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Nation's Oldest Collegiate Hockey Tourney Begins Today

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, November 24, 2006

TROY - It's the nation's oldest.

With just occasional exceptions, it's had quality fields.

Recently, the championship has eluded the host team.

It's the 56th Annual Rensselaer Holiday Tournament, a prized, respected element of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey program, and it meets its third Thanksgiving Weekend billing tonight and Saturday night at Houston Field House.

Fellow ECAC Hockey League member Colgate, with a surprisingly weak 3-7-2 record, tangles with Central Collegiate Hockey Association member Ohio State (4-6-2) in the 4 p.m. opener.

The Engineers (4-2-3) battle Niagara (6-5-2) of College Hockey America conference at 7.

Friday night's winners will clash for the tourney title at 7 p.m. Saturday, following the 4 p.m. consolation game.

The tournament, begun in 1950, played during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, or a few times in early years on New Year's Weekend, if the calendar contained one.

In 2003 though, Rensselaer Athletic Director Ken Ralph moved the event to the weekend following Thanksgiving.

Fan base was one major reason, since there are more students on the RPI campus after Thanksgiving than the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Also, Ralph says, it's become more difficult in recent years to fill a Christmastime tournament with quality teams than it is on Thanksgiving Weekend.

Colgate shared the ECACHL regular-season title last season with a 14-6-2 record and since the Raiders lost 41-point scorer Kyle Wilson and 33-pointer Jon Smyth to graduation, they still had center Tyler Burton (22 goals-18 assists-40 points) and wingers Marc Fulton (14-23-37) and Jesse Winchester (14-22-36) returning. Thus, both ECACHL coaches and media made the Raiders an overwhelming favorite to win the league's regular-season title.

'Uneasy is the group that wears the favorite's role' is a popular variation of the old saying.

Colgate knows that uneasiness.

A final-minute, 2-1 loss to RPI in the Governor's Cup title game sent the Raiders into an 0-5-1 slide. And they needed three 5-on-3 power-play goals against Princeton to end the skein with a 4-2 decision.

Colgate beat Niagara, 2-1 in an early-season meeting, but in 10 games against teams from the four traditional college hockey conferences, the Raiders are 1-7-2. Their No. 14 national ranking last month is a faded memory.

Ohio State was picked to finish third by CCHA coaches but goaltending and defensive problems caused the Buckeyes to suffer through a 1-6-2 downturn recently.

They hope to have righted the ship with a road sweep of Bowling Green last weekend, 9-3 and 4-1, which pulled them even in CCHA play at 4-4-2.

The Buckeyes boast of two of the league's top defensemen in senior Sean Collins and leading scorer, junior Jason DeSantis (1-11-12).

Eight OSU forwards have between three and five goals, led by right winger Tommy Gobel's five.

Niagara owns victories over early ECACHL leader St. Lawrence and NCAA Tournament quarterfinalist Holy Cross but the Purple Lions have surrendered 5.5 goals per game.

"Consistency has not been our forte," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder.

Niagara was sixth nationally in scoring last season and the line of center Les Reaney (10-13-23), left winger Sean Bentivoglio (5-15-20) and right winger Ted Cook (12-9-21) is among the higher scoring lines nationwide.

At 4-1-3, the Purple Eagles are the only CHA team with a winning league record.

A sidelight to the Niagara-RPI matchup is that it comes seven years and one day after the Purple Eagles' 2-1 victory over the visiting Engineers.

Months later, Niagara edged RPI for the final at-large berth to the 2000 NCAA Tournament. Had the Engineers won, they'd have earned that berth.

Rensselaer won five Holiday Tournament titles in both the 1980s and 90s but just once since.

Since beating UMass, 3-2 for the 2001 tourney title, the Engineers have finished last twice, second once, and third last year. They have not gone five years without wearing the tourney crown since 1971-75.

The Engineers will take all that with them on the ice tonight and hopefully, on Saturday night.

"We want to be the class that ends (the drought)," said RPI assistant captain Kevin Broad, "for ourselves and our fans."