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Rivalry Game a Dutch Treat

Union-RPI Hockey Matchup Seems to Mean More to Dutchmen

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, December 5, 2002

SCHENECTADY - A little more than a year ago, the Union College Dutchmen left the visitors clubhouse at Houston Field House.

Each and every one of them wore a sour look on his face.

Some stopped and sat in the stands, staring blankly across Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's near-empty ice rink.

Underneath the stands on the other side, in the RPI clubhouse, there was loud chatter, louder music and generally high spirits.

Had the Engineers beaten the rival Dutchmen?

No - they haven't done so in the last four games. The teams had played a 2-2 tie and even though the Engineers outplayed Union and should have won the game, the underdog Dutchmen were clearly less satisfied with the tie than were the Engineers.

Why?

Why is it that - and it may be mostly perception and little fact - Union seems to get up much more for this natural neighborhood rivalry than does RPI?

The teams renew that rivalry at Houston Field House at 7 p.m. Saturday.

"I don't know ... we're never satisfied with a tie," Union coach Kevin Sneddon said Wednesday. "As a hockey club, any time we go into a hockey game, we want to win it."

Yeah, of course, but wouldn't that apply to any team - especially the home team?

Ask any random group of RPI fans - any time - and a number of them will tell you the Dutchmen just don't excite the Engineers as do Clarkson, Harvard, Cornell, Colgate or St. Lawrence.

When the ECAC invited Union to step up to Division I and join the conference in 1991, the Dutchmen dropped their first six games against the Engineers before winning the 1992 playoffs opener at Houston. (RPI rallied to win the series.)

It was clear that as the Union program grew, beating the area's established, tradition-laden team was the Dutchmen's No. 1 mission.

"It's a proximity thing, bragging rights," Sneddon said. "Of course, we coaches try to downplay that."

Consider this: From 1997 to 2000, when the Dutchmen struggled and won only 17 of 97 games (17-72-8), two victories and a tie came against RPI. So did two one-goal losses.

"Yeah, it's a neighborhood rivalry," says junior defenseman Brent Booth. "It gets pretty intense ... but I think for both teams."

"There's been a rivalry going on for years," said Dutchmen captain Nathan Gillies, who doesn't necessarily agree that his teammates get up more for the Route 7 clash than RPI does. At least, a few days before the game, he won't say so.

But Gillies, Kris Goodjohn and graduated Dutchmen Jeff Wilson and Charlie Simard looked as if they'd just won a playoff semifinal when the Dutchmen edged the Engineers 5-4 last January at Achilles Rink.

"I think it's pretty intense in both rinks," Gillies said.

The senior left winger said beating RPI brings more noise to the Union clubhouse than any other victory - but he tempered it.

"RPI is a great program," Gillies said. "To know you can beat RPI is a great feeling and a great accomplishment."

He quickly added, though, "we strive to win every night, no matter what team."

Goodjohn, Union's assistant captain and 'A' line center, says the Dutchmen don't really approach the RPI game any differently than the rest of their schedule.

"We approach it like any other game. It's two points in the ECAC ... and I think both us and RPI look at it the same way."

Senior defenseman Jason Kean says Union-RPI "is just another game. I've been here three years (plus) and we don't play any harder against them than we do Clarkson or Cornell ."

Rensselaer senior center Nolan Graham, while not outright saying so, hinted that RPI players consider Clarkson as the Engineers' chief rival.

Again, RPI fans would wholeheartedly agree.

In the past two seasons, RPI has tied for third place both years while Union got the final playoff spot in 2001 and missed the postseason last year. Yet, the Engineers couldn't beat the Dutchmen.

"But everybody in this league is a big rival," Graham said.

Though they were intense throughout, however mistake-prone, last season's 5-4 loss at Union 5-4 loss at Union dropped the Engineers into last place in the ECAC - as late as Jan. 16.

Curiously, RPI turned its season around right then.

After that game - the fourth straight time the Engineers failed to beat the Dutchmen - RPI senior center Jim Henkel said:

"It's not that we don't get up for them ... we just don't assert ourselves, and I don't know why."

This season, at least, it's not a case of RPI 'asserting' itself against the Dutchmen. Union just may be the better team, leaving the Engineers as the underdog.