PHILADELPHIA -- The Union (N.Y.) Dutchmen might be the tiniest program participating in this week’s NCAA Division I Men’s Frozen Four in Philadelphia.
But they’ve won more games this season (30) than the three larger -- and theoretically larger-resourced -- programs opposite them in the 2014 bracket.
Division III contenders in other sports, third-ranked Union moves among Division I titans in men’s ice hockey. Its opponent in Thursday’s first national semifinal at the Wells Fargo Center, No. 2-ranked Boston College, has an enrollment of 14,400. Fifth-ranked North Dakota and top-ranked Minnesota, Thursday’s second semifinal combatants, boast total enrollments of more than 15,000 and 28,540, respectively.
Another seeming deficit: Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota own multiple NCAA titles; Union, none. Yet.
But, the Dutchmen -- Frozen Four participants for the second time in three years -- are small only in a factual sense.
“We just figure at this point of the year, all the teams that have gotten here are great teams,” Union senior forward Daniel Carr said.
“The community does a great job rallying around us,” senior forward Matt Bodie said. “We may not fill a 10,000-seat arena, but we're 2,500 every night. It’s packed, it's loud, and it's a tough place to play. I think it's just part of the college hockey atmosphere. Doesn't matter if you're at a big school or small school. Your fan support is great. We're lucky that we chose Union College as a place to play.”
Junior defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere cites the recently completed NCAA basketball tournaments, and all three divisions’ tendencies for David-Goliath match-ups.
“It's a tournament that anyone could win,” Gostisbehere said. “The hardest part, I think, is making the tournament. And when you get here, anything can happen. I know people tab Union as a cinderella, but we just look at ourselves as Union College, and that's pretty much it.”
Cue “Eye of the Tiger” from the Rocky movie franchise. The Philadelphia Museum of Art steps scaled by actor Sylvester Stallone are here, so guess what Union players watched on their bus ride into town this week?
Yep. Except it was Rocky II, not the original.
Union head coach Rick Bennett prefers Stallone’s Rocky II renaissance.
“That is just a phenomenal movie with a lot of heart, and I think this team embodies that,” Bennett said. “It has a lot of heart. They come to work in every practice and every game.“
“One thing that’s unique about our sport is that we have Division I, Division II, Division III institutions,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “You see it here. Union is a Division III institution, but what makes our sport so great is that they all can compete on equal footing, and that doesn't happen really in any other sport at the NCAA level.”
Boston College (28-7-40) and Union (30-6-4) have met only once, during the first round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Union won 5-1.
But regardless of Thursday’s national semifinal outcome, the Dutchmen won’t be wowed by their big-league stage. They had that experience two years ago, during the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa. A 3-1 loss to Ferris State stung not only because of an empty-net goal at the end, but the feeling the outcome could have gone otherwise.
Bodie, a two-year captain, draws the parallel of Union winning the East Regional this year and two years ago.
"The biggest difference was how we reacted after we won the East Regional,” he said, noting that this year’s seminal victory came at the same arena in Bridgeport, Ct. “The first time we won, it was like we won everything.”
Not this time. The road to Philly is a business trip that feels like one.
“I don’t think we had a championship hangover necessarily,” Bodie said of the 2012 Final Four, “but it took us a while to get going against Ferris State. …This time I think we’re more prepared mentally. Guys are just looking forward to playing hockey. Like I said, just looking forward to having some fun.”