Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Union

The time has come to move on to those "enemies" who should be far more familiar to Engineer fans... the 11 other teams in the ECAC that comprise the most important 22 games on the schedule. The first team we'll touch on is the one that should stand out even more than the others, if only due to an exceptional amount of familiarity that breeds when you play a team as many times as the Engineers have faced Union in the last few seasons.

Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1790
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 1989 (Division III)
Last Frozen Four: 1985 (Division III)
Coach: Nate Leaman (8th season)
2009-10 Record: 21-12-6 (12-6-4 ECAC, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 44-22-9
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: October 30, 2009 (Schenectady, NY)
Last UC win: January 16, 2010 (Schenectady, NY)

2010-11 games: October 30, 2010 (Lake Placid, NY); November 12, 2010 (Schenectady, NY); November 13, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Adam Presizniuk, sr.; F Stephane Boileau, sr.; F John Simpson, sr.; F Kelly Zajac, jr.; F Jeremy Welsh, so.; F Wayne Simpson, so.; F Josh Jooris, fr.; D Brock Matheson, sr.; D Greg Coburn, so.; G Keith Kincaid, so.

Key losses: F Mario Valery-Trabucco, F Jason Walters, D Mike Schreiber, D Mike Wakita

Historically, the RPI-Union rivalry was very one sided, albeit in different ways. For decades, the results end of the rivalry was entirely on the side of RPI, while the level of dislike toward the other side was heavily with Union, as the Engineers and their fans historically have focused their most intense feelings on Clarkson.

Both of those facts have been changing over the last five or six years - 11 of Union's 22 all time wins over RPI have come since the beginning of the 2004-05 season. This coincided, in part, with the addition of a non-conference matchup which has seen the Engineers and the Dutchmen face off three times a year (and that ended up being four times last season, when the teams met in the championship of the RPI Tournament). The combination of a suddenly competitive Union squad and the increasing frequency of meeting has certainly injected a considerable amount more drama into the RPI-Union rivalry.

Hockey at Union dates back to 1904 when the team played its first official game, against RPI in Albany, a 4-1 victory for the Engineers. Early on, Union fielded a team only sporadically. They played four games in 1904, then none until 1906, and did not field a team through most of the 1910s. The Dutchmen did outdo RPI in one respect early on in that, like BU, they continually had a team throughout the Great Depression, playing just a handful of games every year through the 20's and 30's. The team was finally suspended due to World War II in 1942, when the Dutchmen lost all eight games they played. They would play 10 more games between 1947 and 1948, but that would be the end of hockey in Schenectady for the next quarter century.

When Ned Harkness returned to the Capital District in 1973, he had three Division I national championships under his belt from his days at RPI and Cornell, and three years of experience coaching and managing in the National Hockey League, and was ready for a new challenge. He became the spark from which the modern era of Union hockey was born, as he built a new program from the ground up, including the construction of Achilles Rink, for which he became the rink manager. Playing in Division III, the team found instant success with one of college hockey's most famous coaches leading the way. The Skating Dutchmen were 45-8-2 under Harkness in their first two-plus seasons with a team that included goaltender Steve Baker, who would go on to play in the NHL, still Union's only NHL alumnus to date.

But just as quickly as Harkness built a winner in Schenectady, it came tumbling down early in the 1977-78 season. Off to a 4-1-1 start, Harkness abruptly quit after a row with Union administration over recruiting. The rest of the team quit along with him, forcing the Dutchmen to dress their JV squad for the remainder of the season - they lost their remaining 13 games.

The Skating Dutchmen would suffer five consecutive losing seasons in the wake of Harkness' departure, but in 1983-84, while their cross-region rivals were starting to reach the heights of success in Division I, the Dutchmen were contenders for the NCAA's first ever Division III championship. That season, Union finished with a winning record for the first time without Harkness since 1940, and advanced all the way to the Division III national championship. That final game was somewhat regrettable, however, as the Babson Beavers thrashed the Dutchmen, 8-0. The following season, Union would make another NCAA tournament appearance, but were stopped short in the semifinals.

Union struggled in the late 80's, but began fielding stronger teams at the very end of the decade once it became known that the Dutchmen would be moving to Division I and joining RPI in the ECAC, replacing Army in the 12-school league. UC's first Division I season was 1991-92, and it was a harbinger of bad times to come. The Dutchmen won only six games in their first two seasons, and failed to reach even 10 wins in seven of their first nine seasons in Division I. They were developing a reputation as a pushover, finishing dead last four times in the 1990s.

That reputation began to fade in part due to the efforts of Kevin Sneddon in the early 2000s, but current coach Nate Leaman - now the longest serving head coach Union's D-I history - spiked it soon upon his arrival in 2003. The team began consistently turning in winning percentages around .500 midway through the decade, finally clearing some major hurdles in the last two seasons, as they won their first ever ECAC playoff series in 2009 to end 18 years of frustration in the post season - which included some classic moments against the Engineers which we don't need to rehash here - and reached the neutral-site championship for the first time last season, making it all the way to the final before losing to Cornell, and narrowly missing out on their first ever NCAA tournament appearance. Coupled with Alaska's first ever NCAA bid last season, the Dutchmen are now the last team playing outside of Atlantic Hockey that has never reached the NCAAs.

The Dutchmen are losing some important offensive components in Valery-Trabucco and Walters - both of whom burned the Engineers repeatedly during their four-year stints in Schenectady - but they still should have the chops to be solidly competitive this season. Presizniuk and Boileau are proven assets, and Zajac had a fantastic sophomore campaign.

Defensively, Union should be strong again despite losing Schreiber and Wakita, especially if Coburn can avoid a sophomore slump. Then, of course, Union returns two solid goaltenders. Keith Kincaid was a deserving Third Team All-ECAC selection in just his first season in Schenectady and should be the go-to-guy between the pipes, but Corey Milan also put up some solid numbers in his time in net, enough to place him in the top 10 nationally in GAA and save percentage even though Kincaid got the lion's share of the minutes.

As far as freshmen are concerned, misery loves company, and while RPI's prize recruit has been pushed off to 2011, so has Union's top commitment. Forward Tyson Fulton, originally scheduled to arrive this fall, will instead spend a year in junior hockey before coming to Schenectady. Jooris, whose father was a key member of the 1985 national championship team at RPI, figures to be a solid offensive contributor, and forward Matt Hatch, who was with Nolan Graham and Johnny Rogic in Alberni Valley last season, will also be a new addition. Among the other new additions is defenseman Mike Ingoldsby, who captained the Oakville Blades to an appearance in the Royal Bank Cup and could replace Schreiber fairly well on the blueline.

For years, it was Union giving RPI a disadvantage while the Engineers were competing for ECAC titles in the 1990s, since the Engineers were not facing teams on Saturday night that had been through a tough game on Friday night. In the mid-2000s, that situation seemed to switch to some degree. Last season, the Capital District travel partners presented a difficult weekend for any team, home or away, and it looks as though that same dynamic might be in play in 2010-11.

The rivalry will be back at full heat over a two-week period as the Dutchmen and Engineers square off in Lake Placid on Halloween Eve, then face off in a home-and-home travel partner weekend in mid-November, the latter half of which will be Black Saturday at home, the change from "Black Friday" being necessitated by the fact that the event is supposed to be the first ECAC home game of the season, and Union will be the only ECAC home game in the first three months of the season.

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