Bennett Built Trust of Team
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
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PHILADELPHIA The amazing rise of Union has been written about so many times already, at every milestone moment along the way. When the team won its first ECAC title, when it won the regular-season title, when it made the NCAAs for the first time, when it made the Frozen Four two years ago.
We wrote many times about the program's trials and tribulations over the years, the passing of the torch to Kevin Sneddon, to Nate Leaman and then to Rick Bennett. We wrote about the 1977 team with Ned Harkness, the goofy president who allowed the team to go to Division I in 1991-92, but didn't like sports, and let the program founder.
We've written this rags to riches story so many times to the point where there's nothing more to write. Except now there is. Because Union put the final piece on top of the cake. It won a national championship.
And every step along the way, Bennett deflected credit off of himself on onto everyone else around him, like his assistant coaches, his administration, his predecessors, but most particularly the players. He doesn't like to go in the team photos when these celebratory moments happen, preferring to let the players — a la Herb Brooks — have "their moment."
"It was their time," he said.
He was forced to be there Saturday night, the dictates of national television and being handed the trophy as his players surrounded him. He could not escape the spotlight this time if he tried. He tried to enjoy his "moment" himself. He allowed himself to smile.
"I'm just trying to soak it all in," he said.
Said Union defenseman Charlie Vasaturo, "He doesn't take credit individually. And it starts with him and our president and our athletic director, but everyone feeds off of each other — coaches off of players, players off of coaches, players off of trainers, equipment guys. It's a team to the 'T.' It sounds a little cliche. But if you're a freshman with one game or a senior with every game played, everyone has their part and the coaches do an incredible job with the players. It's an unbelievable coaching staff."
But no matter how much praise he wants to spread elsewhere, no program wins without a strong head coach. You can have the best assistants in the world, but if the coach isn't setting the tone, it can go down in flames.
"He sets a tone every day with his work ethic," assistant coach Joe Dumais said. "We see how hard he works every day, works for this program. We see the pride he has, the passion he has. I think the team plays like his personality. We play hard, we're kind of a blue-collar team, and I think that all comes from our leader. He's a hard-working, prideful, passionate guy."
That passion can sometimes come out in ways that aren't great on the surface, such as his public tongue-lashing of the team in early November.
"He can be as tough as he wants, because we're here right now," Vasaturo said after the championship game. "It's definitely an honor to play for him and this coaching staff."
Said Dumais, "He's honest with our guys. And sometimes it's hard to be honest, because it's not easy to do, but he does it. There's no gray, it's black and white. He's going to tell you how you're playing whether you like it or not. He'll tell you if he's not happy with you in the classroom. I don't think that's hard on guys, I think that's what guys these days need to hear."
Bennett believes in the classroom, not just for its own sake, but because, he reasons, if you're taking care of your academics, your mind is free of worry when it comes time to play hockey. And it all ties together.
"(Public critcism is) not something you want to do as a coach," Bennett said. "I don't enjoy doing that, but by the same token, the players responded very well. ... Let's be honest, college is really one of the first places that you're held accountable, and everyone's really almost on the same level as you are. Sometimes egos coming in, you're the best of the best of where you came from, so when something like that happens, it's kind of an eye opener. After that, it's what you do after as a coach. I talked to those guys individually after, I talked to the team and they were good with it."
Bennett was a strong four-year forward at Providence and had a lengthy professional career, and he still very much sees himself from the perspective of a player.
But no team wins without a strong head coach, especially in college, no matter how good the people are around him. Many a talented team has been derailed by a coach unable to keep the pieces together. So no matter how much credit Bennett wants to spread elsewhere, he's going to have to take some himself, whether he wants to or not.
"I never looked at it like that," Bennett said, "because honestly, playing the game — being a coach is great, I love it. I've got a great coaching staff I work with and great players to work with. But playing the game, as a player was just something totally different. And coaching is second best. So I always remember that players play the game. And to see these guys out there playing and playing hard for our staff is just an honor."
But if the coach isn't doing something, then the profession is meaningless, and that's not true. Bennett said he sees his role as getting the team to play better than they themselves thought possible.
"Great players want to be pushed and my goodness every practice we're gonna push you," Bennett said. "If you're not bringing it that day, you're gonna get it — you're gonna get talked to. And I think that holds everybody accountable, and I think that's what we're all about. If you start treating some of the guys that are maybe big point guys or upperclassmen (different), the guys are going to see that and it's just going to breed a life of (its own) and it's going to keep revolving. And we don't want to see that happen. These guys, when you get on them a little bit, take the criticism and everybody sees it and you move on. It's not personal at all."
Making that work, however, means building a trust in each other. The good news is, once that trust is built, it opens up many possibilities.
"My freshman, sophomore year, I'd rush the puck, and I'd see him down the puck giving me that look like 'You're doing that again?'" Gostisbehere said. "But this year, he definitely (gave) me leeway, but we have to be selective. But I can tell he let the reins go a little bit."
Said Bennett, "When I was on my four-game 'vacation,' you get a chance to really look back and you see your team in a different light. It was most noticeable on defense. And you see that these guys are some pretty good hockey players and they like to go, so let them go. Before, I was trying to put the reins on them a little bit because it wasn't the style that I wanted, but I think watching from that we learned a lot.
"You're gonna lose the puck sometimes. And when you're one guy and you're on a rush, sometimes you're gonna lose that puck. And we need accountability from the forwards to help. Now, if the same guy is going up the ice and losing the puck three, four times a game, then we're gonna have an issue with it. But for the most part, they've been accountable."
The fact the the program is clean, run well, and Bennett earns the respect of the players, allows the administration to get past things like this four-game suspension.
"I wouldn't say overlook," Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said. "He made a mistake, and he was the first to take ownership of it. And I've worked with Rick Bennett 10 years now, and this was something out of characer, and I have complete faith in him going forward and I hope I can work with him a long time."