Thursday, April 05, 2012

You're Next, Chester A. Arthur!

After an interminable and completely unnecessary delay, the NCAA hockey tournament resumes today with two Frozen Four semi-finals in Tampa Bay (sigh). The marquee matchup is tonight’s contest between top ranked Boston College and the University of Minnesota. The winner of the this game will be heavily favored to go on and win the national championship on Saturday.

As a Gopher fan, I’m both excited and nervous about the prospect of facing BC tonight. I watched some of their games down the stretch (the Hockey East championship game and the regionals) and they are an imposing squad. Shutting out UMD in their regional final was particularly impressive. The Gophers are going to need to get on the board early and a lucky bounce or two certainly would help.

This afternoon’s Frozen Four semi-final features two teams that aren’t exactly household names, even for college hockey fans. Since Ferris State University plays in the CCHA, they’re somewhat familiar (and no, it’s not true that the school takes its name from that fictional Bueller fellow). But Union College is pretty much a complete unknown. A piece in yesterday’s WSJ by a Union alum who once tried to kill the hockey program there helped shed some light (sub req):

As I write this, my alma mater, Union College, with an enrollment of 2,157 and no athletic scholarships, is preparing for its first appearance in college hockey's "Frozen Four"—the sport's national semifinals. The game is Thursday. But before I wave my garnet-and-white flag, I need to come clean: 21 years ago, I did everything in my power to kill Union's Division I hockey program before it started.

Founded in 1795 as one of the country's first nondenominational colleges, Union claims that by 1830 it was part of a so-called "big four" with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. I have never heard anyone who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton make this claim. That is important, because the desire to reclaim some supposed former glory is the central reason Union is in the Frozen Four—and the reason I've become the school's version of John Sculley, the former Apple executive who decided in 1986 that Steve Jobs was going to ruin the place.

Known as the "mother of fraternities," Union birthed undergraduate Greek life and produced Chester A. Arthur, the forgettable 21st president. The college scenes in "The Way We Were" were filmed there and the campus features one the world's only 16-sided symmetrical buildings. Not exactly marketing gold for a private college that runs about $54,000 a year.

That is one small school. And a spendy one. Considering those factors, putting a top notch hockey team on the ice is quite an achievement.

To Roger Hull, Union's president at the time, joining the ECAC and building a great hockey team would raise the profile of a college then known as something of a safety school for the most selective northeastern institutions. "You're known by the company you keep," Hull, who retired in 2005, said in an interview Monday night.

I thought this was a horrible idea. A senior at the time, I argued In multiple letters to the school newspaper and at a town-hall meeting that the logic of attracting better students with a better hockey team was cockeyed.

"By entering Division I, this emphasis on athletics, possibly at the expense of attention to academics, may increase drastically," I warned in one letter. Why not create the country's best English or chemistry department? I suggested creating a curriculum based on classic writings of Western civilization (yet another step toward the wrong side of history).

You gotta give credit to a guy can admit it when he’s wrong. And it seems like Union’s plan to use hockey to put itself on the map has worked to a least some extent. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s learned far more about the school than I ever previously wanted to know because of their appearance in the Frozen Four.

It’s been a good run for Union so far and it will be interesting to see whether they can continue it today. No matter how today’s games turn out, we’ll see a Saturday showdown between one of college hockey’s traditional powerhouses and a relatively new team on the scene. The puck drops at 3:30pm (central) today. Finally.