Union Hockey Team Disdains Underdog Tag Even With Financial Gap

Union College hockey coach Rick Bennett said he doesn’t think the third smallest school in college hockey’s top division is an underdog as it enters its second Frozen Four in the past three years.

So when choosing a movie to show on Union’s four-hour bus ride to today’s national semifinals, Bennett skipped the longshot narrative offered by “Rocky,” in which an unknown boxer goes toe-to-toe with the champion, content to have avoided a knockout. Instead Bennett screened “Rocky II,” where the boxer meets the same opponent on more equal footing. And wins.

“This team embodies that,” Bennett said yesterday of the movie choice. “It has a lot of heart.”

Union is hoping to follow a similar script in its own Frozen Four sequel. Two years after the upstart Dutchmen lost to Ferris State of Michigan in their first semifinals appearance, Union enters today’s meeting against Boston College -- in Rocky’s hometown of Philadelphia -- riding a 15-game unbeaten streak, alone atop the USCHO.com national rankings.

Historically and financially, the gap between the two programs is wide. The Eagles have almost three times as many Frozen Four appearances (24) as Union has winning seasons in college hockey’s top division (nine).

Union spends about $676,000 annually on its men’s hockey team, Athletic Director Jim McLaughlin said. In the fiscal year ended June 2013, the three other semifinalists spent $3.25 million (BC), $2.68 million (North Dakota), and $2.31 million (Minnesota), according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“I knew that we had a great opportunity with hockey with the coaches we had in place,” McLaughlin said in a telephone interview. “If we could just get additional resources and support for the program, I knew we could be successful.”

More Wins

In the past five years, as Union steadily increased its win total, revenue from ticket sales at the Schenectady, New York, school’s 2,054-seat Messa Rink rose more than 75 percent, to $180,614. Marketing and sponsorship revenue from the program increased 82 percent, to $86,490.

The liberal arts school has an undergraduate enrollment of about 2,200, third lowest of the 59 schools in hockey’s Division I. Similar to Ivy League athletic programs, Union offers no athletic scholarships, only need-based financial aid.

McLaughlin, who has worked in the athletic departments at both Princeton and Brown universities, said another part of the program’s financial growth came from the Garnet Blades, a fundraising group comprised of former players and fans formed during the 2000-01 season. The group donated just under $10,000 in its inaugural year following a golf event, and is now raising around $175,000 annually.

Boosters President

Garnet Blades president Tim Meigher, a 1975 Union graduate, said in a telephone interview that membership has more than tripled to 220 members, in the past five years.

“Every year we just seem to find a way to make the golf event a little bigger, and we’ve solicited non-golfers to become members and support the program,” Meigher, who lives near Albany, New York, said in a telephone interview. “It’s an effort to supplement what the school can do and give the coaches a little cushion to do some things that they couldn’t always get budgeted for.”

The group’s growth has enabled the Dutchmen to travel more often to road games in the Midwest. It’s also increased their recruiting presence in those same areas, home of elite high school and junior league talent.

Unlike men’s hockey programs at bigger schools such as Minnesota -- whose arena could hold the entire Union student body almost five times over -- the Dutchmen do not produce revenue that can be used for Union’s other 25 programs, which outside of women’s hockey all compete at the Division III level. McLaughlin said the athletic department receives about $4 million in support from the school, about three percent of the total college budget, to meet its $5 million in expenses.

Conditioning Facility

The hockey team’s increased ticket sales, sponsorships and donations have helped the rest of the department in other ways. On the back of that revenue growth the school in the past few years has spent about $750,000 on a new strength and conditioning facility at Messa and the athletic department’s first full-time strength coach. McLaughlin said all the other sports programs use the facilities.

“That has been a difference-maker,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the norm in the Division III world to have full-time strength and conditioning staff and facility dedicated solely to the varsity athletes”.

Division I

Union began competing as a Division-I hockey program in 1991, and had a winning record in two of its first 16 seasons. The program has advanced to the past four NCAA tournaments, including that semifinals loss in 2012.

The team is led by forward Daniel Carr and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player and a 2012 draft pick of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. Gostisbehere is the only NHL draft pick on the Union team; Boston College has 10.

Those numbers show the “Rocky” narrative, not coach Bennett’s preferred script from “Rocky II.”

“Our first time to the Frozen Four we were just happy to be there,” Gostisbehere said yesterday. “It didn’t end up our way, but this year’s more of a business approach here. We’re just looking to do some damage better than we did.”

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