Tough-minded Union leaves Cinderella label behind

Posted: April 14, 2014

UNION COLLEGE has made it crystal clear this week. The Dutchmen are not here to be your or anyone else's darlings. They don't find their little-school story particularly cute, at least anymore, and if you try to go down that road, you're more than likely to get a rip-your-throat-out stare from their third-year no-nonsense coach, Rick Bennett.

Bennett learned his lesson about getting in bed with the Cinderella metaphor during Union's first foray into the Frozen Four 2 years ago, his first season as their head coach.

"I thought we were a little starstruck there in Tampa - me being one of them," he said the other day. "It was just one of those just being a rookie coach, as well, staff; I don't know how you prepare for that.

"You prepare for that by going through experiences, and that's what we did."

That's been Bennett's mantra since being promoted to head coach before the 2011-12 season. Make mistakes, correct them, learn from them. After Thursday night's 5-4 victory over Boston College, Bennett spoke of his early days with the core of this team, about making them "uncomfortable."

"It was a lot of rugged moments there," Bennett said of his first few months in 2011. "Stuff they probably didn't want to do. But I think if you want to push players, push your team, you gotta put them through scenarios and positions where they don't want to be."

"I read a quote, I'm not sure who it was from," defenseman Mat Bodie, Union's senior captain said yesterday. "But it said great players learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. I think that's what the coaching staff has tried to accomplish with this team. I think guys have done a good job of pushing their comfort levels and finding out how to be comfortable in those uncomfortable spots."

Union was new to the bright lights two seasons ago. The Cinderella tag fit. But the Dutchmen have spent most of this season ranked among the top teams, have spent a little time as No. 1, including the current rankings, and are full of savvy veterans this time around - several, like Bodie, older than a handful of players on the NHL team that plays here.

Yesterday, junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who was drafted by the Flyers in the third round after the first Final Four run, spoke of his tangible improvement as a defender, and his intagible improvements since then.

"Sometimes you get frustrated out there," Gostisbehere said. "Sometimes it doesn't go your way. Keeping it all in and controlling your emotions. You know if you're a leader on the team, young guys are going to look at that."

Unintentionally, and to his embarrassment, Bennett provided a case in point when he went after RPI coach Seth Appert amid a bench-clearing brawl in January, taking a couple of swings as two linesmen and two coaches tried to hold him off (you can see it on YouTube).

Bennett was suspended for two games by his own school and for two additional games by the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association. Humming along until then, his team lost that game, 2-1, and looked lifeless in a loss to St. Lawrence that followed. It was the first time all season the Dutchmen had lost consecutive games.

From then on, though, Union has been unbeatable, finishing the regular season 8-0-1, then winning seven straight postseason games to reach tonight's NCAA championship game against the University of Minnesota, the nation's second-ranked team. And earlier this week, Bennett received the Spencer Penrose Award, given annually to the top coach in college hockey.

The Dutchmen are here because of a defense-first mentality, but they were lured at times Thursday into an end-to-end game with the more offensive-minded Eagles, who played three freshman and two sophomores on defense. Critical mistakes by that group, including a defensive-zone strip that resulted in Union's fourth goal, doomed BC more than any great strategy by Union.

But what the Dutchmen did show was poise. Oodles and oodles of it, when they fell behind, when their own defensive-zone mistakes allowed BC to tie the game, when the Eagles twice cut in half their two-goal advantage in the final 10 minutes of the game.

It was a gritty, messy and ultimately a gut-check win.

Just don't call it cute.

"We're very fortunate that these guys have obviously given us a chance to have these moments here," Bennett said. "They're probably sick of my, 'Let's not get too high or too low' speech. But I don't have to say too much at all, because these guys know the drill. I mean, they act like professionals."


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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