After 22 years behind the bench of the Quinnipiac University Bobcats, coach Rand Pecknold is certain of one thing: he never knows how a team is going to come together, until it comes together.
Pecknold has taken a fledgling Div. 2 school, with an enrolment of slightly over 5,000 students, and made it the top-ranked NCAA Division 1 hockey team in the nation. With just one loss in 25 games this season, the 19-1-4 Bobcats were officially ranked number 1 this week by the USCHO and USA Today polls.
“I knew we were going to be good this year, but did I think we were going to be number 1 in the country? No I did not,” Pecknold told the Trail Times on Tuesday.
Quinnipiac started off the season at number 18, but climbed the ranks with every win, culminating in a 5-4 victory over number-5 ranked Harvard at Madison Square Gardens in New York last week.
“I definitely thought we’d have a good team, we lost some really good players last year, but it’s been a nice year, and a lot of our success is that we’ve had some guys that have blossomed, including obviously, Travis St. Denis, a Trail kid.”
The Bobcats’ connection to Trail started with Connor and Kellen Jones when they committed and went to Quinnipiac in 2010. Three years later, in 2013, the Bobcats received their first number 1 ranking on Feb. 11 and went on to play in the Frozen Four and the NCAA Div. 1 championship match.
Since then, with the help from the twin’s father, three more Trail products have joined the Quinnipiac line up.
“Terry Jones, has been instrumental in helping us,” said Pecknold. “He’s been great for us, a huge supporter of our program, and obviously Conner and Kellen are two of the best players we’ve ever had. We’re very happy with the Trail connection. Saint’s (St. Denis) having a great year and Scott Davidson and Craig Martin are doing a really good job too as freshman for us.”
St. Denis joined the team in 2012-13. After three good campaigns, he was named the assistant captain this season, and leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and 28 points, earning his 100th NCAA point earlier this month.
“He’s been fantastic, he’s been one of our best players. His first three years he was a very good player for us, and now he’s an elite player,” said Pecknold. “He’s a quiet leader but he competes hard, and that’s his main strength is his competitiveness. He’s having a great year all around.”
Two more Smoke Eater alumni, Davidson and Martin, joined the Cats this year, giving Quinnipiac three Trail products and a dozen recruits from the BCHL on its roster.
As freshman, Martin and Davidson have been used sparingly at times, but Pecknold says their futures look bright.
“They are going to be very good players for us, we like both of them and they’re both working hard and both really good hockey players, and good character kids.”
And when it comes to recruiting players, character goes a long way for Pecknold and assistant coaches Reid Cashman and Bill Riga. Competing for talent against much larger NCAA schools is a difficult prospect, but Quinnipiac has found a formula that has kept them competitive.
“We try to get guys like Tyson Jost (Penticton Vees top draft prospect), but we just didn’t get him,” laughed Pecknold. “We want talent, and talent is important, but we want character kids. We want competitiveness and really competitive players are the kids that usually excel within our culture.”
Quinnipiac doesn’t mind spending time developing players either, and taking undersized or fourth-line prospects and turning them into top-line skaters is something the coaches have been doing for years.
“Bill Riga and Reid Cashman do a great job finding kids that kind of fit our style of play, that fit our identity, and I think once we get them we do a really good job of developing the talent that we have.
“Just on our team now, we have a bunch of guys that we thought would be fourth line guys, or maybe a sixth defenceman and all of a sudden now they’re on our first power play and our second defenceman, and we do that over and over again.”
The Bobcats work hard off the ice as well with a team grade point average of 3.4, and 21 players with 3.0 GPA or better, it is one of the highest in the country. The culture of development, character, and accountability is paying dividends for players and coaches alike, making the small University in Hamden, Conn. not only number 1 on the ice, but in the hearts of its fans as well.
As for a repeat of the 2013 visit to the Frozen Four NCAA championship, Pecknold is hopeful, although he is cautious about putting too much pressure on this year’s squad.
“I don’t think this version is as good as that one but they keep proving me wrong so maybe they are,” he added. “It’s a little different, this version. Again we just keep overachieving, but if you keep doing that then maybe you’re not overachieving, maybe this is what we’re suppose to do.”
Pecknold boasts a career record of 433-261-80 and currently ranks sixth among all active NCAA Div. I coaches.