Canisius' Journey Started From Single Step
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. There's a thousand stories in the naked city. You just have to look for them.
As it goes for the day-to-day underbelly of New York City, it goes in Division I college hockey as well.
Canisius is a team people rarely, if ever, pay attention to. But that doesn't mean the stories weren't there, or their journey is any less compelling.
Canisius enters the NCAA tournament on an eight-game winning streak, winners of the Atlantic Hockey championship for the first time. But its journey started eight years ago.
The program was as low as it could be following a tumultuous 2004-05 season. The only coach it had known, Brian Cavanaugh, was fired mid-season under dubious circumstances. The interim coaches could barely contain the inmates that were left in the asylum. Just a couple of months later, the athletic director, a recent NCAA committee member at the time, was also fired for being unable to control it all.
Amid this atmosphere, Dave Smith, a former assistant at Bowling Green, Miami and Mercyhurst, was named head coach in April 2005.
A lot of coaches talk about "changing the culture" when they take over. Nowhere was this more necessary than at Canisius.
"One thing he's stressed from the first day is that, academically, athletically and socially, he wants us to excel in all three areas," Canisius goaltender Tony Capabianco said of Smith.
Said Smith, "The commitment to being a well-rounded person translates to being a well-rounded hockey player."
But instilling that is easier said than done early on.
"(Colgate coach) Don Vaughan told me, 'Congratulations, it will you take two years for you personally to have things slow down,'" Smith said. "In the first few days, (captain) Fred Coccimiglio said he was coming back. That was big for us. Some of the guys in those early years, we convinced them — we're going down a different path. It was not necessarily wrong before, it's just a different road.
"A lot of those early guys, they knew they were establishing something. It's not necessarily the wins and losses. Those guys really get a lot of the credit. Only 28 guys will wear rings (from Atlantic Hockey), but those guys established the culture."
Despite the obvious changes, fact is, Canisius wasn't going anywhere without a lot more help than that, starting with administrative support straight from the top. But it's a two-way street. Once the administration saw that Smith was beginning to establish a solid footing, it helped him by adding full-time assistants, video coordinators and other amenities. Long-time NHL defenseman Adam Mair works with the team as a volunteer assistant.
"I've tried to do everything possible here the same way I would at a higher profile program," Smith said. "Yes we have some limitations, but those don't revolve around what goes on on the ice."
Still, to this day, Canisius still plays in someone else's rink, and, by Atlantic Hockey rule, is limited to 12 scholarships.
"If I was 6-foot-8, I might have a chance to play in the NBA," Smith said. "But you deal with reality. And we have 12 scholarships at an institution that is growing, but is still new (in hockey) in the grand picture."
But things continue to evolve. The Buffalo Sabres are building a new $125 million practice facility downtown, next to the First Niagara Center, that is expected to house Canisius hockey by the 2014-15 season. And the team continues to impress school officials, making them more likely to support them — the team went from a 2.6 early on to a 3.3 overall GPA this year, the highest of any sports program on campus.
"It's not any one thing that has made the difference," Smith said. "There's no magic moment. But the expectations and standard is there. We made up t-shirts this year ... the captains came up with 'Raise the Bar.' That's a theme we've always had."
Said Capabianco, "(Coach) wants us to sit in the first three rows in class, take your hats off, show respect to the teachers, introduce yourself to your teachers so they know you play hockey.
"I know we have less scholarships and might not have (our own) rink, but things are definitely going in the right direction. We're a small program and a small school. It's a good atmosphere for a smaller school. When we go out and play big teams — we play Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Minnesota — we're a Division I team like them."
The season started with tumult. On Oct. 25, forward Matthew Grazen was suspended for seven games after a vicious hit from behind on Air Force's George Michalke, an injury that left Michalke out of the lineup the rest of the season with a concussion.
Amid that, despite all of the progress, the team was still struggling in the bottom half of Atlantic Hockey.
But when you set a foundation, you are providing the opportunity for success. And sometimes, that can strike suddenly once those pieces are all in place.
And this is where the rest of those thousand stories in the naked city come in.
Chris Rumble, whose father Darren played almost 200 games in the NHL, was in juniors still when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Even more amazing to that story, he was in the process of helping a friend work on a project about leukemia when he was diagnosed himself. Rumble received four rounds of chemo-therapy, and was devastated physically for a while.
Rumble fought to overcome all of that, and made an emotional return in January. His presence immediately sparked the power play, which had been struggling for goals.
"We started to score more, that depth on the power play," Smith said.
Rumble is OK, but he was too fatigued to stick in the lineup and has been out for this whole run. But he's still very much a part of this year's success.
"He was the spark."
Some of the games that were close losses early in the year, were turning around.
"Guys were gaining confidence," Smith said.
Around the same time Rumble was coming back, Cory Conacher was making his NHL debut, the first Canisius graduate to do so. A star for the Golden Griffins just two seasons ago — and someone who overcame childhood diabetes himself — Conacher skated with the team during the NHL lockout. He then score a goals in his NHL debut with Tampa Bay, and became an instant rookie of the year candidate.
It's hard to measure just how much that meant to the program to see Conacher excel.
"When he scored that first goal, everyone's phone was blowing up," Capabianco said. "He developed at Canisius, and look what he's done. It got us excited to watch him play on TV."
Said Smith, "All of these things are small pieces that add up to something greater," Smith said. "He stays in real close touch with the team. The publicity that Conacher is bringing makes the guys feel and understand how close they are to the higher level. In a sense, it legitimizes them."
Canisius' run has, of course, stirred the ghosts of the past. It's a history that Smith wants to acknowledge, while also being sensitive to whatever lingering feelings might exist.
"We've tried to keep one eye on the past and embrace that, and one eye on the future," Smith says. "And that works with my personality and my staff's personality. And to have that come to fruition is very satisfying and gratifying.
"It's like family you see at weddings and funerals. Last time was a funeral. This time it's a wedding. Let's embrace the positives, and there's many positives. There's a lot of history of Canisius hockey. Every single player has a little piece of this."