Bennett Prepares Union His Way For Title Game
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
PHILADELPHIA One game remains in the 2013-14 college hockey season, and for Union, that means that Rick Bennett, winner of this season’s American Hockey Coaches Association’s Penrose Award for the nation’s top coach (and CHN Coach of the Year), has one more day to coach the only team in the nation that won both a conference regular season and tournament championship this year.
As the Dutchmen ready themselves for Saturday night’s championship bout with No. 1 overall seed Minnesota, the final hours of the season afford Bennett an opportunity to impart final messages to his team – just as Minnesota coach Don Lucia, of course, will do in the opposing locker room.
Certainly, despite the months and, really, years that amount to countless hours of preparation for something as significant as a national championship game, the reality is that sometimes it’s not possible to prepare for everything.
For Union, take Thursday’s national semifinal against Boston College as the latest example. As prepared as the Dutchmen may have felt for the Eagles’ top line featuring Johnny Gaudreau, the nation’s best player still found the back of Union’s well-defended net just 128 seconds into the game.
But throughout that first period, Bennett stood calmly, composed on the bench behind his team, and he took notes – in a notebook he holds during the games.
“It’s a game feel,” said Bennett. “Sometimes in the game you have a better feel than others of teams, especially teams you haven’t played against much.
“[The notebook] is just a reminder. It helps between periods. Sometimes I don’t take any notes at all, but again, it’s a game feel.”
Union, of course, turned its first intermission deficit against BC into a tied game at the end of 40 minutes, and ultimately took control of the game in the third period. It was the first time Boston College had lost a game this season when leading after the first period.
Whatever it was that Bennett scribbled in his notebook during the first 20 minutes of the national semifinal – despite the first period actually being a strong period for Union overall – those notes were certainly communicated to his players in the locker room, who were noticeably more relentless in the second and third periods.
“He does know the right things to say,” said Union goaltender Colin Stevens, the ECAC Goaltender of the Year who holds the school record for wins (27) and shutouts (6), after the game. “He knows how to get us going. But he’s never a man of too many words between periods. I think he just came in and pointed out a couple things we could do better, and that seemed to work in the second period.”
Bennett is one game away from completing his third season as head coach for Union. He’s already amassed 79 wins, a remarkable 16-2 postseason record, and three consecutive ECAC tournament championships – the first league team to accomplish that feat since Boston University did so before Bennett was even a teenager.
“We don’t have a manual,” said Bennett. “You don’t walk into Barnes and Noble’s and there it is, ‘How to Coach a Team.’ [During the intermission] I just like to get through a few words, a few bulletin points. Sometimes it’s a couple systems things, and sometimes you grab a barrel or two. It’s always a feel. I can’t explain what feel it is. Every game brings something different.”
Saturday’s championship game will certainly be different, the first national title game in Union’s ever-evolving history. As a prolific player at Providence, the closest he came was one game from the Frozen Four, a three-game quarterfinal series loss to Maine in 1989.
“When we won the first Cleary Cup, the first Whitelaw Cup, getting to our first Frozen Four– it’s a phenomenal feeling,” Bennett said. “I imagine if you’re ever fortunate enough to win a national championship, it’s that times about a hundred. So it’d be phenomenal, but again – unchartered waters. I don’t know until it happens.”
All week, Bennett has cited his experience as a first-year coach at the Frozen Four two seasons ago – an experience that has informed his approach this April in Philadelphia. And noticeably, Union has taken a business-like approach to everything. Even in the locker room after its games, the Dutchmen sit at their lockers not in their jerseys, but in clean suits.
They’ve clearly taken notes, too – from Bennett, their coach with the notebook.
“I guess maybe I’m not that smart and I can’t remember it,” joked Bennett, about his frequent note taking. “But you do what works for you, and that seems to work for me.”
It’s certainly worked so far. With its success over the last three seasons, the truth is that everyone has taken note, so to speak, of Bennett and his team, which won more games this season than any other season in its history.
Now, one day remains. One game. And if Union wins the national championship on Saturday – well, that’ll be its most notable accomplishment of all.