By Bobby Bertagna
Over the next few weeks, each of this year’s participants in the Norther Irish Connections Friendship Four will be featured in a brief exposé, helping the fans learn about the history of the teams and what to expect in November. Up this time, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers.
If someone told me to come up with an original nickname for a sports team, I don’t think I could possibly come up with a less interesting name than, “the Engineers”. Yet, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where science and technology are the foundation of the university, it is actually quite fitting.
Rensselaer (commonly known as RPI) is unique in that their men’s and women’s hockey teams are the only division one sports teams they sponsor. The rest of their teams are in division three, which has made hockey their most popular sport. Their hockey team dates back to 1901, making it one of the oldest hockey programs in the United States, and the oldest of the four teams in this year’s tournament. Until 1962, they were an independent program, playing whoever would schedule a game against them until they became a founding member of the ECAC. They have had their ups and downs over the years, highlighted by two national championships (1954 & 1985). Since their most recent championship, however, they have only qualified for the NCAA tournament three times, and only once since 2000. They haven’t won the ECAC championship since 1995.
The 2016-17 season was not kind to the Engineers. They finished the season with only eight wins, their lowest total in 35 years, and finished second to last in their conference. Just like Maine, they have almost nowhere to go but up. After such a disappointing season, they underwent an overhaul, bringing in former Canisius coach Dave Smith to replace the long-tenured Seth Appert.
The official announcement of new head coach Dave Smith
Canisius had an impressive season last year (21-11-7), winning the Atlantic Hockey regular season title, and it was evident the Smith was ready to make the leap to the next level after eleven seasons at Canisius. RPI seems like a good project for him to undertake, as he has shown he can put together a competent squad even without much to work with. He was very excited about the opportunity to play in Belfast, as it is a completely new experience for him. “I have the same excitement as the players, I’ve never been overseas anywhere – I have no idea what to expect. I know that in Belfast there’s going to be two high level hockey games in a great environment with people that are super excited to host us and welcome us with open arms”. He stresses that the main goal of this tournament is to build the team spirit and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “We want to see the sights, we want to enjoy each other’s company, we want to enjoy the country & the people of Northern Ireland, and then we want to prepare for the hockey”.
Players to Watch
Smith will have some work to do to bring the program back to their winning ways, but luckily they haven’t faced too much squad turnover. They lost last year’s top scorer in Riley Bourbonnais, but retained the rest of their top ten scorers. Captain Viktor Liljegren (one of only three seniors) looks to lead the line in his senior season, and the Swede is excited about playing in his native continent. “For me, personally, it’s fun to be back on the right side of the pond”, he jokes, “I have a lot of family coming over to Northern Ireland to see me play and I think it’s going to be a great experience to travel with the team and play some fun hockey”.
Behind Liljegren, senior captains Mike Prapavessis and Jared Wilson look to hold down the backline and improve the team’s poor defensive record from last year. They allowed the most goals of any team in the ECAC and were bottom ten in the country, but the two captains and junior goaltender Chase Perry are confident they can turn things around. With 19 underclassmen (first and second year students), there is a lot of promise in this RPI side, and if they can mesh well from the start, they could soon return to the upper half of the ECAC.
Goaltender Chase Perry
RPI is just one of four schools on display November 24th and 25th in the Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four at the SSE Arena. Tickets can be purchased at the arena or through ticketmaster via friendshipfour.com