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Wysocki: Robert Morris skating toward NCAA hockey dominance

“Not even Rudy or Hat Trick Jesus could have helped the Fightin’ Irish that day.”

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Despite having the word “island” in its name, Neville Island continues to be one of the nation’s least popular spring-break destinations. 

A newspaper ad in 1903 invited people to settle there, speculating that it would be the next Manhattan Island. Obviously, that never panned out and the island continued to be the subject of mediocre jokes (much like the one I attempted above).

Once, Virginia and Pennsylvania had disputed the Ohio River paradise until the Supreme Court ruled, in 1799, that it was all ours. I’m no legal scholar, but that seemed like an easy decision since the island is, in fact, located in Pennsylvania. But then nothing really exciting happened on Neville Island until 1998, the year the Island Sports Center was built on the island’s western tip. In 2003, Robert Morris University purchased the center; 12 days later, the school began assembling its first NCAA men’s hockey team, the Colonials, with the goal of beginning play in the 2004-05 season. Twelve years later, the Center is a hotbed for college hockey. 

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The team’s first head coach was a minor-league-hockey journeyman named Derek Schooley. Schooley spent time at the remote hockey outposts of the East Coast Hockey League — the Roanoke Express, the Pensacola Ice Pilots and the Peoria Rivermen. The defenseman picked up some coaching experience at Cornell University and the Air Force Academy before taking over the program. 

The results of that first season were pretty much what you’d expect from a program starting from scratch and featuring 22 freshmen: 8-25. But the team kept improving. The next year, the Colonials beat Western Michigan, an NCAA hockey powerhouse, in what Schooley called “the biggest win in our program.” The team won 12 games that year, and 14 games in 2006. They even beat nationally ranked Notre Dame. Not even Rudy or Hat Trick Jesus could have helped the Fightin’ Irish that day.

At that point, a new hockey program was suddenly on the rise. The team went 18-12-5 in 2010, and the wins kept ticking up each season, culminating with 24 wins last year. In 10 years, the team went from the Bad News Bears on ice to a nationally recognized and respected hockey program. I hope nobody from Cleveland tries to take Schooley.

Even the name of the venue has changed: The Island Sports Center is now the 84 Lumber Arena. Being a Pittsburgh purist, I will still call it Star Lake. Tickets for the games are $10-12 and the 1,100-seat arena is filling up for each home game with people who love hockey. Not as much as Canadians love hockey, but mothers do not love their children as much as Canadians love hockey. In fact, about half the Colonials roster is from the land of three-down football, weird bacon, Justin Bieber, poutine and rampant politeness. Senior captain Tyler Wilson and alternate captain Brandon Denham are both Canadians. But freshman Alex Dagnal and senior Zac Lynch are from Pittsburgh. Thanks to the arrival of Mario Lemieux in 1984, Pittsburgh moms and dads now make hockey players, too.

RMU gives you a great opportunity to check out reasonably priced college hockey against top-flight opponents like Sacred Heart, Canisius and Penn State. The season lasts until Feb. 27, and hopefully, a long postseason run is also on tap. And after another year of continued success, the Colonials can take a well-deserved spring break, ideally on an island where the sun shines more than half the year.


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