A Matter Of Providence

After Setting The Table At Union College, Nate Leaman Delivers An NCAA Title To Rhode Island
By: 
Jess Myers

A wave of feelings washed over Trevor Mingoia as he watched his old friends hoist the NCAA championship trophy in 2014.

Mingoia spent time at Union College before both he and head coach Nate Leaman departed for Rhode Island. And here they were, months later, watching their old team enjoying the fruits of their labor after defeating the University of Minnesota to win the NCAA crown.

If they had primarily felt anger, or resentment, or regret, or even happiness for their old friends from Union, it would’ve been understandable. But for Mingoia one feeling dominated all the other thoughts rolling around in his head that night.

Motivation.

Mingoia and his Friars teammates needed only to think of Union hoisting the NCAA title trophy – after beating Providence in the regional final two weeks earlier – and the drive to do whatever was needed to bring the same glory to their school came a bit easier.

“It was a long summer,” admits Leaman. “When you lose to the eventual national champs, you always wonder how close you were.”

Leaman played small-school college hockey at SUNY Cortland in Upstate New York before turning his attention to coaching, where as a volunteer assistant coach he helped to guide the University of Maine to the NCAA title in 1999.

In 2003 he got his big break when he was hired to run the show at Union, which had never before been a real contender for NCAA tournament appearances. He spent eight seasons at the Schenectady, N.Y., school, taking the Dutchmen from “also ran” status to the ECAC title and was named the national coach of the year in 2011 after Union earned its first-ever NCAA tournament berth. In his final game as coach of the Dutchmen, Leaman lost to the eventual national champions, the University of Minnesota Duluth.

A short time later, the Providence job opened up and Leaman made the move to the renowned Hockey East conference. Before long he had the Friars on the fast track to the Frozen Four for the first time since the program flourished in the mid-1980s. But that trek up the mountain came to an abrupt halt in the 2014 regional final game in Bridgeport, Conn., when the Friars season ended at the hands of a familiar foe.

Union, now coached by Leaman’s successor, Rick Bennett, would go on to upset a pair of NCAA powerhouses in Boston College and Minnesota to bring home the school’s first hockey title.

“That’s a program that I have been pretty close to, so I hated to lose that game, but I was happy for them,” Leaman says. “I knew how good that senior class was, because I had coached them as freshmen. And you don’t want to leave a program and see something fall apart, you want continued success.”

Mingoia was one of those Union recruits, but never played for Leaman there, and eventually left the program. After toiling for a Junior hockey team in Nebraska, he was re-recruited by Leaman and eventually came to Providence.

For those who play under Leaman, success comes from constant improvement and sticking to simple rules that, when followed, produce on-ice results.

“Nate is intense, but he can relate to the guys. It’s never personal, it’s always about making the team better,” says Steve Miller, Leaman’s top assistant coach last season.

“He doesn’t have 50 messages for the team. He has three messages, and makes sure they focus on the core things. The biggest message he drills into them every day is to be a great competitor.”

Knowing their talent and competitive nature, expectations for the Friars could hardly have been higher as the most recent season began. They were picked to win Hockey East, and ranked as high as third in the nation. But as often happens, those expectations can be hard to meet. After a slow start, the Friars would eventually finish tied for second in the conference, behind Boston University.

Things came to a screeching halt in the opening round of the conference tournament, when the Friars were upset by New Hampshire in a three-game series. Instead of charging toward the NCAA tournament, the Friars found themselves needing good fortune just to get in.

After a series of upsets elsewhere, things looked bleak for the Friars, but the numbers-crunchers knew that if Minnesota beat the University of Michigan in the Big Ten tournament’s final game, Providence would make the 16-team field. Miller admits finding a recording of the Golden Gophers’ fight song and playing it over and over that day.

Fortune smiled on the Friars that night, as Minnesota won, and Providence made the NCAA tourney field as what seemed like a new team. They also received a fortunate venue for their regional – the arena in downtown Providence, just a few miles from the team’s home rink.

The Friars had never played hockey there, but fed off the energy of the friendly crowd to upset Miami University in a high-scoring affair, then beat Denver in the regional final, advancing to the Frozen Four for the first time in 30 years.

An hour or so up the road in Boston, Leaman’s team held off first-timer University of Nebraska Omaha in the national semifinals to secure a date with conference rival BU in the title game.

Rick Bennett took over for Nate Leaman at Union College and brought the Dutchmen to the pinnacle of college hockey when they won the 2014 NCAA title.Rick Bennett took over for Nate Leaman at Union College and brought the Dutchmen to the pinnacle of college hockey when they won the 2014 NCAA title.

As the clock ticked down inside TD Garden, the Friars could feel their championship hopes slipping away. With 10 minutes to play, the Terriers held a 3-2 lead and were pressuring Friars goalie Jon Gillies for more. That’s when fate stepped in. A misplay by the BU goalie Matt O’Connor tied the game, and two minutes later a goal off of a faceoff play gave the Friars the lead.

It was time to turn things over to Gilles, whose 49-save effort helped earn him tournament MVP honors and bring the NCAA hockey title to Rhode Island.

Now it was time for Mingoia and Leaman to share the feeling that their former Union teammates had experienced a year earlier.

“Things got pretty crazy and pretty busy for awhile there,” Leaman says as he recalled the whirlwind post-title times, which included the team throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park, and more than one trip to the Rhode Island Statehouse to be honored by the people of the state.

“We were the smallest school in the tournament, and we’re in the smallest state in the nation, so this has been a pretty important thing for our school, our community and our state.”

Always looking forward to the next challenge, Leaman admits today that he doesn’t dwell on what his team did over the course of the season. He can’t afford to with a busy life at home raising three young children with his wife Alice. Still, there are moments when his career accomplishments unexpectedly hit home.

“I went to my son’s tee-ball game not too long ago, and in the stands, one of the parents had a Providence National Champions hat on,” Leaman says. “That was a pretty incredible feeling.”

 

Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
Issue: 
2015-06

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