Local players applaud Union’s success

Had a lot of leftover stuff from last week’s NCAA East Region hockey playoffs at the Webster Bank Arena, especially from the three local Union hockey players. Tonight, they will play Minnesota for the NCAA title in Philadelphia. Do, here’s a blog post/column on Union … the little college that could. And has.

There are no scholarships, just financial aid. Of the 26 sports offered, it’s the only one that plays at the Division I level. And despite an enrollment of just over 2,200 students, Union College hockey can boast of having some of the biggest accomplishments of any Division I program in the country over the past four years.
Tonight in Philadelphia, the Dutchmen will face Minnesota for the Frozen Four championship. It is the fourth consecutive time the Dutchmen are in the NCAA tournament and it’s the second time in three seasons that Union has reached the pinnacle of college hockey, the Frozen Four.
And if that wasn’t enough, Union is the three-time defending ECAC tournament champion.
Call them the little college that could.
“It’s just a tremendous credit to what the coaching staff has been able to do with the resources that they have,” said freshman forward Griffyn Martin, who grew up in Southport and played his high school hockey at Avon Old Farms. “No scholarships, they’re working financial aid, there’s a lot smaller pool that they got to draw from in terms of getting recruits to come. I think you have to give a ton of credit to them.
“The program has gathered a lot of momentum these past couple of years. It’s gaining a lot of traction with the bigger programs in terms of recruiting, so this could be a year when we take another step forward and get to the ultimate goal of winning the national championship.”
Union joined the ECAC and started playing at the Division I level back in 1991-92 and for that first decade, success was hard to come by. But under coach Nate Leaman, Union won 21 games in 2009-10 and lost in the ECAC tournament championship. The following year, the Dutchmen won 26 games, captured the Whitelaw Cup (symbolic of the ECAC tournament champion) and defeated Michigan State and UMass-Lowell in the NCAA East Regional at the Webster Bank Arena to advance to their first-ever Frozen Four, where they lost to Ferris State.
That success punched Leaman’s ticket as Providence’s new head coach, opening the door for Rick Bennett to pick up the torch and continue the success. In Bennett’s three seasons, Union has gone 79-27-16 and 42-15-9 in the ECAC.
“We’ve established ourselves. You can’t us lightly,” freshman Alex Gonye said, who grew up in New Canaan and played his high school hockey at Deerfield Academy. “It says a lot about the program and it speaks a lot to the coaching staff and getting back here again. It’s obviously a great achievement and we continue to be an up-and-coming program and a force to be reckoned with.”
“That’s something we pride ourselves on,” added senior Kevin Sullivan, who grew up in Darien and played his high school hockey at the Berkshire School. “We’re a small school, we don’t have scholarships or anything like that. It’s a pretty cool to accomplish what we have with hockey, being the only Division I sport at the school.”
Last weekend at the Webster Bank Arena, Union defeated Vermont (5-2) and Providence (3-1) to get back to the Frozen Four for the second time in three years. And for Sullivan, along with Martin and Gonye, coming back to Bridgeport, it was a chance to get back on some familiar ice.
“It was always a dream to be staking here,” Martin said. “I definitely went to some Sound Tigers games growing up. I’ve played here before with my youth team (Mid-Fairfield). So I’m kind of comfortable here.”
Likewise, Sullivan, who tallied five assists in the two NCAA games at the Arena.
“I’ve been here three of the last four years so I’m pretty fortunate. It’s awesome to be back home, playing in Connecticut,” he said. “I came here a couple of times but not a crazy amount. I usually went to Madison Square Garden. I’d watch the Rangers a lot more. When I was younger, I never thought that they’d be an NCAA tournament here (in Bridgeport). I was probably too young to realize that, but it’s pretty cool.”
And as cool as playing back home was, Sullivan and his two Connecticut teammates now get the chance to play for college hockey’s grand prize.
Union. The little college that could. Has.