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Quinnipiac ice hockey: Then and now
You couldn’t blame Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold if he felt like he was dreaming as he stood on the red carpet at center ice before the men’s hockey team’s first game at the TD Banknorth Sports Center on Sunday afternoon.
Surely 13 years ago there’s no way Pecknold could have envisioned Quinnipiac would be a top-20 team at the Division I level playing in one of the premier college hockey arenas. When he was named head coach at Quinnipiac in 1994, he inherited a relatively unknown and struggling Division II program.
As the puck dropped in the 3,286-seat arena, the Bobcats were ranked No. 20 in the nation and two points of out of first place in just their second season in the ECACHL, one of college hockey’s top four conferences.
“This certainly isn’t the pinnacle for us,” Pecknold said. “I don’t know if we’ve completely arrived on the college hockey scene. Obviously we’ve done well, but we want to try to be a top-20 team year in and year out.”
Perhaps more importantly, for the first time in the program’s history it has an arena to call its own. No more sharing community rinks and driving 15 minutes from campus for practices and games.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d have anything this good,” said athletic director Jack McDonald, who had been waiting since 1998, when Quinnipiac elevated its athletic program to Division I, for a new athletic facility to be constructed.
The Early Years
Pecknold paused for a moment when asked to describe the culture around the team when he took over for the 1994-95 season. The first word that jumped to his mind was chaos.
“In terms of the culture, the kids were used to losing. They expected to lose,” Pecknold said. “The commitment level wasn’t anywhere where it needed to be. The resources we got from the university weren’t anywhere where they needed to be.”
Pecknold was a part-time coach at the time and being paid what McDonald said was “minimum money.” Pecknold taught at North Haven high school and also coached soccer.
The hockey team, then known as the Braves, practiced at midnight. Near the end of the season, they were only dressing 10-11 skaters for games. When it was over, Quinnipiac had a 6-15-1 record and its sixth straight losing season.
“There were just a lot of bad things that first year I was here. It was just not a good environment in any situation,” Pecknold said. “Probably the hardest thing was to get out of that mindset.”
During the summer of 1995, McDonald arrived at Quinnipiac after five years as athletic director at the University of Denver, which has won seven Division I men’s hockey NCAA championships.
He remembers showing up to his first Quinnipiac hockey game on a Sunday night in November at 8 p.m., the time it was scheduled to start. The team had to wait 45 minutes, though, for the public skating session at Hamden Rink to end.
The locker room situation was less than ideal, too.
“At the conclusion of the game when both teams went back to the locker room, they shared the same shower,” McDonald said. “So, that’s probably the best way to explain what the program was like.”
Movin’ On Up
In Pecknold’s third year, the 1996-97 season, the team bid farewell to midnight practices and sharing shower rooms at Hamden Rink. With the help of Lou Pane, a former Quinnipiac player and 1985 graduate, the team moved to a rink he ran in East Haven.
The team also posted its first winning season since 1988-89 with a 13-12-2 record. Quinnipiac hasn’t had a losing season since and is on track for its 11th consecutive winning season this year.
Pecknold said recruiting was the biggest reason for the program’s turnaround. He put his mark on the team by bringing in 19 freshmen for his second season.
“We changed the culture almost instantly,” Pecknold said. “There were a lot of trials with having that many freshmen on the team in one year, but we needed a shot in the arm.”
In 1997-98, the team went 19-3-1 to post the best winning percentage in program history. The following year, Quinnipiac won a program-high 26 games in its final season at the Division II level.
The transition to Division I and the newly-formed Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) was seamless as Quinnipiac posted a 27-6-3 record. Pecknold recruited his first Division I class a year before the program (and all of Quinnipiac’s varsity athletic teams) made the jump, which he said was one of the best decisions he’s made.
“They played as freshmen in [Division II] and were already in place when we made to jump to Division I,” Pecknold said. “A big reason why we were so successful out of the gate was because we had those kids already in place.”
In just its third year the Division I level, the team made its first and only appearance so far in the NCAA tournament, losing 6-1 to Cornell in the first round.
Over the next three years, the MAAC would dissolve, which led to the birth of the Atlantic Hockey conference. Quinnipiac, meanwhile, remained one of the top teams in the conference and, in 2004, took the next step in its growth process when it announced it was joining the ECAC Hockey League for the 2005-06 season.
Into the ECAC
Quinnipiac’s first game in the ECACHL was played against Harvard at the Hartford Civic Center, a former NHL arena. Used to playing in front of a thousand people at the Northford Ice Pavilion, the Bobcats drew over 5,000 people for the game, including 20 busloads of students, and pulled off a shocking win.
The next night, back at Northford, the Bobcats had an announced 1,750 people on hand – the limit for capacity at the rink due to fire regulations – to watch them defeat Dartmouth for a 2-0 start in the ECACHL.
The Harvard game served as a turning point for how the fans, and in particular the student body, viewed the men’s hockey program at Quinnipiac. Every game since then played at Northford while classes are in session has been a sell-out.
“I think the Quinnipiac community and the student body is hungry for a big-time program,” Pecknold said.
A student section began to develop, fans showed up wearing Quinnipiac jerseys and a college hockey environment formed at Quinnipiac home games.
“Every year I’ve been here, they’ve built up and up,” senior captain Reid Cashman said. “I think that’s a credit to this program getting better every year. We keep winnings games and the fans keep coming out. They’ve done a tremendous job.”
The hope is that the TD Banknorth Sports Center will not only help to attract better recruits, but to attract big, non-conference schools to play at Quinnipiac. The Bobcats have played at, but never hosted teams from Hockey East or the WCHA, the two best conferences in men’s hockey.
For now, though, Pecknold is happy with where the program is at. For the first time, it has its own home arena and not a community rink it has to share. And with a month left in the regular season, Quinnipiac is in the hunt to finish first in the ECAC in its second season in the league.
“It’s funny, we’ve always been in transition. Whenever we feel we’ve achieved some kind of a plateau, we make a jump,” Pecknold said. “I’m looking forward to kind of just settling in. We’ve got the rink, we can stay in the ECAC and just try as best we can to be a top-20 team.”