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NCAA tournament chase is on at RPI

by Bob Snow
In terms of history and tradition, not just any men's hockey program can compete with that of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers.

Only 13 other colleges are charter members of the NCAA since 1948.

"We're one of those programs to win multiple titles," said fifth-year coach Seth Appert about RPI's national championships in 1954 over Minnesota, 5-4 in OT, and in 1985 over Providence, 2-1.

"What drew me here [from assistant coach in Denver, which won the 2004 and 2005 national championships] was not only the great education but also the hockey history. We brought back the '85 team last year to connect with this team."

Adam Oates and Darren Puppa led the '85 Rensselaer Engineers. Mike McPhee -- Rensselaer's only alum to hoist the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986 -- helped set the table for his alma mater's championship run. Joe Juneau followed before his celebrated NHL career.

Aside from two first-round exits in 1994 and '95, there's an NCAA tournament drought in Troy, New York.

To lengthen this season into late March -- and beyond -- Rensselaer will lean on a smart and seasoned group of seniors, led by the 2010 ECAC Player of the Year and the league's leading scorer last year (26-26-52) Chase Polacek out of Edina, Minnesota.

All Polacek has done is get better and better and better the past three years after he was recruited out of the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn., where he and fellow senior alternate captain Bryan Brutlag won a state championship in 2005. 

"I came to RPI for four years to get a great education," said Polacek about his most important goal. "There was never a question about leaving early. I'm majoring in business management. I always expected to do good in school growing up and no matter how long I play hockey, I'll always have a degree to bounce back on."

"He's a huge piece -- the main piece -- and he has been for four years," said Appert about his prized pivot, who has never missed a game in his RPI career. "There was interest from NHL teams and what might be out there but he just has no interest in that. He wanted to be here and he wanted to graduate.

"Some players get success and cling onto that. They become pretty good, but never elevate. Early on Seth was a perimeter player -- a little cute in his play. What he's evolved into is a really hard player to play against -- an edgy forward who is willing to go to the tough areas to score goals. That's the big jump he made last year. He's got the talent and maybe the best shot in college hockey, but you have to pay the price to score goals from inside the slot. The last piece of his elevation is the leadership component where he's demanding things of his teammates. It's a great thing as a coach to know that one of your best players is one of your hardest workers.

"Chase is the best example of the commitment it takes to become an elite player."

"I came in as a [true] freshman at 18," said the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Polacek, who is also a Lowe's Senior CLASS Award nominee, "and it took a lot of practice and listening to coaches to make my game what it is today. It's the day-to-day habits and working hard. You can't take practices and games off.

"In the past, I'm not sure everyone was on board, but I think we have that -- dominate teams and be focused Friday and Saturday nights. Our PK has done a good job taking down power plays; the key now is for the forwards to show strong defensive play."

The forwards are led by seniors Tyler Helfrich, who along with Polacek is currently clicking at better than a point-per-game average, Joel Malchuk, Jeff Foss, and Scott Halpern.

Second-year senior captain John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., an African-American walk-on from Saginaw, Michigan, not only heads up the D along with senior Jeff Foss, but also brings some unique history -- and a solid understanding of chemistry -- to the roster. 

"My grandmother named my dad and then him to me," said the articulate Kennedy who is a chemical engineering major. "JFK was able to do a lot for civil rights in the '60s and actually just recently I was able to see a letter that was stamped by his office congratulating her on naming her son after him.

"As I went through high school, chemistry was fun, so I went into chemical engineering. I pretty much knew from middle school that I wanted to be an engineer."

How does Kennedy describe the consummate dual engineer and Engineer experience -- and how do Polacek and Kennedy complement each other?

"It's a tight schedule, but I wouldn't have it any other way," Kennedy said. "I have a lot of fun in the classroom and on the ice. Getting an education ahead of hockey was never a question. Even with a NHL career, you're going to have to do something else beyond that.

"Chase, from his freshman year -- we came in together -- just watching him develop has been a great thing to see. Each year he's kicked it up to a new level. He hasn't been satisfied with the year before -- keeps exceeding expectations."

Infusing that dynamic across the Rensselaer pine gives Appert and his players a key intangible for a lengthy 2010-11 campaign.

"Two of our players last year signed NHL contracts off their freshmen years," Appert said. "One reason is Chase drove them to be better. Now this year, the younger guys are CJ Lee and Marty O'Grady, emerging sophomores, and freshman Brock Higgs. They and all of our young players, I tell them, 'Watch Chase. How hard he works and how hard he prepares. He didn't show up on campus like this -- he worked for it.'"

The Engineers are off and working toward the ultimate "it." At 5-3-3 with all three losses on the road by 2-1, 1-0 and 2-1 scores, they are among the top teams in the league and ranked top-20 nationally. 

Junior Allen York sports a sparkling 1.77 goals-against average between the pipes, having played all 11 games so far.

"It was quite the experience seeing the '85 team last year," Kennedy said. "The best advice was generating the belief in the locker room that you can win games with the talent level of the guy next to you. We look to go deep into March and into April this season."
Only four NCAA teams play each April. The championship game is set for April 10 in, coincidentally, St. Paul, at the Xcel Center after the semifinal two nights before.

"I hope my last game is in Minnesota playing in the national championship game," said Polacek the Minnesota native. "I met Juneau my sophomore year, and they were special players in the '80s."

As are Brutlag, Kennedy, and Polacek and company in 2010-11.

On Campus Clips: This marks the ninth year that "Graduation Success Rate" data have been collected by the NCAA. Division I student-athletes continue to set high marks for graduation. The GSR for male student-athletes who began college in 2003 is 79 percent. While this rate matches the GSR for the past two years and continues to be the highest ever in Division I, it has risen five points in nine years of GSR collection. Men's and women's ice hockey continues to lead all major sports, averaging above 90 percent at most schools. ... As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, ECAC Hockey has comprised a group of its top 50 players to recognize the storied history of the league. The league announced the first installment of honorees as part of its top 50 players of all-time. These honorees were tallied from 145 players (73 forwards, 47 defensemen and 25 goal­tenders). The first segment includes: Rensselaer forward Bob Brinkworth, a two-­time ECAC Hockey Player of the Year who ranks third all-time in NCAA history averaging 1.54 goals per game; Ken Dryden, goaltender at Cornell, a three­-time all-America and all-­league selection who guided the Big Red to the 1967 league and an NCAA title; Mark Fusco, a defenseman at Harvard, the first defenseman to be named ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and first collegiate defenseman to win the Hobey Baker Award; Brian Mueller, defenseman at Clarkson, a two-­time all­-America selection, who amassed over 150 points during his career; and Boston College forward Joe Mullen, a two­-time all­-league selection. Log onto to follow the upcoming installments.
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