In Union They Stand
Program Battled Years of Growing Pains, Self-Imposed Obstacles
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It's fitting that Union's Division I program turns 21 years old, because with its berth in the Frozen Four, the Dutchmen are officially all grown up.
But 21 years earlier, Union was an infant, barely able to walk. Truth be told, it had no business playing Division I hockey with the adults.
The rise from infancy to adulthood was made possible by offsetting the things Union couldn't do, with a growing number of things it can do. Like Andy Dufresne chipping away at a stone wall in Shawshank for decades, Union got where it is today amid numerous obstacles and tireless work of a series of individuals.
The rags to riches story also seems to have garnered a lot of backlash this past couple of weeks. Some people apparently can't just enjoy the story, and recoil any time "non-scholarship school" is uttered, believing that all of the players are really getting financial assistance.
This is only partly true, and misses the bigger picture. Union is a great story for all it's overcome, and it's perfectly OK to be treated as such.
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When Army announced it was leaving the ECAC after the 1991 season, the league extended an invite to Union, a team that had done well in Division III and was in the ECAC's geographic footprint. Union held internal forums with everyone on campus — from administrators to students — to determine whether having a Division I team on campus fit in with the culture. On Jan. 28, 1991, Union president Roger Hull announced the school would accept.
But as Bruce Delventhal led the team into its first season, he did so with two hands tied behind his back.
Thanks to the elephant in the room, Union's administration was only willing to go so far.
In 1975, former Cornell and RPI coach Ned Harkness was handed the keys and told to resurrect the Union program. After leaving Cornell in 1970 to become coach, and then general manager, of the Detroit Red Wings, Harkness was tempted back into college with the lure of coaching Union; his father, William "Pop" Harkness, had been a lacrosse and hockey coach at Union in the 1930s.
Harkness' teams were successful right out of the gate, but just over two years into his stint, the program was rocked with allegations that Harkness was recruiting players that didn't meet academic eligibility requirements. He quit in December 1977, six games into that season, and the entire team went with him, leaving the JV team to play the rest of the varsity schedule. A young athletic department associate named Bob Driscoll took over the team. He was the only one there who remotely had hockey experience, having played some D-III varsity at Ithaca College. Driscoll, now the athletic director — ironically enough — at Providence, the one responsible for hiring Nate Leaman away from Union, coached the remainder of the season, losing all 13 games.
Union would go on to Division III success, but no one wanted anything to do with "big time" college sports again.
So why did Union go after the ECAC so hard? It was not so much a hockey decision as a way for the school to raise its profile — a way for the small, private liberal arts school to rub shoulders with the Ivy League.
But Union didn't have the name recognition nor the institutional support to attract players like the Ivy schools did. It went into Division I with practically no recruiting budget, and little support staff. In fact, the administration limited Union to 25 games in those first two seasons, because that was the D-III limit. Union was only gradually allowed to add more.
Delventhal was left to fend for himself.
"Those early teams paid the price to try to keep moving it forward," Delventhal said. "And I think it took a change of leadership. Nate (Leaman)'s energy and drive was a major factor. And he was also very fortunate in that the leadership in the college started to understand what it takes to compete."
The early results were predictably ugly. A pair of three-win seasons. One bright spot that first season was the team's first road win — at Cornell's Lynah Rink. Delventhal was in tears afterward.
"(Remember) like it was yesterday," Delventhal said. "And I do tend to be emotional. I laugh real easy, and cry real easy. ... Thinking back on the early teams and what we went through, there's so many great memories. People have no idea what it takes out of you."
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Delventhal stepped down in 1996, and was replaced by Stan Moore, a top-notch assistant at Colgate. Moore led Union to an 18-win season in 1996-97. But, apparently frustrated by the Union administration's unwillingness to support the program properly, abruptly resigned and went back to Colgate, just prior to the 1998-99 season.
The job was handed to Kevin Sneddon, the former Harvard defenseman who had been an assistant since Delventhal was there.
Sneddon ran into the same roadblocks and frustrations that his predecessors had. But through some cajoling, was able to make the first of what would be a series of small steps towards the program's adulthood — he established the Garnet Blades booster club. It was a concept so basic in other places, but previously frowned upon at a school still scarred by the Harkness era.
Sneddon spent five seasons at the helm, never getting more than 14 wins. But his ability to make something out of nothing impressed Vermont, and Sneddon jumped at the chance to leave.
Clearly, this wasn't an enviable job to have. But in 29-year old Nate Leaman, Union found a replacement who was perfect for what it needed — someone young enough looking for a chance, who also happened to have the smarts and energy to get something done.
Leaman, of course, still had hurdles to overcome. And early in his tenure, he was smacked with the reality of coaching at Union.
In 2003, the Division III component of the NCAA was debating legislation that would ban schools that "play-up" to Division I in a particular sport, from awarding athletic scholarships. Those schools had been grandfathered in by D-I since 1982, but that was about to change, thanks to a faction of influential Division III presidents — led by Middlebury's John McCardell.
If the legislation went through, it would have crippled a large portion of the ECAC — RPI, Clarkson and St. Lawrence.
Union president Roger Hull sided with his buddy at Middlebury. By way of defending his decision, Hull insisted he was trying to protect the sanctity of Division III athletics. He then made his now infamous remarks — that he believed it was good enough that Union competed every night, and he was proud when they won 40 percent of their games.
Putting aside the general misguided philosophy behind the vote, Hull's remarks mortified Leaman. Talk about crippling a program. Union itself was never going to award scholarships, even if it wanted to, but the attitude Hull exhibited crystallized a key question that had been in place since Union joined the ECAC: Why bother playing in Division I if you're not even going to try to compete?
The legislation ultimately failed. But the best thing that happened to Union was that Hull stepped down as president.
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Because of Hull's steadfast insistence that his hockey program would be treated no differently than the other programs on campus, Union's hockey recruiting budget was about 25 percent of what other ECAC schools had. Leaman never had a strength coach or video coordinator, something the school just put in place this season.
When the new regime came in, things started to significantly change.
First, it gave Leaman a multi-year deal, something Hull did not believe in.
Union also became more open to the Garnet Blades booster club. Leaman worked vigorously to get more donations, ones that could be channeled directly to hockey. This allowed the recruiting budget to go up, and allowed Union to compete for players in Western Canada.
At first, the booster club raised just a few thousand dollars. Today, it brings in over $100,000.
Some obstacles are never going to go away. Union chooses to play Division I without athletic scholarships. It chooses to have its own strict academic standards. There is no reason anyone should feel sorry for them.
But at least Leaman had the opportunity to start using that nubbed-down chisel to chip, chip, chip away. You get a little bit better, you can get a little more interest. Little by little, day by day.
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Still, there are no magic formuals. And the idea that Union is really giving scholarships under a different name, is a fallacy.
It's true that Union awards financial aid packages. And just about any player who decides to come to Union can get some sort of package that will alleviate the financial hardship.
But that simplistic reading on it leaves out some important distinctions.
* The aid is need based. Athletes still must qualify for the aid, based on the same standards of any other student — there are no special plans for athletes.
* Players still must qualify under the ECAC's rigorous academic requirements.
* Other schools can give need-based academic aid, too. For example, a school that has already awarded 18 scholarships, can still bring in a player on financial assistance as a "walk on."
* There are a number of players at Union that are paying all or some of their own way, granted because their families can afford it. Still, if you're recruited by another school that will give you four years of a free education, and your family can keep their money, most players will take the free ride.
There is one way that Union (and the Ivies) has an advantage over the scholarship schools: Union's financial aid package sometimes comes out more valuable than the scholarship being offered elsewhere. For example, most players in hockey are not on a full scholarship. There are only 18 scholarships allowed to be allotted per year, and there are usually around 24 or 25 guys on a roster. So the scholarships are split up.
So, for players on a "2-for-4" scholarship, Union's financial aid package may actually wind up covering more of the costs. That's one way Union can get a player it wants. Even then, we're only talking a player who another school won't commit a full ride to.
Union is an outstanding academic school, but it doesn't have the Ivy League name brand. And in recent years, the Ivies have been able to do things more creatively, financially, further putting Union up against it.
And when Union joined the league, St. Lawrence and Colgate weren't giving athletic scholarships either. Over time, that changed, leaving Union as the only one.
But at least Union has the ability to utilize some of its strengths. At least it no longer has an administration openly hostile to the idea of treating its signature athletic program differently than its other ones. And it no longer has a president that only cares about sipping tea with Ivy League presidents, and doesn't care if he's throwing his hockey program to the wolves.
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Union is like the runt among the mutts. The ECAC in general faces plenty of obstacles too, yet somehow still gets picked on by fans of other teams.
Every program has its own set of admirable traits — certainly all of this year's Frozen Four teams. All should be appreciated for those. Union's admirable trait is winning despite the obstacles, just like other ECAC schools do to varying degrees of success. It's hard to comprehend ever disparaging or mocking ECAC teams, as a whole, for their on-ice shortcomings given these realities.
They choose to take these challenges and no one should feel sorry for them. But we should all admire what they do without trying so hard to shoot it down over tired old parochial reasons.
And none moreso than Union.