Last September, Union College rookie head coach Rick Bennett assembled his Dutchmen players, the walk-ons and entire hockey staff in the Garnet room in the bowels of the Frank L. Messa Rink.
As the group was about to begin training camp, Bennett wanted to deliver a simple message to his players. He told them if they prioritize school, hockey and social life as No. 1, No. 1-A and No. 3, the small school could challenge for a national championship.
The 44-year-old Bennett wasn't blowing smoke. He and his assistant coaches, Joe Dumais, Jason Tapp and Joel Beal, truly felt this group could be a contender.
The underdog Dutchmen, which have 14 Canadians from five different provinces on the roster, must have followed their coach's direction because they will compete for the NCAA's Frozen Four championship in Tampa Bay this week. Union meets Ferris State in one semifinal on Thursday, while the other sees Boston College meet Minnesota. The winners advance to Saturday's final.
"If the coaching staff didn't believe it, I would not have brought this up," Bennett said. "It's nice to be here, but we're still after a championship."
Bennett described his team as hard working bunch that has remained humble. He credits his leadership group of captain Nolan Julseth-White, alternate captains Kelly Zajac and Jeremy Welsh, for the Schenectady, NY school's first trip to the Frozen Four.
This is a defence-first team that plays well in all three zones and exhibits an up-tempo game. It's hard to ignore that Union is fourth in the nation in scoring at 3.55 goals per game (Minnesota is tops at 3.67), and the Dutchmen have the lowest goals-against average at 1.80.
Julseth-White hails from Chilliwack, B.C. He's a steady, senior defenceman. Welsh of Bayfield, Ont. and Winnipeg's Zajac -- yes, he's the younger brother of New Jersey Devils centre Travis Zajac -- provide the offence up front with 43 and 42 points, respectively.
None of the Dutchmen are NHL draft picks, but Welsh will be snapped up as a free-agent signing when the Union season concludes.
Every dog has its day and if the underdog Dutchmen, 26-7-7, continue their upstart season and are crowned champs this weekend, it would be similar to Harvard's triumph in 1989 because neither school awards athletic scholarships. Like Harvard, some students can qualify for financial-need packages, but there are no free rides for athletes.
"We've gotten some excellent players and we've lost some excellent players as a result," Bennett said.
Bennett was an excellent left wing in his playing days. Before he arrived at Providence College to play for coach Mike McShane, the Minnesota North Stars selected Bennett in the third round of the 1986 NHL entry draft.
He wound up playing 15 games for the New York Rangers, but spent most of his time in the AHL and IHL. In 1995, he accepted an invitation to become a player-assistant coach for Jeff Brubaker in Jacksonville, Fla. in the ECHL.
Bennett remarked that many of his former coaches have influenced his career, including Brubaker, Bruce Cassidy, Jack Capuano, John Paddock, McShane and even Jim Carlin, his coach at Classical High in Springfield, Mass.
After his stint in the pros as a player and assistant coach, Bennett returned to Providence as an assistant coach under Paul Pooley and moved to Union in the same capacity under Nate Leaman.
"I'd like to think it's the people you learn from," said Bennett, when asked how he has achieved so much success in his rookie year as a head coach. "I've had excellent teachers in Paul and Nate. I have been brought along slowly and I think that was the right way."
Plenty of people believe Bennett, a nominee for NCAA coach-of-the-year honours, has brought along the Dutchmen in the right way this season, too.
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