By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There are a quite a few banners hanging from the rafters of Dwyer Arena on the Niagara University campus.
The white ones are from 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2013. Those are from the years that the Niagara men’s hockey team reached the NCAA tournament.
Then there are the purple ones, seven in all (if you don’t count the one for long home winning streaks). Those are about conference titles, either in the regular season or in the postseason tournament. The Purple Eagles aren’t fussy, nor should they be.
It’s nice to have a little tradition in the building where the players can see it. Such material can be inspiring. Still, in spite of some progress this season, it seems a little improbable that there will be any sewing done on white or purple material near Dwyer Arena this spring.
The Purple Eagles played Sacred Heart on a frosty Friday night below those banners. They lost to the Pioneers, 4-2, to fall behind Sacred Heart and into seventh place in Atlantic Hockey. Yet there is optimism that the team is using the Up escalator in terms of its future.
A quick start
Niagara has been playing hockey for more than 20 years, and it’s been an interesting ride. The Purple Eagles started a varsity program in 1996-97, and it moved up to varsity status in 1998-99, They went 17-12-3 in that first year in Division I. The following season, Niagara improved to 30 wins; one more victory at the end of the season would have given it a berth in the Frozen Four.
It was a monumental rise for a new program. Many thought hockey at Niagara was a great idea at the time, if only because there was a pool of talent located just over the bridge in Ontario. If you were a young player who was interested in trading some work on the ice for a free education located at a school not too far away, Niagara was ready to talk. Besides, college hockey doesn’t have 325 schools in Division I like basketball does, so it’s a bit easier to climb toward the top.
But it is always tough for a university of Niagara’s size and resources to maintain that level of excellence. Blaise MacDonald, the coach in those early, heady days, moved on to UMass-Lowell. When you are a mid-major in college sports, a successful coach is hard to keep. There were ups and downs under Dave Burkholder in the years after that.
Besides, recruits certainly are interested in spiffy facilities, and Dwyer Arena probably could use a facelift. There are about 15 rows of seating on one side of the ice, with some club-like seats in one end. The scoreboards don’t have room for the uniform numbers of penalized players. It’s closer to a basic hockey barn than an ice palace. Friday’s game attracted an announced crowd of 649 – less than half of the listed capacity of 1,400 – so there wasn’t a great deal of electricity in the air.
Those who did turn up saw a hard-fought, competitive game. Sacred Heart scored two goals in a span of 69 seconds in the second period to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. The Pioneers never trailed from there, scoring an empty-netter to wrap matters up.
“I’m going to have to start taking Tums or something,” second-year coach Jason Lammers of the Purple Eagles said. “We’re about three minutes away from being in first place. It’s just how close it has been. One can’t turn into two, but it did.”
Under the breakeven mark
Sacred Heart moved to 10-9-2 in Atlantic Hockey play, while Niagara fell to 9-10-3 in the conference and 10-15-3 overall. For the Purple Eagles, that still sounds better than the record from last year. They went 2-17-2 in their last 21 games after a 9-5-1 start to finish 11-22-3. Maybe that was a reason why Niagara was not expected to do well by many this season.
“Our obvious goal is to prove people wrong,” Lammers said. “We were picked to be last in our league, and the guys have done a nice job of overachieving, and being better than everyone else thought they were going to be. The frustrating part is that I think we can be better than what our guys think we can be. That’s our job as a coaching staff, to carry them to where they can be.”
If Niagara does pick it up in the final month of the regular season, Ludwig Stenlund will be a reason why. He had a goal in his seventh straight game Friday night, extending his own school record. The freshman from Sweden figures to be a part of any sort of the program’s revival Ij the near future.
“We have to play with emotion, but be emotionless. That’s hard for 18-to-25-year-old guys,” Lammers said. “That’s the challenge, but that’s what you have to do to get to the spot we want.”
The stretch run continues Saturday afternoon, as Niagara continues the home series with Sacred Heart at 4 p.m.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).