether guys are picking us as a favorite or giving us the underdog tag.

"I think it comes down to who executes their systems the best and wants it more out there."

The dynamics of college hockey makes it one of those peculiar Division I sports.

There are 59 programs with 21 schools being Division II or III in every other men's sport except hockey.

The lay term is "play up" to Division I.

Union is a Division III college that gives no athletic scholarships other than the 18 allowed men's hockey and 18 corresponding women scholarships to meet Title IX requirements.

Boston College is at the other end of the spectrum with the 14 other hockey programs at schools that are members of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

At first glance, it would appear that the BCS schools would have huge financial advantages that would make it impossible for "play up" programs to reach a Frozen Four.

The 18 scholarships are the same and can be divided up however a coach chooses, but the trickle-down money from big-time college football and men's basketball has to provide monetary pluses in terms of recruiting budgets and facilities for programs that have a serious commitment to hockey.

Each of the other schools has at least 10 players who have already been drafted by National Hockey League teams.

Union has one in defenseman and Flyers prospect Shayne Gostisbehere, who was drafted 78th overall in 2012.

But in college hockey, the Davids have had pretty good success against the Goliaths.

At the 2013 Frozen Four, none of the schools - Massachusetts-Lowell, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and Yale - were BCS institutions.

Yale, which is in ECAC Hockey with Union, but like the other five Ivy League school members does not give athletic scholarships, won the NCAA title.

Union made its first Frozen Four in 2012 and Ferris State, a Division II "play up," was runner-up to Boston College, which won its fifth title.

The last time there was not at least two non-BCS schools at the Frozen Four was in 2008. It's only happened three times since the first BCS football title game was played in 1998.

Maybe it is because of the regional nature of Division I hockey, the Northeast and Midwest, or maybe it's because the programs are steeped in tradition, but no one seems worried about BCS money drastically altering the competitive balance of the sport.

"I never really got caught up in the BCS and all the money," said Union coach Rick Bennett, who is 78-27-16 in three seasons leading the Dutchmen. "I know how Union runs and being successful, being a financial-aid school, it's worked well.

"We have a plan in place that works for us. We have a lot of alumni that have really supported our school, and through that, I think we thrive through the Union College way."

The Dutchmen, who beat Boston College 5-1 last year in the NCAA Northeast Regional, certainly have the Eagles' full attention.

"I think we understand there are no lousy teams left," said Jerry York, BC's legendary coach of 42 seasons. "Everybody talks about the history and tradition of Minnesota, North Dakota, Boston College, but Union has done an incredible job the last couple of years.

"Rick Bennett has to be commended for what he's brought to Schenectady. A small school that doesn't offer full scholarships, doesn't have a history of success in college hockey. Right now everybody feels this is a toss-up, this field. There is no underdog. There is no prohibitive favorite. It's just four really good teams."

Some Union players said that on the drive down to Philadelphia, one of the movies Bennett played for the team was "Rocky II."

When asked why he chose the sequel and not the original, Bennett said, "I thought 'Rocky' was obviously a dynamite movie, but I think you know in the end what happened. I don't think he won.

"So that's why we threw in 'Rocky II' because he won. That is just a phenomenal movie with a lot of heart, and I think this team embodies that. It has a lot of heart."

In this case, the steak at the table is an NCAA championship plaque. The players for Union have looked at the big dogs surrounding them and decided they have as much right to grab it as anybody.

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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