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Long road for Quinnipiac to Frozen Four

Quinnipiac built the $60 million TD Bank Sports Center, which was part of the re-launching of the sports program that has delivered its hockey team to the Frozen Four.

Quinnipiac photo

Quinnipiac built the $60 million TD Bank Sports Center, which was part of the re-launching of the sports program that has delivered its hockey team to the Frozen Four.

HAMDEN, Conn. — Nestled at the foot of Sleeping Giant State Park, Quinnipiac University is an institution that once could be described as a sleepy little commuter school, with an enrollment of 1,900 students. But it slumbers no more. Quinnipiac is a giant that has been awakened.

“I’ll tell you, we were a sleeping giant when I was inaugurated 26 years ago,’’ said Quinnipiac president John L. Lahey, who has presided over a stunning remake of the school into a thriving, three-campus Division 1 university with an enrollment of 8,500 students and an endowment that has grown from $5 million to $279 million.

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The administration spent considerable resources to upgrade from Division 2, including the construction of the $60 million TD Bank Sports Center, a 185,000-square-foot complex that sits atop the school’s York Hill campus. It houses the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the men’s and women’s hockey teams in twin 3,500-seat arenas all under the same roof.

“We’re a little less asleep now, and we’re a little better-known,’’ Lahey said. “I still think we’re a well-kept secret, but it’s beginning to change.’’

Thanks to its Frozen Four men’s team, which entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, Quinnipiac appears to have been rebranded as a hockey school.

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“No one accused me of having small dreams and small plans,’’ said Lahey, who 18 years ago hired athletic director Jack McDonald and charged him not only with raising Quinnipiac’s status to Division 1, but with landing the hockey program in the ECAC in 2005-06.

“I understood the importance of hockey in terms of the overall athletic program, particularly in the Northeast region. But I did not have it in my plan three or four years ago that hockey would get, literally, to be No. 1 in the country and that we would be playing in the Frozen Four.

“I must say, I did not have that in my plan and I’m not sure it was a realistic goal, but I’m thrilled and delighted for the team.’’

The Bobcats (29-7-5), who ascended to the top spot in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national polls Feb. 11, will face St. Cloud State (25-15-1) in the 8 p.m. nightcap of Thursday’s national semifinals at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

On the way up

Although still in its infancy as a Division 1 program, having moved up in 1998-99 as a member of the newly formed Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Quinnipiac hockey has flourished under 19th-year coach Rand Pecknold, who resisted overtures from Princeton following Quinnipiac’s first NCAA appearance in 2002 and last year from the University of Massachusetts.

“In the last 15 years, we’ve never had a losing season,’’ said Pecknold. “We’re actually the only team in Division 1 hockey that can say that. Michigan was the only other team, but they had a losing team this year and now we’re the only one left.

AP

Quinnipiac hockey coach Rand Pecknold has lots to smile about these days.

“I think we’ve always been good and competitive, certainly in Atlantic Hockey we were dominant within that league, but struggled outside of the league. Then we’ve always been good in the ECAC.”

The move in 2005-06 after two years in Atlantic Hockey to the ECAC, which came about when Vermont left for Hockey East, was critical. It was an opportunity for Quinnipiac not only to raise the level of its competition but also attract a higher level of recruits. The allure was only enhanced when Quinnipiac moved from the Northford Ice Pavilion, a town rink in North Branford 15 minutes east of campus, to the state-of-the-art facility on York Hill.

“If we don’t have this $60 million facility, we can’t get into recruiting battles with Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Boston College, and Michigan,’’ Pecknold said. “When we used to play in a town rink, it wasn’t even a battle then.

“Now we’re in those battles, but I’ll be the first one to admit we don’t win a lot of those battles, and we don’t need to. We just need to win some of them. And we need to work hard and make sure we’re in as many as we need to be and we will win a few and that’s how we get our high-end kids.’’

The move has reaped talent such as sophomore Matthew Peca, whose hat trick powered Quinnipiac to a 5-1 victory over Union in the East Regional championship March 31 at Providence, and senior goaltender Eric Hartzell, who swept ECAC Player of the Year and Goalie of the Year honors and recently was named one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

Senior captain Zack Currie said he might have reconsidered his other options (Alaska and Bowling Green) had he been taken on a tour of Quinnipiac’s old facilities.

“I can’t say that this place doesn’t help,’’ Currie said. “It’s an amazing facility and it’s a huge draw for recruits and for myself to know that I was coming to a place that was pretty special, especially knowing how nice the rest of campus was as well.

“I never actually went to check out Alaska or Bowling Green, but I’m sure if they had taken me to the rink at Northford there, it might have been a little different.’’

Faith in the program

McDonald, a 1973 Boston College graduate, is a former BC athletic administrator and University of Denver AD, and he drew upon those experiences when shaping Quinnipiac’s facility, which stands head and shoulders above any other in the ECAC and will host the women’s Frozen Four next year.

“There might be bigger ones out there, but there’s none better,’’ McDonald said.

Critical in all of this, though, was Quinnipiac’s invitation to join the ECAC.

It earned the nod over Niagara, which had the hockey program but not the same academic profile as the other ECAC institutions, and Holy Cross, which had the academic credentials but whose women’s hockey program operated at club level.

Quinnipiac photo

Quinnipiac has a raucous fan atmosphere at its games, which was hard to achieve in its former arena, which coach Rand Pecknold called a “town rink.”

Quinnipiac had spent considerable capital on its academic profile and already had raised half the money to construct the athletic facility. A huge selling point was the fact that Quinnipiac was committed to equally funding the men’s and women’s hockey programs, going so far as to carve out equal space at the TD Bank Sports Center.

“It’s the same down to the square inch,’’ said Lahey.

“I think our administration has always been in full support of the program,’’ Pecknold said. “All along, Jack was like, ‘We can win in hockey. We can win and be a top 20 team in hockey.’

“Everybody on the campus looked at him, with the exception of me, and thought he was crazy.

“Quinnipiac was never a hockey school. We’d always been basketball and baseball. Then we go Division 1 and we start winning and then we go to the ECAC and all of a sudden we’re a top 20 team and people are like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’

“It is funny how it’s gone incrementally along the way, but Jack has been a huge supporter, and our president, John Lahey, has just been awesome. He’s one of the best presidents on the planet and the support that he gives and the resources he’s given to athletics and men’s ice hockey has been phenomenal.

“That’s probably the No. 1 reason why we’re having the success that we’re having.’’

Rinky-dink rink

To fully appreciate the quantum leap Quinnipiac hockey has made, one must go back to its roots at the Northford Ice Pavilion, where Pecknold and his staff did perhaps their best recruiting job attracting players to play in that facility, which is now home to the Lyman High Trojans, the North Haven Indians, the Branford Hornets, the North Branford T-Birds, the Daniel Hand Tigers, and Hamden Hall hockey team.

The rink sits on a nondescript parcel opposite a Honeywell office/warehouse complex, and nowhere are there any signs identifying it as the former home of a Frozen Four hockey team.

“You know what, we did a great job with that,’’ Pecknold said. “We found a lot of great players, a lot of great kids who paved the way for what we’re doing right now.’’

Charles Krupa/AP

Goalie Eric Hartzell and his Quinnipiac teammates are set on bringing a championship home from the Frozen Four.

There were players such as Reid Cashman, now a Quinnipiac assistant, who was among the senior class to last play at Northford and first to put a blade on the fresh sheet at TD Bank Sports Center.

“It felt like we weren’t supposed to be there,’’ Cashman recalled of the Jan. 28, 2007, grand opening of Quinnipiac’s new facility, a 7-0 romp over Holy Cross in which the legendary Gordie Howe dropped the ceremonial opening puck.

“It felt like we were breaking into somebody else’s rink, because we only got half a year there. But it was pretty cool to be a part of that transition.’’

Cashman’s best friend and roommate, Joe Dumais, was not afforded the opportunity. Dumais, part of the gritty class of 2006 that Pecknold identified as pivotal in changing the culture of competition within the program, played all four years at Northford.

“We had a lot of guys who just loved the game, and you’ve got to love the game of hockey just to be able to play there,’’ said Dumais, now an assistant at Union, who was torn when he watched his alma mater earn a berth in the Frozen Four by defeating his Dutchmen in the East Regional championship.

“It doesn’t hold many fans, and the amenities weren’t great. But I think it just showed the character of the guys at Quinnipiac that they were playing every day at that rink.

“For them to go from that to the new rink at the TD Bank Sports Center, that’s why they’re in the Frozen Four. You have to have those kinds of amenities to attract the top talent and to get to the next level.”

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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