For the Bentley University Falcons hockey team, the 2011-2012 season put the program on the map. It was the advent of the new era, the year that future teams can hopefully point to as the catalyst for seasons of unparalleled, unprecedented success. It was Year One of the multiyear project hell-bent on legitimizing the school as a Division I hockey program.
Year One is over. And as the 2012-2013 academic school year sits just one month away from its move-in date, the Falcons can begin focusing on the next step, the all-important Year Two.
Year Two will begin on October 13, 2012 at Tsongas Arena in Lowell, MA, against a team that was one game away from the Frozen Four. For the Falcons, they will take the ice no longer as scrappy little underdogs from the Atlantic Hockey Association, no more a team with the approach of “just happy to be here.” For their own expectations and now for the expectations of others, they will need to compete, potentially win, and come away from a measure of respect from their opponents.
For Brett Gensler, Year One was the breakout season. As a sophomore, he shattered the Bentley single-season record for goals and points at the Division I level. His 23 goals broke a three-year old record, but his 50 points broke a mark held by his coach, Ryan Soderquist, dating back to 1999-2000, the team’s first at the top collegiate level. Those 50 points were only the second time in school history the mark was reached, with Soderquist scoring 59 in 1997-1998, the school’s last before beginning a two-year process to reclassify to Division I.
“Last year was definitely crazy (both for the team and for me),” said Gensler. “We were very successful, and we felt we had a team that could’ve gone far. We had as good a chance as anyone.”
For Gensler, the 50 points were good enough to earn him top honors in New England. The St. Louis, Missouri native won the Walter Brown Award as the top American-born hockey player at a Division I school in New England. While it’s a criteria that sounds pigeon-holed, it’s not something that’s done easily. Gensler beat out Chris Kreider and Barry Almeida of Boston College, with the former finishing out the year as a playoff hero for the New York Rangers in the NHL. He was the first-ever Falcon to win the award, the first-ever Atlantic Hockey player to win the award, and only the fourth representative not from a Hockey East school since the power conference formed in 1984 (the other three were all from Harvard).
“It was an absolutely huge shock (to win the Walter Brown Award),” he said. “It was completely unreal, especially when I realized how much it meant to New England. I was honored just to be a semifinalist among guys like Kreider and Almeida, and when I won it, both Coach (Soderquist) and I really felt how special it was. It’s one of those things where I heard the chatter from the alumni, from the Bentley people; it can really only help the program. Any recognition to the program just helps us get better and better. It’s another stepping stone for the foundation, and it helps us build for success.”
For Gensler, last season’s breakout leads to this season’s heightened expectations. Now a rising junior for the Falcons, he’ll be relied upon as one of a core that returns to lead Bentley back to a promised land it hasn’t seen since 2009. “It’s never fun to lose, even though it’s also never easy to win at RIT,” he said. “We won that first game, and we thought, ‘Okay, we can really do this.’ Then we fought back and ended up dominating a little bit in that first overtime (of Game 2), but we just couldn’t bury the game. We couldn’t really get (our game) back for Game 3, and that stung. For about a week, it really hurt bad, but after that, we kind of put it to bed, said that it’s over, and started to celebrate what we’d accomplished. We were able to remember the good times we’d had with our fans, get into spring training, and start getting ready for the next year.”
For the junior, that training’s included laying low before finally getting back into the gym. After about a month for the beginning of summer, he’s started up his offseason training program, including four days in the gym on a program with a number of athletes in the St. Louis area. While he’ll skate once or twice a week, that will increase in August with skill sessions and training partners that include players like Brian Sheehan from Sacred Heart. “I’m lucky that the older alumni are all invited back to scrimmage and play with guys from the midget majors, the USHL, other college athletes,” said Gensler. “It’s not getting me back into hockey shape, but it gets your skates under you, and it gets you going to feel ready to get back into it.”
Getting back into it has been the theme for the Falcons in the offseason. And no matter what they did in Year One, Year Two is seemingly all about two words: unfinished business.
“We definitely have some unfinished business (with the NCAA and Atlantic Hockey),” he said. “This year, everyone won something, and the individual awards are great. It’s great to look at each other and pat each other on the back. But it means nothing next to winning the conference and becoming a contender. We need to focus on becoming a team, and when we do, things will happen. The individual stuff is nice, but our goal needs to be about raising a banner in the JAR and realizing what it will take to work to that.”
The unfinished business will include big games against non-conference opponents, including the aforementioned River Hawks and their Hockey East brethren from Northeastern. “Every game is a big game,” said Gensler. “We’re trying to build a name all over the region, not just Atlantic Hockey. We’re trying to let everyone know that we’re an actual D1 program that’s going to win. We can’t just sit back and be happy to be playing teams (like Michigan, Harvard, or Dartmouth). We have to go out and realize it’s important to do well.”
That importance reaches beyond just the team into the peripheral realm of both recruiting and off-ice support. “We lost some key guys on defense,” he said, “but we also know we return a good part of our core. We have some good guys coming in, and we know that in order for good things to happen, we need to build for winning. (With the way the league plays out), we know we can have as good a chance as anyone.”
Still, though, the magical season from a year ago, which bitterly died at Ritter Arena in Rochester on a Sunday night in March, isn’t lost in terms of impact. To the team’s top scorer, it was “crazy” how everything started to really take shape just a couple of short weeks into the season. Following a promotional night against Clarkson at home that was a sell-out, the Bentley team noticed the number of fans, which numbered in the dozens over the past few seasons, wasn’t really dissipating, that it stayed relatively large, that it continued to grow.
“A couple of weeks in, we noticed the guys in the stands,” said Gensler. “Coach (Soderquist) came to us and said, ‘Let’s get some fans (in the JAR).’ We knew if we could get even 50-60 people in there, the building is so small that it would just get really loud. Then we started to really get to know the guys in the stands, and the whole thing just became really cool. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and we made some good friends. You’d be walking the halls on the way to class, you’d see them on a Tuesday, and you’d stop and say hi to start talking. I’m really excited that those guys (in the Falcons Nest) will be back this year. And I know if we can get more people into our rink, it can just be absolutely insane.”
Bentley’s season opens up on 10/13 against UMass-Lowell with their home opener three days later on Tuesday, 10/16 against Sacred Heart. The first weekend home game occurs on 10/26 when the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers come to town for a Friday night matchup.