In what was as perfect an advertisement for college hockey as you could imagine, Union College — a small, liberal arts school in Schenectady, New York — defeated the mighty University of Minnesota 7-4 in the NCAA title game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Often championship games take a turn toward the more unsung players in their narratives, but not in this one. The Dutchmen’s two all-America defensemen, Mat Bodie and Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick, Shayne Gostisbehere, were both fantastic. Gostisbehere (who has yet to make a decision on whether he will return for a senior season or sign with the Flyers) scored an electrifying first period goal to tie the game at 1-1, and went +7 for the night, while the captain Bodie scored the empty netter to clinch the title for Union, which has an enrollment of 2,100.
“I’m just extremely excited for our program, our school, for the community,” said Union head coach Rick Bennett. The Dutchmen became a Division I program in 1991. They are the second consecutive team from the ECAC to win the NCAA title, following up Yale’s victory in Pittsburgh last year.
The game jumped out to an electric, almost surreal first period. Down 2-1, Union struck three time in just a 1:54 span to suddenly bring out a commanding 4-2 lead at the end of the period. The Dutchmen offense was unstoppable, embodying a characteristic of how their team plays hockey, according to the players.
“We talked about ‘pack of wolves’ goals,” said forward Daniel Carr. “Just being around the net and guys buying in and going to those hard areas.” Mike Vecchione’s goal to tie the game at two — the last time Union trailed — was the very definition of a pack of wolves goal, with every Dutchmen forward getting at least one and sometimes multiple shots away at Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox, who played valiantly even though he surrendered six goals.
While the pack of wolves was the mentality, the leader of the pack was unquestionably Gostisbehere. His first period goal brought the house down, but his defensive skill shut down a couple of key third period rushes by the Golden Gophers to keep the game out of reach. His talent did not go unnoticed by the opposing coach.
“He’s a special player, and he kind of controlled the game out there,” said Minnesota bench boss Don Lucia, who dropped to 2-2 in national championship games. “With the long TV timeouts he can play big minutes and impact the game even more. In my opinion, he was the best player on the ice tonight.”
Minnesota, to their credit, fought back hard, putting the game at 5-4 in the late stages of the third. You could almost sense that there was maybe just a little more magic in their skates after their last second game-tying goal in the semifinals on Thursday to North Dakota. It would not be tonight, however, as Kevin Sullivan scored a beautiful goal to beat Wilcox with under two minutes left before the Gophers could ever pull their keeper.
For Union, they will not be remembered as a Cinderella. The team strictly refuses that characterization. “The only way were a Cinderella team is just name recognition,” said the senior captain Bodie. “We believed we belonged with the big boys, and hopefully some people start to realize that Union hockey is here for good.”
The star defenseman Gostisbehere put it most simply. “We never looked at ourselves as Cinderella. We looked at ourselves as Union.”