Bennett Takes Long Road to Top
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Rick Bennett is a Providence alum, a New England native, and was an assistant coach there for five years. But he has no qualms with Nate Leaman coaching there.
"They got the right guy," Bennett said.
Consequently, so did Union.
Bennett, an assistant the last six years at Union under Leaman, was immdiately hired as the Dutchmen's next coach after Leaman decided to leave. Perhaps he could've gone back to his alma mater as an assistant, and stayed with Leaman. But, after 11 years as an assistant coach and a lengthy professional playing career, Bennett jumped at the opportunity Union presented.
"There wasn't a hesitation on my part," Bennett said. "I have a lot of pride in Union and helping to build what we have here. I really didn't want to go. And I was fortunate to get the chance to be the head coach. It was a bittersweet day, but if I had to go back to Providence (with Leaman) I'd have done that too. But I want to keep challenging myself."
Having played for so long, Bennett came under a lot of influences, and has learned even more since starting his college coaching career as an assistant back at Providence under Paul Pooley. But it still took time to be ready.
"It really hit me after my first interview, at Brown three years ago," Bennett said. "I felt ready. But by the same token, I kept going at Union and got even more prepared. This year was kind of a coming out party, talking to Lowell and Providence, getting more interviews, more experience. I think 11 years will do it.
"I learned so much from Nate, from Paul Pooley prior to that. I've learned from all the coaches I played for before that too. I've taken bits and pieces from everyone. But I'm gonna be Rick Bennett."
Out of high school, Bennett was a third-round NHL Draft pick of the Minnesota North Stars in 1986. He played four full seasons at Providence, coming within a hair of making the Frozen Four in 1989, and then signed with the New York Rangers following the 1990 season.
Bennett spent the next few years bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL, ultimately playing 15 games with the Rangers. He spent the last six years of his career bouncing around the minors, including the last three as a player assistant in the East Coast Hockey League.
His coaching education had begun thanks to all of the people he played for — starting with Mike McShane at Providence, and then Roger Nielsson with the Rangers. There was Jack Capuano, now head coach of the New York Islanders, then an ECHL coach.
"Jack Capuano is someone who had a good relationship with the players, but you knew who the coach was," Bennett said.
There was John Paddock, an AHL legend who also spent time as a head coach in the NHL.
"John Paddock said three words the whole time," Bennett said. "But you knew if you were doing your job, or if you weren't pulling your weight. ... He didn't say much. He didn't have to."
In his last season, Bennett got into a fight and pulled a disc in his neck. He knew it was the end of the road. He spent a lot of years toiling in the minor leagues, but it was worth it.
"I have a love for the game," Bennett said. "Passion is for a short time — love is forever."
He had been in communication with Providence over the years, trying to recruiting former college players to come to his ECHL team. That led to him being offered a spot to coach by Paul Pooley.
"When I first started (coaching) at Providence, I realized how much I didn't know," Bennett said. "Just in terms of breaking down the games, seeing systems, understanding where every player was going on the ice. ... When you're playing, you just do your job. As a player, I had the advantage of playing all positions, but you were worried about your job and just wanted to take care of your end. But to see it develop, to see all six guys working together..."
In the time under Leaman, Bennett helped transition Union from a perennial also-ran into an NCAA Tournament team. This past season, Union also won the ECAC regular season for the first time. Despite the ongoing challenges of being a non-scholarship Division III institution playing up to D-I hockey, the program is in better position than it's ever been — now able to give aid to foreign students, and, this year, adding a full-time strength coach.
Bennett hopes to simply keep the momentum going.
"If it's not broke, don't fix it," he said. "The transition with the players has been seamless, knock on wood.
"That's a misconception (that a coach can't be liaison with players too) ... I have an open door policy, and that's what I told the guys. They may wind up going to the assistants first anyway, but hopefully I'll continue to have a good relationship with them, and be up front and honest all the time."
As for this coming season, Union loses sophomore all-American goalie Keith Kinkaid to the pros, and a bevy of other key players, but also has a lot coming back.
"People are going to knock our goaltending," Bennett said. "(But) we're extremely happy with (sophomore-to-be) Troy Grosenick. His work ethic is phenomenal. Time will tell. I feel really confident."
Union also has built a solid foundation going forward.
"A lot of college hockey teams are out there battling for recruits," Bennett said. "There's the new Big Ten. It's going to get very interesting. But we have a great sell. We want players that want to be at Union College. Hopefully the right player wants to wear this uniform."