For Union-RPI, a Rivalry Takes the National Stage
by Jason Klump/CHN Writer
When Union joined the ECAC in 1991, Rensselaer was just six years removed from a national championship and Joe Juneau had just graduated with his degree in rocket science. Union was RPI's cute little cousin across the river, and about 10th on the list of top rivals.
Then RPI went through a slow, steady decline, while Union wallowed in mediocrity for the better part of 16 years.
This has changed. The teams have been playing more and more fierce battles in recent years. And now, Union is at an apex in its Division I history, while RPI is enjoying a revitalization. With both teams now nationally ranked and contending for ECAC titles, it came to a head this past weekend.
Separated by only 16 miles along Troy-Schenectady Road (Route 7), the teams got together for an edge-of-your-seat home-and-home series that — with two more one-goal games in the books — cemented this among the most epic in college hockey.
"I really like playing these guys," said RPI's Nick Bailen after Saturday's game, which the Engineers won dramatically, in overtime at home, to earn a split. Bailen, a sophomore transfer from Bowling Green experiencing the rivalry for the first time, had a part in four of his team's five goals on the weekend.
"They are a fun rivalry and I've never really had one like this before so it's a pretty great experience as far as nature of the fans and the teams just battling. There's no quit from either team."
The weekend marked the return of playing their two ECAC conference games on back-to-back nights, something they had done every season since 2003 until last season, when they split them up.
"I love it," RPI coach Seth Appert said of playing the Dutchmen in a two-game series, something he got used to both in the WCHA as a long-time assistant under George Gwozdecky at Denver and in the CCHA, where he tended goal at Ferris State. "The week, it's Union week. It's not, 'Well, hey, we're going to play Cornell Friday and Colgate Saturday.' Now I love our league and the differences of opponents, but our kids have talked all week that it's Union week. The animosity leads up through the week through Friday and into Saturday. And whatever you get exposed as weaknesses by them on Friday, you can't run from by playing a new team. You have to come out and answer the bell and I think it makes you better as a team because there's nowhere to run and hide."
The games are always hard, fast, physical and disciplined. Both lost big time players to hand injuries in the series; RPI lost captain John Kennedy for Saturday, when he was wearing a suit and heavily-wrapped left hand on the Engineers' bench; Union had top sniper Adam Presizniuk head to the locker room early Saturday night with a dislocated thumb.
The buildings are always packed, Union's Messa Rink slightly moreso due to it fitting roughly half the 5,217 capacity of RPI's Houston Field House. Messa was a standing-room only sellout of 2,559, while the HFH drew in 4,092 and looked fuller, something that was a regular occurrence in the Engineers' heyday.
And the drama is always present.
The games featured the same flare for the dramatic this series has become accustomed to. In the first game, it appeared RPI tied the score at 2-2 with 7.6 seconds remaining on the clock, but referee Bryan Hicks immediately waved it off and ruled Union goaltender Keith Kinkaid had been interfered with.
Only minutes after he had stepped down from the top of the boards in front of his bench and ceased lashing out verbally at Hicks, Appert interrupted his players' post-game press conference to show a frame-by-frame replay of the disallowed goal on his laptop computer. It seemed to indicate that Kinkaid was untouched on the play.
"You guys take a look and see," Appert told the gathered media. "[The players] aren't going to comment on the call. But here it is if you want to watch it. There's no comments. Refs make good calls, they make bad calls, but we can all watch it and see if there's any interference."
Asked if he was concerned about hearing from the league about showing the video — something that will happen soon enough, if not already — Appert responded, "Why? Is there a policy that you can't show video? I think the refs should be concerned.
"I try not to [get emotional]. I think I react emotionally when you know the call is wrong. I would appreciate if everyone put in their story that I give full credit to Union and to Nate and his staff. The goal is not why we lost, but, um..." And he paused, knowing that although it may not have been why his team did not win, it was in fact why they lost or at least why they didn't get a shot in overtime.
"It's tough to tell from the tape," Union coach Nate Leaman said at first. "Bryan Hicks is right on top of it and he signaled right away."
When he was informed that Appert had just shown said video which would otherwise not be public, Leaman was taken aback.
"Whatever, that's not the game. You guys are making that call the game. That's what [Appert] wants. He wants that call to be the game. That's what he wants to sell to his team. That's fine. That wasn't the game to me."
Ah, a rivalry.
"That's an RPI-Union game," the Dutchmen's Jeremy Welsh said. "It's a tough way for them to lose, but it was a good break for us and hopefully tomorrow we can take a lead early and won't have to worry about that."
No such luck, as the following night was no less suspenseful or controversial. Again trying to force a tie at the end with Union ahead 3-2 and its own net empty, RPI's Mike Bergin made a great play to get the puck down low for a last-second chance and Marty O'Grady chipped it past Kinkaid on a second effort as time expired. Referees Robert St. Lawrence and Eric Ernst immediately signaled goal and all four officials then conferred, somehow, and ruled that the puck went in with two-tenths of a second remaining.
Neither Messa Rink nor the Houston Field House have video review for the officials and if not for Appert's showmanship, like it or not, no one would have ever seen any video of Friday's no goal. But on Saturday, the game was being covered by RPI TV so we do have video with an embedded clock. Since eyes can only be in one place at a time, it is tough to tell. The best indicator is that the red light never went on, but you can see the puck clearly in before the green light comes on, which happens automatically when the clock hits zero. The same video, for what it's worth, also indicates that a Scott Halpern goal for RPI in the first period which was disallowed because the net was apparently off, should have counted.
Really folks, this all happened in one series.
Even if another officiating disaster was avoided there, the true controversy in the minds of many was how Union got the deck stacked against it in overtime. A major checking-from-behind penalty had been doled out, questionably, to Mike Ingoldsby with 1:51 left in the third, meaning RPI had six skaters to Union's four when they scored the tying goal. But then, with the major carrying over into overtime, Nolan Julseth-White was whistled on another questionable call, particularly given the circumstances, to put RPI up two men. They scored on a Nick Bailen left-circle shot to win just over a minute later and 13 seconds before the major was to expire.
"No comment," was all Leaman had to say about whether he thought the tying goal was scored in time. It was a different story as to his thoughts on the penalties. It was, after all, his turn to be upset.
"I think a five-on-three is what got us in the end," he said sternly. "I'm not, you know ... I mean it is hard, it's disappointing right now. I think Union got taken to the woodshed a little bit last night in the press and I would ask you guys to print a fair story tonight. The penalty minutes in the game were Union had 29 penalty minutes, RPI had six."
"I don't want to think about any of that stuff anymore," was all Appert could say. "I saw the goal being signaled by both refs so I felt pretty good, but I wasn't counting any blessings until they walked away from conferring. But I liked what they did. They all got together and they all talked about it as a group of four officials to make sure they thought the call was right. That was a critical component of tonight's call."
So, it seems what comes around goes around. Or "the ECAC giveth and the ECAC taketh away," whichever you prefer. In the end, even if both games should have ended in ties, each team got its two points and the fans got two more epic finishes.
"It really is exhausting playing them," Appert said. "I don't even know what to say. You guys say every week leading up to these games that there's no way we can top [past games], and then somehow we find ways, some through good things and some through bad things. It was very physical; I really thought both games were for men only."
But the "rivalry" was not always as such. RPI was indifferent to Union, and then RPI's program slid down. Union was a perennial afterthought — a graveyard for good coaches like Stan Moore and Kevin Sneddon, who got frustrated trying to overcome the administration's indifference to Division I hockey, punctuated by former school president Roger Hull's infamous 2004 comments about being satisfied with a .500 record.
Leaman helped change that, and was given an unprecedented (for Union) multi-year contract extension in 2006. Then Seth Appert came to RPI, and instead of downplaying the rivalry — like Yale does with neighbor Quinnipiac — he embraced it.
"Honestly, we had to elevate our program," Leaman said. "My first year they swept us and it wasn't very fun. It wasn't fun reading in the papers for the next couple weeks about getting swept by our cross-town rival, and I really took it to heart and our team does."
The pair has become two of the most marketable young head coaches in college hockey, which adds to the allure.
"I think once Seth has come on board, it's been pretty evident that he wanted to make this a rivalry just like we wanted to make it a rivalry," said Leaman. "Our schools compete in every other sport (in Division III), so we are rivals in every other sport. I think because of the rivalry and because of the competition between Seth and I, I think both of us have elevated our programs and it's very healthy for us."
Appert said, "It's interesting because people have said that to me. I don't think our fans have always embraced them because of tradition and history and sometimes people look 40, 50 years back and not more recent. At the end of the day, I embrace them as our biggest rival right away, for two reasons. One is they've been beating us up, both before I got here and since I've been here. Two is that they are a program that's really good and has been really good now for multiple years, and that's not going to go away. That's a really good program, a school that cares about hockey now, and a coaching staff that is phenomenal."
Part of the enthusiasm for these games from the RPI coach might be that his former employer Denver has a great natural geographical rivalry with Colorado College.
"I always find it interesting ... like who is Clarkson's biggest rival? It's St. Lawrence," Appert said. "I am a big believer that your program's biggest rival should be someone who considers you their biggest rival as well. At Denver, we weren't trying to make up things and say Minnesota was our big rival. They weren't. Our big rival was CC and we had to assert ourselves in that rivalry before we started getting better as a program, and I feel the same way here.
RPI fans also had to admit that Union was getting the better of the Engineers. Though the Cherry and White held a 28-19-9 overall advantage over Union since the Dutchmen became a Division I program in 1991-92 heading into the weekend, Union had a 12-5-4 edge since Nate Leaman took over as its coach in 2003-04 and a 9-3-3 advantage since Seth Appert became RPI head coach in 2006-07. RPI had also never won at home under Appert.
"I think when I got here I was quick to admit, 'Hey, they are in our backyard and they've been taking us to task for the last so many years,'" Appert said. "So we have to take care of our backyard before we can worry about anything else. But how do you not admit they are your biggest rival?"
In big college football rivalries, it is often said that if one team beats the other, their season is a success no matter what else transpires. With the growth of the hype around these two hockey teams outside Albany, the importance of their games is starting to reach those standards.
"This can make or break your season absolutely," Leaman acknowledged. "There's no doubt about it. We've used this weekend to really catapult us in the past. It's good hockey right now. And that's the thing. No matter what, these games make you better and there's no doubt in my mind we got better this week."
And though they may not be scheduled to play again during the regular season, Appert would welcome another game if it happens.
"They have a great team," he said. "I believe that they are for sure a top 10 if not a top five team in the country. And if we play them again, that means it's probably for very important reasons. So I would welcome a chance to play them again."
Though they may not be scheduled to play against each other again this season, Union and RPI make up quite a formidable travel pair in the ECAC and their two weekends against Yale, the first being in New Haven at the beginning of December, could be the biggest tests remaining for the Bulldogs.