You can’t really blame the Gophers co-captain. The Dutchmen are relatively new to college hockey’s grand stage. Although they’ve had a Division I hockey program for more than 20 years, they didn’t start making noise at the national level until 2012, when they made a Frozen Four debut.
The Gophers are just the opposite. Minnesota’s storied program will play in its 12th national championship game on Saturday night.
Union is playing in the title game for the first time.
There’s little the two finalists share in common other than they barely survived in Thursday’s semifinals and, oh, each has been ranked No. 1 at times in the national polls this season.
Union is a small liberal arts college located in Schenectady, N.Y., on the east central edge of the state, roughly 3½ hours from New York City. Its student body is 2,194, and its other sports play at a Division III level.
As a member of the ECAC, Union does not give athletic scholarships. The college relies on a heavy financial aid system to offset the cost of private school tuition.
The no-scholarship aspect has attracted a lot of attention during the Dutchmen’s 31-victory season, the best in college hockey. Coach Rick Bennett downplayed that, however.
“I know how Union runs and being successful, being a financial aid school, it’s worked well,” Bennett said. “We have a lot of alumni that have really supported our school, and through that, I think we thrive through Union College that way.”
The Gophers, on the other hand, have a full complement of 18 scholarships, and hockey is a big-revenue sport at Minnesota.
The teams played completely different schedules, with the Gophers rolling to 28-6-6 in the west and outlasting archrival North Dakota 2-1 on Thursday.
Union landed at 31-6-4 against eastern teams, including a 5-4 victory over Boston College in Thursday’s semifinals.
“I don’t know much about them yet,” Rau said Friday.
Big first step
The programs have played once before, and Union’s 3-2 overtime victory in the 2010 Mariucci Classic changed the direction of the program. Bennett was an assistant then, and the seniors now were freshmen then, but the third-year coach called the win monumental. In Bennett’s first year as a Union assistant in 2005, the Gophers embarrassed the Dutchmen 8-0 in the same holiday tournament.
“To come back and have that win in overtime was really special. Who knows? Maybe it sets the tone at that time for where we are today,” Bennett said.
Said senior defenseman Mat Bodie, “It was a huge step in the growth of Union College hockey.”
Lucia could see something special was in the works and paid close attention to Union’s progress over the past three seasons. He wasn’t surprised to see the program make its first trip to the Frozen Four in 2012. And heading into this year’s Frozen Four, Lucia said college hockey gurus knew Union wasn’t an underdog in the field of traditional power programs. It quickly established itself as a new power program under Bennett.
Stats tell part of the story
Bodie is one of four Dutchmen named to the East All-America team Friday. He and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere were on the first team, with forward Daniel Carr and goalie Colin Stevens on the second team.
The Gophers had three West All-America players — defenseman Mike Reilly made the first team, and goalie Adam Wilcox and Rau were on the second team.
The Dutchmen actually might be the favorite tonight, as they are riding a 16-game unbeaten streak. They were also the only NCAA qualifier to win its regular season and conference tournament championships. Their offense is No. 2 in the nation, their defense No. 4, and their national ranking No. 1.
The Gophers are No. 6 in offense, No. 2 in defense, and ranked No. 2.
“They were on the cusp at that point in time,” Lucia said, going back to 2010. “The great thing about our sport is Union is on equal footing with Boston College or North Dakota or whoever they’re going to play. It’s unique to our sport, but that’s what makes our sport so great.”
Scholarships, enrollment and past national championships won’t matter on Saturday night. The two very different institutions become equals when the puck drops.