Updated: April 21, 2014 at 11:48 am
As Union College hockey players prepare to skate into their home arena, they huddle under a large sign, and coach Rick Bennett makes sure they examine the word above them.
"Believe," the sign demands.
"You have to have that," Bennett said from his office in Schenectady, N.Y. "I know it's just a word, but when you have 27 players buying into it, great things can happen."
Yes, they can. On April 12, Union defeated Minnesota 7-4 to claim the NCAA hockey title.
Union is a small (2,200), academically rigorous liberal arts college. The hockey team plays at the Division I level. The rest of the male athletic teams play nonscholarship Division III competition.
Um, does this sound familiar?
Colorado College, currently searching for a hockey coach, is a virtual mirror of Union College, although this is not an exact match.
Colorado College is blessed with more luxurious resources. Union plays in a cozy 2,200-seat arena. The Tigers play in the comparatively massive Broadmoor World Arena, capacity 8,099.
Colorado College boasts a more dazzling hockey past. Union played Division III hockey until 1991-92 while Colorado College boasts two national titles from the 1950s along with a ride to the 1996 final.
Here's the point, roaring loud as a siren:
The Union College Dutchmen rule the nation. So can the Colorado College Tigers.
This is a time of uplifting possibility in college hockey, a time when any team can climb to the top. At the 2013 Frozen Four, none of the teams had previously played for the title, much less won it.
Still, optimism is hard to find among Colorado College fans. I hear constantly from CC supporters who wonder if the Tigers can ever rule the oh-so mighty National Collegiate Hockey Conference. (Who picked that mind-numbingly dull name?) The NCHC is amazing, I keep hearing, packed with a wide array of powerful schools. Wow. The NCHC is soooooo impressive.
While CC fans/doubters brag/moan about the wonderful/terrible NCHC, Union devotees celebrate their reign over college hockey.
As CC athletic director Ken Ralph searches for a new coach, he should use Bennett as his model. When Bennett arrived in Schenectady, he brought a list of his goals. The NCAA title beckoned as the final step on this list of ascending goals.
Did he truly believe he would climb so high?
"Yes and no," he said, laughing as he referred to the famed 16th-century French seer. "I'm not Nostradamus."
No, he's just a diligent, inspiring hockey coach. He expected to rule the NCAA and scoured the country searching for fellow believers. Union ranks among the nation's most demanding schools. Chester Arthur, our nation's 21st president; William H. Seward, Abe Lincoln's secretary of state; and Baruch Samuel Blumberg, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine, all studied in the halls of Union's leafy campus.
Bennett believes his school's genuine, rigorous commitment to scholarship offers a recruiting lure. Want to attend the same school as a president? That's a tempting pitch to a young man who understands life is about much more than a puck. Don't want your mind to be challenged? Go somewhere else. The same pitch can work at Colorado College, alma mater of Lynne Cheney, Ken Salazar and Dutch Clark.
Bennett walks through his hockey life with a healthy defiance. North Dakota and Boston College and Minnesota, his rivals in this season's final quartet, had combined for 65 trips to the Frozen Four. Union had traveled to one.
Didn't matter. Bennett realizes a crucial truth about tradition.
Tradition never scored a goal. Tradition never will score a goal. Tradition is all about yesterday.
Today matters most.
As his Dutchmen prepared to tangle with Minnesota in the final, Bennett never used the tired David vs. Goliath angle.
"Let them worry about us," he roared to his players.
Was Union, tiny Union, the underdog in this final hockey battle?
"Only if Minnesota dressed all 50,000 of their students and we dressed 2,200 of ours," Bennett said.
Here's a suggestion for CC's next coach:
Steal that last line from Bennett, the coach from the small, academically demanding college.
The coach who rules college hockey.