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Nick Ironside '14
Reporter, Hickory Daily Record, NC
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- Game Face: The Resurgence of Colonels Hockey
Game Face: The Resurgence of Colonels Hockey
February 24, 2012
If you've only been in the Curry College family for the past decade or so, you probably take the Curry Colonels Hockey Team for granted as fixtures in the ECAC championship game and perennial contenders in the NCAA tournament. However, that has not always been so.
In many ways, the story of the Curry's hockey program mirrors the broader story of Curry College. Small but determined, the College and the program grew in prominence throughout the '70s and '80s before facing tougher times in the '90s. Both needed clear leadership to set them back on the path to success. The College got President Kenneth K. Quigley, Jr., who took the helm in 1996. Three years later, the hockey team got Rob Davies to put them back on the map.
The team began as a popular club sport in 1971, and ultimately transitioned to a winning varsity program in 1974. By the '80s, the team had a reputation for winning, with consecutive over .500 seasons every year between 1981 and 1989. The Colonels enjoyed back-to-back ECAC titles in 1986 and 1987, and posted their most wins ever in 1988 when they went 26-3-0.
Despite high expectations, the program began to falter as the '90s dawned. The 1989-90 season was the first losing season for the Colonels in nearly a decade. A wavering program provoked a revolving door of coaches, including two mid-season replacements. The second of those was Coach Davies, a man with a vision, who began to lead the Colonels in November 1999.
"We had enough kids in that first recruiting class that believed in what we were saying, and they are what really changed the culture," said Davies, who initially focused his attention on fostering individual talents on the ice, welcoming new players and creating a stronger sense of team unity. He said that improving the team's record was a secondary issue.
"You don't need all the best players; you just need the right players," said Davies, and sure enough, things started to improve for the unified team in 2001-02.
In just one season, the Colonels' record improved from 4-17-1 to 16-8-1, a sign that the team was powering forward in the new millennium. At the end of the 2001-02 season, Davies was named the Division III New England Coach of the Year by the New England Hockey Writers Association (NEH WA). By 2004, when Davies' first recruiting class was in their junior year, they posted a perfect 16-0 record within the ECAC and a 24-4-1 record overall. They fell to Wentworth in the conference tournament finals, but still scored an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Though they didn't advance beyond the first round, they placed seventh in the national rankings for Division III men's hockey and Davies snagged another NEH WA Coach of the Year award.
"The team could have easily won the conference title that year," said Davies. As it was, they had to wait one more year. The crop of first-year recruits who came to Curry hoping to turn things around in 2001 brought home the ECAC title as seniors in 2005.
Today the team continues to excel on and off the ice. The team boasts the highest grade point average of any male varsity sport on campus and produced nine ECAC Northeast All-Academics last season. Five of the last six male scholar athletes at Curry have been hockey players."
There's a team study hall twice a week and they know the only excuse for not being there is being in class," said Davies, who reminds his athletes that they must perform as well in the classroom as they do on the ice.
Davies also appeals to the team's competitive side. After grades are posted for the semester everyone's GPA is read aloud at practice. Players with a 3.0 or higher are given a golden Colonel sticker for their helmets, just as they receive purple Colonels for their on-ice achievements. The player with the highest GPA gets the coveted green Colonel.
Currently, the Colonels are defending back-to-back ECAC titles. They were picked as the number one seed in the ECAC coaches' poll before the season even started. If you think this kind of success makes them complacent, you don't know the Colonels.
"The rankings they give us really don't matter," said assistant captain Ryan Barlock '12. "Of course it's nice to be recognized by the league and be defending champions, but we know how much work we have to put in."
The Colonels have been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament two years in a row. However, senior captain Payden Benning says the team is skating harder than ever to avoid a similar fate this season.
"We've come into this season working harder than ever. We started workouts earlier, made them harder and have really focused on finding our identity as a team early on," said Benning.
Davies pointed out that when a team is defending the title, they become "the hunted."
"For every team we face, we're probably their biggest game of the season. We have to go into each game matching the other team's intensity," said Davies.
Benning and Barlock, who are scheduled to graduate in May 2012, hope to pursue professional hockey careers. While not all Curry hockey alumni glide on to the pros, one thing they all have in common is their lifelong commitment to the game and a transcendent bond with their teammates.
"There's nothing better than chatting it up in the locker room with the boys. Those boys are my family right now and there is nothing better than being with them and battling with them," said Benning.
Assistant Coach Mike Tortorella '97 played for the Colonel's in the mid-'90s, and now leads the team from the sidelines. Though he enjoyed his time on the ice, he says the reward of inspiring a group of young players to achieve victory is equally fulfilling.
"I played with great guys when I was here and being a part of this program and giving kids the kind of successful, stable playing environment that just wasn't there during my time... it's great," said Tortorella, who coached youth hockey, high school and select teams before returning to Curry.
Chairman of the Curry College Board of Trustees, Anthony M. Campo '79, is a hockey alum who has carried the lessons he learned on the ice with him throughout his life.
"I forged strong, personal relationships with the guys who wanted to make Curry hockey into something that we could look upon with pride. For me, that objective carried over from the program and into every aspect of the College. It's a common sentiment that many of my hockey teammates still share."
Campo's teammate and fellow alum, Bob Balletto '79, concurs. A member of the Curry College Hall of Fame and head of the National Alumni Council, Balletto said, "I have developed lifelong friendships that forever bind us to the College. I am proud of the progress that Curry has made over the years and I am happy to contribute whatever I can to its future success."
Right now, Davies and the Colonels hope that their future includes a long run in the NCAA tournament.
"This is a program that can win a national title," said Davies.
"I absolutely believe we have the talent to do that."