As the 2016 NCAA men's hockey tournament opens, Quinnipiac is the top seed and a long way from its humble beginnings.
HAMDEN, CT — Rand Pecknold took the job as men's hockey coach at the school that’s hard to pronounce (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) because it meant $6,700 and a position in the sport.
"I easily could’ve quit," he says. "Nobody would’ve blamed me. We had nothing. I couldn’t feed the guys when we went on the road. We didn’t have a budget to play a full schedule. This was about as Mickey Mouse as it gets."
So he slogged through midnight practices at the town rink in Northford, CT. He got home at 2:30 a.m., slept until 6 a.m., woke up, taught at a local high school and came home for a three-hour nap. At 6 p.m. he'd drive 71 miles to the Quinnipiac University campus to recruit players and try to figure out how to bolster his team. Then he started it all over again with practice at midnight.
“It was one of the hardest years of my life,” Pecknold told SI.com while sitting in his office at the TD Bank Sports Center, under a whiteboard with not-quite-erased diagrams. “And there we were with one win, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’”
Now, 22 years later, Pecknold has taken his team from the bowels of a public rink that had a curtain separating the home and visiting locker rooms to the top of the NCAA rankings, the number one seed heading into this weekend’s national tournament. It’s been the turnaround of a lifetime, from 1-12-1 in his first 14 games as coach to 29-3-7 this season and the cusp of the national championship. But this is not just about the boys. It turns out the program that started in the town rink now has something else: a pretty damn good women’s team.
Pecknold kickstarted the rise of Quinnipiac hockey, but it was turbo-charged by a new arena. Home games were played at the Northford Ice Pavilion, some eight miles from campus, even after Quinnipiac moved from NCAA Division II to Division I in 1998 before joining hockey heavyweights like Harvard, Yale and Cornell in the ECAC in 2005. The Bobcats used to play Yale at the Bulldogs’ Ingalls Rink in New Haven, as the home team. The full transformation of this afterthought hockey program finally came with the opening in 2007 of the $52 million TD Bank Sports Center. Built as part of a larger $360 million investment in a second campus, the arena proved to be an invaluable draw for top recruits who otherwise wouldn't have heard of the school with the funny name.
“It’s amazing,” says Cydney Roesler, a senior defenseman and captain of the women’s team. “Coming in and seeing it for the first time was a huge eye opener. We’re spoiled.”
The arena also hosts the basketball program and is state of the art in every way. There are weight rooms with every machine imaginable, and recovery and rehab areas with trainers flowing in and out. There are lounges for both men and women and a locker room that’s bigger than most professional teams use. It’s a full city in the midst of a bustling campus.
“Before we had this, we couldn’t have elite players,” Pecknold says.
The first-rate arena also helped to galvanize Quinnipiac's students into supporting the hockey teams. But it doesn’t fully explain how the men’s team is now the best in the country, and the women’s squad finished the season at a respectable No. 5. No, to fully understand how that happened, you need to know about the Quinnipiac Way.
By the book
Pecknold and first year women’s coach Cassie Turner may have arrived at the school at different times, but they are eerily similar. Independent of each other and unprompted, they both bring up the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck as something that’s had a major influence on their coaching styles and they discuss the importance of creating a supportive culture. They both mention their obsessive video watching habits and talk about how they want their teams to be incredibly hard to play against.
The two coaches have worked relentlessly to create a culture that puts the team above everything else, but it’s so welcoming that once they get a recruit on campus, the kid rarely decides to go elsewhere. Take men’s team captain and senior forward Soren Jonzzon, for example, who grew up in California. “I didn’t know what Quinnipiac was,” he says in the women’s lounge, a scruffy blonde beard covering his face. “But when I came out on my official visit, the school was gorgeous, the rink was top notch. The vibe I got was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Or consider sophomore forward Taylar Cianfarano, the most outstanding forward at the U-18 championships in Hungary in 2014. Powerhouses like Wisconsin and Minnesota wanted her services. “I absolutely fell in love with the campus,” she says. “I felt I was at home right away.”
Then there's freshman forward Melissa Samoskevich, who was named the All-USA Girls Hockey Player of the Year in 2015. “I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with it like I did,” she says. “Once I stepped on campus, I got that feeling. It was awesome. I knew right away.”
The culture at Quinnipiac is simple: Both teams have a close bond. They travel in packs, with 28 of the 30 men’s players attending a recent Florida Georgia Line concert together. Freshmen, like “Samo,” are comfortable chirping at the seniors. That togetherness is a crucial element in recruiting. The men’s team scours far-flung leagues like the BCHL for players who might be a bit slow, a bit small, like junior defenseman Devon Toews—no relation to Jonathan, the Chicago Blackhawks captain—who was only 5’2”, 102 pounds during his bantam draft year. Once he grew a little and found his niche at Quinnipiac, he became a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2014.
Even as Toews and his stock grew, he turned down a chance to play for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL. “I didn’t want to leave,” he says.
Turner’s style has been critical for a women’s team that could have fallen into turmoil. After last season, the school fired coach Rick Seeley, who then filed a wrongful termination suit, citing a five-year contract extension he signed in February, according to court documents. The case remains on the docket at the New Haven County Courthouse. With cloud of the lawsuit hovering over the school, Turner took over after seven years as an assistant and made the program her own.
“We talked about being hard to play against,” she says in her spare office a few doors down from Pecknold’s. “We very quickly created an environment where we were working towards the same goal. It’s a really honest culture, a supportive culture.”
Turner, who played college hockey at Brown, works with her husband, Paul Nemetz-Carlson, the director of women’s hockey operations with whom she recruited most of the team's current players. “I’ve never had a coach that works that hard,” Samoskevich says. “She told us she was up until 5 a.m. looking at video. It’s mind-blowing.”
To Turner, it's all a labor of love. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I really am. I drive up that hill and I take a deep breath and acknowledge the fact that, ‘wow, I get to be a part of this.’ I feel refreshed every day when I come to work. I’ve felt that way for the eight years I’ve been here. What they’ve provided for the men and us is a recipe for success. Just when I think I have it all, they do something to support us in a different way.”
Though it lost to rival Clarkson in the first round of this year's NCAA tournament, the women’s team still had its best year in program history, posting a 30-3-5 record. When told of her success, Turner shrugged. “I don’t think I accomplished something that is ridiculously amazing,” she says. “I think I did my job.”
In 2013, out of nowhere, Quinnipiac's men's team ended up in the NCAA championship game against Yale. The Bobcats had beaten their neighbors seven miles to the south three times. Pecknold still believes he had the best team in college hockey that year. But it lost 4–0, a case of the big boys beating up on little brother. This year is different. The Bobcats have lost only three games all season. They have the fourth-ranked offense, the sixth-ranked defense. They have the fifth-ranked power play, the third-ranked penalty kill. But they’re not thinking about winning the crown, not yet. Their focus is on that first-round matchup against RIT.
When the subject of the championship is brought up, Jonzzon knocks on wood. If the Bobcats prevail in the Frozen Four in Tampa on April 7-9, he will lead them in a song with lyrics we can’t disclose on a family website, a rendition that's likely to be so loud the ghosts of those midnight practices will hear it back at the old rink in Northford.