Rick Bennett was a professional hockey player and currently one of the best college hockey coaches around. In 1986 he was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars, he played 4 years at Providence and after his final college game he quickly signed a contract with The New York Rangers. A great achievement for any player but Rick believes it was like "a cup of coffee".
After a decade of professional play, he decided to go down the route of coaching. In 2011 he took over the head coaching position at Union College,@
This week I sit down with Rick to discuss the ins and outs of what it takes to be an NCAA hockey coach. We get into the differences between the college game and the professional level, what is expected of you as a college staff member and what type of players he spends his time recruiting.
You may realize with some of these questions that the interview is a bit behind on the times, so I apologize of the lateness. However college hockey is in full swing and I could not be more excited!
4LH: Hey Rick, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I understand it’s a busy time for you so let us just begin.
Rick Bennett (RB): No problem, it is a pleasure.
Before your coaching debut, you were a player for pretty much your entire life. What inspired you to play the game?
RB: Growing up in Massachusetts everyone in the neighborhood was playing hockey in the streets. And that kind of led to pond hockey. Our pond was only down the block and we were fortunate because it would typically be the first to freeze and the last one to thaw, it was pretty nice.
Was hockey the only sport around or were there others you guys got into?
RB: No, no, it was number one in my area but we had plenty of kids play a bunch of sports like football and baseball. Hockey was also a seasonal game, many of us went right over to baseball during the spring and summer but hockey was number 1. It wasn’t always number one for me, that could be debatable but for the most part it was.
Going back to your playing days, what was your greatest memory while you laced up the skates?
RB: Oh boy, well there are a few. I still say, as a player to this day wining my high-school championship was on par for me with winning the NCAA national championship as a coach. Two big accomplishments but one was done as a player and the other part of a coaching staff. Sure, playing in the National Hockey League was nice but it really was just a cup of coffee.
So what drove you into a career of coaching?
RB: I came to a crossroads in my pro career, and I had a decision to make. Stay in the AHL or move down south to become a player-assistant. I played 5 years in the American Hockey League and figured I give coaching a try. I spent a year in Jacksonville, Florida as a Player Assistant and it was one of the best things I decided to do. After some coaching experience I moved onto Providence and now I am at Union.
Since you joined Union, it has been one a steady growth down the path of success including a National Championship. What can you contribute to this?
RB: I will tell anybody, it’s the players. Before I came into the program we had a core group of returning players who were ready for the challenge. The players were all very well coachable; they were all ready to be coached. Some people will also say good things need to happen, but I say GREAT things need to happen. They really believed in themselves. They were very good players, coachable and the biggest thing is just belief.
The championship roster was a great mix of returning guys and newcomers. It was a nice mix and we really came together at the right time.
(The 2014 Frozen Four Championships was the first full national hockey tournament I watched and was rooting for Union from the start – being a local NYer!)
Speaking of newcomers, how does your scouting system work? Do you have a staff, or are you going around the country looking at players?
RB: The scouting credit really has to go to the current staff, Joe Dumais and Jason Tapp. These are the guys who do about 90% of the recruiting. I do what I can in the summers and when I am free but these are the guys who go out and do most of the work.
What do you guys look for when recruiting players?
RB: We look first for tremendous character, and then we look for a guy who loves to compete. Obviously we look into skill and speed. But the top 3 I can think of is character, compete and hockey sense for the 1,2,3.
And how do you judge character?
RB: We do a lot of homework on our players. Our staff goes out there to watch the players directly, records the games for us to re-watch as well. There is a lot of trust that goes into our coaching staff. We are going into our 5th year as a coaching staff and we are really on the same page now.
We have to really just ask ourselves, can we coach this player?
What are the biggest challenges for these student-athletes?
RB: A big hurdle for the student-athletes is to manage two full-time jobs. They have school and hockey! It takes time management to be the best at both and for those who figure it out quickly, their grades and hockey do not suffer.
What are the toughest aspects of being an NCAA coach?
RB: We are in a bit of a tough time with NCAA rules. There are only so many hours we can work with our players. With school, hockey and the player’s own training; there are only so many things you can throw at these guys and the NCAA understands that.
The players are responsible for their training? Do you have any Strength and Conditioning coaches for the team?
RB: A lot of the strength and conditioning work though is relied on the players but we do have things in place for them. We have a whole athletics program here at Union that includes strength and conditioning coaches so players can work on their lifting.
When does the NCAA season start [A bit late on this interview, eh?] and what is it like?
October 3rd is our first game and we typically have 2 games at the end of the week. The NCAA has a requirement of 34 games, and if you wish to play more than we like to say it is really up to you.
What is the best part of any season?
The preparation, practice and games make for an interesting ride!
What is a typical day like for Rick Bennett?
We [himself and his coaching staff] like to get in early; at least that’s how we like to do it. Tackle the e-mails first and take care of clerical details to get it out of the away. We talk among a coaching staff about what drills we will focus on at practice. We then wait for the players, discuss some things at film and then we hit the ice.
And who are your staff members? What are they responsible for?
Joe Dumais is our Associative Coach, and Jason Tapp is our Assistant Coach. Jason has been here for 5 years, plus he was an voluntary assistant coach before that. Dumais works with the forwards, helps Jason with the penalty kill and works a lot with the power-play. Chris Horn is our new voluntary assistant coach and Ian Greenwald is our hockey operations coordinator.
Season is not too far away anymore, when does it officially begin and what is the season schedule like?
Season starts on October 3rd, we have 2-games a week. There are a required 34 games by the NCAA. Everyone in our conference [ECAC] makes the playoffs. After the [required] 34 games, the rest of the schedule is really up to you, so we like to say. Different programs do different things but we have only 20 hours a week to practice with our team and that includes a mandatory 1-day off. Our coaches like to meet throughout the week with and without the players, but we all understand we have families and there is only so much you can do.
Does not seem like an awful lot of time with the whole team especially with 2 games per week. How are game days?
Players will have their own routine. As far as coaching, we are here in the mornings and we are just trying to get ready. We meet with and without the players at various times in the day. We spend the time reviewing the game plan, the opponent, and next thing you know the game is upon us.
And what about traveling for the away games?
We try to head out the day before, we practice early morning and watch film mid-day of a Friday game. A lot of traveling occurs throughout the season, sometimes bus and sometimes by plane. This year especially it seems we will be doing a lot of flying but luckily we have an airport not too far away.
What is the Union hockey experience like? What is a must see game this season?
The Union College hockey experience at a home game is one of the best in college hockey. The Frank Messa Rink at Achilles Center provides a college like atmosphere that is loud and fan friendly for viewing the game. As for math-ups… RPI is a must see!
[RPI visits Union on October 30, 2015 - you can view the whole Union schedule right here - Union Schedule]
Awesome! Though your record may prove otherwise over the last few years, Union is not exactly known for being a big hockey program. How do you compete against the bigger hockey schools like Boston College and Minnesota?
When we go up against the so-called top schools, it comes to down to the recruiting. First and foremost though, you have to believe you are on that level. Also, today the parody in the college hockey has shifted and anyone can lose on any given night. We build our program with a core of guys, who are full of strong character, love to compete and have a strong hockey sense.
Any specific system you follow or game plan that Union likes to focus on?
No specific system but most importantly we like to focus on ourselves and not the opponent. The reality is the winning team is the team that executes better than the other. We just make sure that the players are ready to compete but you’re going to have a long year if you have to try and fire up your team before every single game. We have a staff we trust, and we know how to work with the players.
Are there any coaches you look up to during your job?
The coaches I learned the most from were tough and didn’t need to say a whole lot to get their message across. If I had to pick two - Coach Mike McShane in college and John Paddock in the pro days.
[Coach Mike McShane was Rick’s college coach back at Providence. McShane left Providence in ’94 to serve as a consultant for the Ottawa Senators. In ’95 he became Norwich University’s head hockey coach and rink manager.]
[Coach John Paddock was an AHL, NHL and scout and coach. Paddock has won 2 American League Championships and currently works as the Head Coach and Senior VP of Hockey Operations with The Regina Pats]
What advice would you give to any aspiring coaches out there?
If you want to get into the sport of hockey, just keep asking questions. Attend a lot of hockey games; watch as much hockey as you can and try to be a student of the game. What separates a lot of people is what they watch and how much time they put into it.
Rick, thank you once again for the inside looks of what it takes to be an NCAA coach, good luck to the year!