HAMDEN, Conn. — Nestled at the foot of Sleeping Giant State Park, Quinnipiac University is an institution that once could be described as a sleepy little commuter school, with an enrollment of 1,900 students. But it slumbers no more. Quinnipiac is a giant that has been awakened.
“I’ll tell you, we were a sleeping giant when I was inaugurated 26 years ago,’’ said Quinnipiac president John L. Lahey, who has presided over a stunning remake of the school into a thriving, three-campus Division 1 university with an enrollment of 8,500 students and an endowment that has grown from $5 million to $279 million.
The administration spent considerable resources to upgrade from Division 2, including the construction of the $60 million TD Bank Sports Center, a 185,000-square-foot complex that sits atop the school’s York Hill campus. It houses the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the men’s and women’s hockey teams in twin 3,500-seat arenas all under the same roof.
“We’re a little less asleep now, and we’re a little better-known,’’ Lahey said. “I still think we’re a well-kept secret, but it’s beginning to change.’’
Thanks to its Frozen Four men’s team, which entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, Quinnipiac appears to have been rebranded as a hockey school.
“No one accused me of having small dreams and small plans,’’ said Lahey, who 18 years ago hired athletic director Jack McDonald and charged him not only with raising Quinnipiac’s status to Division 1, but with landing the hockey program in the ECAC in 2005-06.
“I understood the importance of hockey in terms of the overall athletic program, particularly in the Northeast region. But I did not have it in my plan three or four years ago that hockey would get, literally, to be No. 1 in the country and that we would be playing in the Frozen Four.
“I must say, I did not have that in my plan and I’m not sure it was a realistic goal, but I’m thrilled and delighted for the team.’’
The Bobcats (29-7-5), who ascended to the top spot in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national polls Feb. 11, will face St. Cloud State (25-15-1) in the 8 p.m. nightcap of Thursday’s national semifinals at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
On the way up
Although still in its infancy as a Division 1 program, having moved up in 1998-99 as a member of the newly formed Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Quinnipiac hockey has flourished under 19th-year coach Rand Pecknold, who resisted overtures from Princeton following Quinnipiac’s first NCAA appearance in 2002 and last year from the University of Massachusetts.
“In the last 15 years, we’ve never had a losing season,’’ said Pecknold. “We’re actually the only team in Division 1 hockey that can say that. Michigan was the only other team, but they had a losing team this year and now we’re the only one left.
“I think we’ve always been good and competitive, certainly in Atlantic Hockey we were dominant within that league, but struggled outside of the league. Then we’ve always been good in the ECAC.”
The move in 2005-06 after two years in Atlantic Hockey to the ECAC, which came about when Vermont left for Hockey East, was critical. It was an opportunity for Quinnipiac not only to raise the level of its competition but also attract a higher level of recruits. The allure was only enhanced when Quinnipiac moved from the Northford Ice Pavilion, a town rink in North Branford 15 minutes east of campus, to the state-of-the-art facility on York Hill.
“If we don’t have this $60 million facility, we can’t get into recruiting battles with Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Boston College, and Michigan,’’ Pecknold said. “When we used to play in a town rink, it wasn’t even a battle then.
“Now we’re in those battles, but I’ll be the first one to admit we don’t win a lot of those battles, and we don’t need to. We just need to win some of them. And we need to work hard and make sure we’re in as many as we need to be and we will win a few and that’s how we get our high-end kids.’’
The move has reaped talent such as sophomore Matthew Peca, whose hat trick powered Quinnipiac to a 5-1 victory over Union in the East Regional championship March 31 at Providence, and senior goaltender Eric Hartzell, who swept ECAC Player of the Year and Goalie of the Year honors and recently was named one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
Senior captain Zack Currie said he might have reconsidered his other options (Alaska and Bowling Green) had he been taken on a tour of Quinnipiac’s old facilities. Continued...