More than a few casual hockey fans might be wondering this week how tiny Union College happens to have a Division 1 college hockey program and where it comes from.
Here's some history (academic and hockey history) I wrote up last October and am reposting.
Founded in 1795 and located in Schenectady, NY, Union was the first institution of higher learning chartered by New York State. Only Columbia is older and it was founded not by the state but by a royal charter granted by King George II in 1754.
In the 1820s and 30s Union was the birthplace of college greek letter fraternities in the US and has been called the "Mother of Fraternities". Kappa Alpha Society, Sigma Phi, and Delta Phi, known collectively as the Union Triad, were founded there between 1825 to 1827. Several other fraternities, including Psi Upsilon (1833), Chi Psi (1841) and Theta Delta Chi (1847) were also founded at Union.
During the first half of the 19th century Union experienced great success and was ranked with Harvard and Yale among the top colleges in the country. By 1839 Union had one of the largest faculties in American higher education and an enrollment surpassed only by Yale. It was one of the first colleges to develop a scientific curriculum alongside the traditional "classical" curriculum and Union's President, Eliphalet Nott, was thought by many to be the preeminent college president in the US during the period.
In 1881 Chester Arthur, Union class of 1848, became the 21st President of the United States.
Union hockey began in the early 1900s, but, unlike its neighboring upstate New York schools, like RPI and Clarkson, it enjoyed no particular success and hockey was dropped as a varsity sport in the 1940s.
After World War II, Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan joined Bowdoin and Dartmouth in signing the so-called Pentagonal Agreement regarding college athletics and academics. This led to the formation of the New England Small College Athletic Conference in 1971 by the Pentagonal colleges (other than Dartmouth which had joined the Ivy League in the meantime) together with Union and Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury and Trinity colleges and Tufts University.
About the time it joined NESCAC, Union had a new president named Thomas Bonner, who wanted to raise the profile of the school's athletic programs. Bonner hired Tom Cahill, the former Army football coach, to build up the football program and Ned Harkness, the controversial former RPI, Cornell and Detroit Red Wings coach, as head coach and rink manager, to revive the hockey program. Bonner apparently gave the coaches carte blanche to do whatever was needed to win -- and win quickly. Funds were raised for a new arena and the Achilles Center rink was built.
The hockey team began play in NCAA Division III and was instantly successful, finishing with a 20–4–1 record in the 1975–76 season, their first since the 1940s, with a roster full of freshmen. Harkness followed up this initial success with a 22–3–1 season in 1976-77, and the young program was well on its way to becoming a powerhouse. Sports Illustrated wrote the Harkness comeback story up in February 1977: https://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vau...ndex.htm<br />.
At the same time, however, there was a huge amount of controversy over the limitations imposed by the small college-oriented NESCAC on Union's athletic aspirations and in May 1977 Union decided to leave the NESCAC altogether. See: https://news.google.com/newspapers?ni...g=1191,4829816.
The 1977–78 season started off with the team going 4–1–1 record in their first 6 games. However, a battle between the academic powers that be and Harkness was brewing. In late December, four of Harkness' top players were put on academic probation and barred from playing. Harkness was furious and abruptly quit. Reports were flying that he had violated NESCAC recruiting rules (and then lied to Bonner about it) and that admission standards for hockey players had been compromised. Many of the Union players coming in as freshmen were well into their twenties and had played for Canadian Senior teams; others were NHL draftees drawn by the chance to play for Harkness (a former coach of the Detroit Red Wings) and his plan to jump the team to Division I. Upon hearing of their coach's decision to leave, the entire team refused to play the remainder of the season in a show of solidarity with their coach.
Overnight, the school's JV team turned into the varsity and due to the scandal, Union's formal schedule was cancelled. They were forced to play a makeshift schedule which included games against prep schools such as Hotchkiss, Trinity-Pawling, and Kimball Union, as well as games against other school's JV teams. They went 0-13-0 for the rest of the season and were outscored 146-32. As for Harkness, he instantly resurfaced as the founder/GM of the AHL's Adirondack Red Wings. In 1982, he was appointed president/CEO of the U.S. Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid.
In May 1978, Bonner left Union to become President of Wayne State University. He had never recovered from the Harkness controversy. See: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id...+gazette&hl=en
Union went back to D3 hockey the following year, except, for better or worse, they were no longer NESCAC members, and stayed there until 1991 when it accepted an invitation to replace Army in the ECAC.
Union struggled in the ECAC for many years and many observers and their own fans thought they would never succeed at the D1 level.
So much for history.
(Note: I'm not a Union alum, just the uncle of one. I apologize in advance if I've misstated anything above and welcome corrections and additions. I will be pulling for Union this weekend!)