No Second Fiddle
Union Coach Bennett Wins Title in First Year
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. Rick Bennett could easily have gone back to Providence. It is, after all, his alma mater.
Nate Leaman, the man who helped take Union to previously unforeseen heights as head coach of eight years, left last offseason to take the job at Providence. Bennett, his trusty assistant, was left with a choice — follow Leaman to his alma mater, or stay and take the reigns as head coach at Union.
For Bennett, it wasn't really a choice at all.
"I think he's got a really special place in his heart for Union," Union junior center Jeremy Welsh said. "He's been a big part of establishing the culture. Once you do that, it's something special and you don't really want to leave."
Bennett knew there was unfinished business at Union, too. A bunch of players he recruited had certainly reached amazing new heights for a Union program that entered Division I in 1991. But it hadn't quite gotten the final piece — an ECAC championship. Bennett knew the pieces were there to do it.
There may have been doubters outside the program — those who figured Nate Leaman was too integral to Union's success, and the loss of All-American goaltender Keith Kinkaid too damaging. Certainly Leaman left his stamp on the program, but those he left behind were more than capable to take the ball and running with it.
"It was a smooth transition," Welsh said. "Coach Bennett recruited the guys. We were all familiar with him. The foundation was laid and the culture was established. It wasn't like a new coach came in and did things completely differently. We did the same things, we worked hard in practice, focused on the same details, the d-zone coverage, the little things. Coach Bennett was real wise to carry that on. We knew what we had in the room, we knew Troy (Grosenick) was a great goalie who worked his tail off in practice."
Really, taking over Union was just another challenge for Bennett. He could've rested on the hockey laurels of successful and lengthy pro playing career, but instead chose to dive into the rigors of coaching. And instead of continuing his role as an assistant at a bigger school like Providence, with more resources, he decided to take the reins at Union, a place he has grown to love.
"It definitely is harder (coaching than playing)," Bennett said. "I think playing the game will always be my first love — even when we go out and play our guys (in practice), you feel like you're 21 again. But someone told me a long time ago, if you can stick around the game for a large portion of your life, you'll never work a day in your life, and that's how I feel."
Of course there are the mechanics of a head coach to learn, especially the business of it, being the CEO of the program, so to speak, managing the recruiting.
But the transition was smooth for Union, not just because Bennett provided that familiarity for the players, but also because the players provided the familiarity for Bennett.
That relationship resulted in a championship, and Bennett became the first rookie head coach to win the ECAC Tournament championship since Cornell's Mike Schafer in 1996.
"The minute you think it's going to be easy, this game can humble you quickly," Bennett said. "I'm very fortunate to be surrounded by great people. (Assistants) Jason Tapp, Joel Beal, Joe Dumais. ... I don't want to forget the people who helped pave the way. Nate Leaman, I learned a ton from him. (Former assistant) Bill Riga is at Quinnipiac now, but he had his hand on this senior class."
Bennett mentioned a lot of mentors along the way, including former Providence head coach Paul Pooley, and David Berard. And, fittingly perhaps, Dan Fridgen was a big help, Bennett said. Fridgen once led RPI to an ECAC Tournament championship, in 1995, under similar circumstances — a rookie head coach, taking over at the school where you were previously assisting.
"He reached out, and I threw some things off him," Bennett said.
He also mentioned all of the support people on campus. At a school where its ex-president once famously said he's happy if his teams win 40 percent of its games, Union has come a long way in its 21 years in Division I. It may not have the resources of Providence, but it clearly has enough to win, and Bennett reeled off everyone by name, from the current president to the athletic director, to the boosters.
And putting it all together, for them and for themselves, meant everything.
"It means that we get to walk around like champions," Bennett said, getting visibly emotional. "That's something we'll always remember."