PHILADELPHIA — When Union landed in Tampa for the 2012 Frozen Four, they found themselves admiring everything around them. It was their downfall. Too caught up in the moment, the lack of focus helped end their season in a 3-1 loss to Ferris State.
Two years ago, Rick Bennett was a rookie head coach. He didn’t know how to prepare a team for a game of that magnitude and even caught himself being a bit wide-eyed during the entire experience.
That time in Tampa has helped Bennett and his players prepare for this week in Philadelphia. The coaching staff felt a better attention to detail in their practices this week was vital and those players who were on the losing end two years ago are now two years older and have grown from that experience.
Union learned the hard way in 2012. You never know when you’ll get back to a Frozen Four. While that trip may have ended up being one of pleasure, their time this week has been one of business and it showed in beating Boston College in Thursday’s semifinal 5-4.
“It was a huge win for the team and for the program,” said senior defenseman Mat Bodie. “But at the end of the day, it's just a semifinal game. So you really haven't won anything yet. I think that's why guys weren't celebrates as much as some people might expect.”
The growth of Union’s program over the past few years can be attributed to when Bennett arrived in 2011. That first season everyone was learning how to take things to the next level. The 2012 Frozen Four experience was disappointing, but a big reason why they’re a win away from a national title today.
“I think it started‑‑ just starting as a staff,” said Bennett. “First meeting in September, you go in there, it's your first year on the job. You just have a whole new staff. These guys are looking at you, saying what's he going to come up with here in this opening meeting. And I think it was the last bullet point: We're here to play for a national championship. I think what the guys had gone through in the spring when we first got the job, it was a lot of rugged moments there, stuff they probably didn't want to do.”
Bennett began taking that next step by moving players out of their comfort zones, which helped get the best out of his players down the line. The pushing of his players has helped the small upstate New York school turn into a college hockey power, one that can compete with the likes of a Boston College and Minnesota.
“I read a quote. I'm not sure who it was from, but it said great players learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” said Bodie. “I think that's what the coaching staff has tried to accomplish with this team. I think guys have done a good job of pushing their comfort levels and finding out how to be comfortable in those uncomfortable spots.”
The games don’t get any easier as you move along in the NCAA tournament and now Union faces the nation’s second-ranked defense (1.98 goals allowed per game) and a goaltender, Adam Wilcox, who was a finalist for the Mike Richter Award for the best goaltender in the country. Bennett and his players know how they have to combat what Minnesota offers, but in the end, it’ll be their play that dictates the final outcome.
“We have to make sure that we get some traffic in front of him,” said Bennett. “That is a standard coach speak that you're going to hear.
“In general, we have to be sharp. It's more about us.”
- - - - - - -