Union, RPI Bring Growing Rivalry to Bigger Stage
by Michael King/Staff Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. Situated some 10 miles apart down Route 7 in pastoral upstate New York, lie two resembling institutions of higher learning. Rensselaer and Union compete academically and athletically in most sports. But after all these years, the rivalry has become most fierce and competitive on the ice.
For decades, the Engineers dominated their Schenectady opposition, boasting a long and proud history with years of consistent success. RPI won NCAA titles in 1954 and 1985.
However, the rivalry has done a complete volte-face in recent years. At Union, former coach Nate Leaman extended the program building done by Kevin Sneddon, after the latter left for the friendlier confines of Hockey East.
Though Leaman followed his mentor to New England's top conference after the 2010-11 season, the program appears to have found an equally adept steward in Rick Bennett. The towering former Providence College star led the Dutchmen to the Frozen Four in his first season and has another ECAC contender this year.
Now the Dutchmen have something truly special. And with that, the Union fanbase has grown accordingly.
"The rivalry has been there for a long, long time," Union fan Tom Nitoll from Amsterdam, N.Y., said. "Everybody gets their turn to be at the top; it's now our turn and not theirs, that's all. The fans respect each other. But the fan support is probably about the same for each school. Ever since we came up to Division I, it's been a strong an enjoyable rivalry."
As the Dutchman program began to blossom under Sneddon and Leaman, there was a long-held reluctance among the RPI base to acknowledge Union's momentum toward becoming a national program. The context for this sentiment was several lean years sandwiched between an NCAA appearance in 2010-11. Essentially, that 20-win season was just enough to convince RPI fans that they had not started to trade places with their Union counterparts in terms of supporting the usual winner in this series.
But after witnessing their rivals reach the official milestone of national prominence — the Frozen Four — and consistently dropping games to the upstart Dutchmen, there's now little doubt among the RPI faithful which program is on top.
"We've gone full circle," Jon Statlander, an Engineer supporter from Clifton Park, N.Y. said. "RPI used to beat them for fun. And it's not the case anymore — I'd certainly like to go back the other way. We respect them, and we're trying desperately to pull back even with them."
Not all Engineer fans, certainly, have lost sight of their history and proud program accomplishments.
"It's been frustrating the last couple of years," said Jeff English, who has been a RPI fan since the 1970s and witnessed the first game between the schools in the modern era. "But we still own a lopsided record against them."
RPI's 45-30-10 all-time advantage against Union is rapidly dwindling, however. The Dutchmen have won eight straight dating to last season, calling into question how much of a rivalry this actually is — at least in the short-term.
Yet those on the Union side are well aware of how quickly the tide could shift back to RPI, including Bennett. This is especially relevant given how many of the recent games have been decided by one score or less, including Saturday night's 3-2 Union victory.
"I guess it says we're 8-0 against them," the coach said about how the recent one-sidedness of the results characterizes the rivalry. "I don't like to make a big deal of that, I think you should stay humble. We will enjoy this, but also appreciate it that we won this game with only seconds left. That's a good hockey team over there."
Though perhaps the fanbases seldom find agreement about on-ice results — especially when facing the other — they both acknowledge a vested interest in celebrating and showcasing this rivalry.
And the Mayor's Cup was the answer for these two schools. Saturday, the two teams squared off at the Times Union Center in Albany in a rebranded non-league game designed to be a unique event for fans and players.
Union and RPI play typically three times per season; twice in ECAC play and once in a non-conference affair designed to provide an extra game with minimal travel costs. They occasionally even play a few more times per season if they end up in the same holiday tournament or are drawn together in the ECAC playoffs as they were last year.
Historically, the games alternated between Houston Field House in Troy and Messa Rink in Schenectady — two quintessential Northeast hockey barns with an inverse relationship between character and modern fan amenities. The decades-old arenas offer much to create a classic college hockey atmosphere, but they both fail in one area: capacity.
In recent years, the programs strove to find neutral site venues to bring the fans of both programs together in one building. Last year, they dropped the puck in Lake Placid (future home to the ECAC tournament). The teams decided this year to bring the rivalry back to the Tri-City Area at the region's top venue to add a new chapter to the rivalry.
"It was a tremendous atmosphere for both teams," RPI coach Seth Appert said. "This is something we've talked about as athletic departments, and they've worked really hard to put on. I think if you asked the kids in each locker room, they'd tell you this had a big game feel as an event and the fans that came out made it that way."
That "big-game feel" was perpetuated by the competitiveness of the contest, which was not settled until the final whistle as Union registered the game-winner with 37 seconds remaining. Despite the inherent value of a pair of ECAC points, the Dutchmen were more than satisfied with the reward for beating their hated opponent. The players mobbed winning goalie Troy Grosenick in a celebration reminiscent of its defeat of Massachusetts-Lowell last season to reach the Frozen Four.
"It's awesome every time we play RPI," Grosenick said. "Obviously there were a lot of fans here, and we appreciate the support. We love playing those guys, and we love beating them even more."
On several occasions, Union and RPI players tussled after the whistle. Shortly after RPI scored 16 seconds into the second period, Matt Wilkins and Bo Dolan fought for position in the crease and ended up on the ice, interlocked, after RPI goalie Jason Kasdorf iced the puck. But it wasn't limited to standard college hockey, after-the-whistle pushing and shoving. It was true physical brutality that you tend to only see in matches of local rivals.
And the angst in the arena wasn't limited to those wearing pads. The disdain between the two groups of supporters was best manifested Saturday night through each side's forceful and poignant chants. This was further exacerbated by the presence of each school's hockey band, which lead cheers and encouraged their fellow fans.
Judging by Saturday's attendance, 5,989, it's likely that the schools will attempt to make this event an annual tradition. And if it does evolve into a regular event — the game needs a trophy befitting of its magnitude.
Though the concept of the Mayor's Cup is meant to capture the spirit of this rivalry representing college hockey in the three communities of the Capital Region (Albany, Schenectady, and Troy), the nondescript, cup-shaped award pales in comparison to the Dutchman Shoes Trophy given to the winner of the annual football game between the schools.
But victor's hardware is ultimately irrelevant if the games in this rivalry continue to be ones circled on the calendar at the beginning of the season by both fan bases.
"I thought the crowd was awesome. There was hesitancy [about planning this event and it being successful] and I appreciate both sets of fans coming out in full force," Appert said. "It was a great atmosphere for college hockey."