SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Until recently, Rick Bennett’s reputation had been pretty clean. From the outside looking in, the head coach was widely considered a tough, blue-collar leader synonymous with the program’s rise to a national championship.
Last month, however, an anonymous allegation into Bennett’s coaching style and practices ultimately led to his sudden, mid-season resignation as head coach. While NEWS10 cannot confirm that specific allegation, Sports Director Liana Bonavita received others, which sparked our own investigation into the program and the lasting impact Bennett has had on those who played for him.
For Nolan Julseth-White and Brock Matheson, both former captains of the Union hockey team, the impact was positive. They called their experience within the program a “growth journey.” Matheson said, “We both came in and had freshman years where we didn’t play every game.”
The former teammates shared their accounts of growing from humbled freshmen to confident leaders both on and off the ice, crediting much of their development as players and people to Bennett and the culture he established in Schenectady. Bennett described his style as “tough, but fair. Demanding, but not demeaning.”
Julseth-White agreed with that assessment, adding that “being held accountable to a certain expectation” stuck with him at and beyond his days at Union. “I’d be half the man I am today. I’d be half the player I became.”
“It’s been exclusively positive and really a life-changing transformative experience,” added Matheson.
However, for some players, that wasn’t the case. Questions have surfaced about whether the recent allegation that precipitated Bennett’s resignation followed a moment where Bennett grabbed a player’s shoulder pads.
Bennett said he couldn’t comment when asked whether he had ever placed his hands on a player, and the administration declined to comment as well. “This is obviously a personnel matter and we can’t share the details of the investigation,” said Athletic Director Jim McLaughlin during the press conference immediately following Bennett’s resignation.
Two former players approached NEWS10 before Bennett was placed on administrative leave with a cautionary take on his coaching. One player who wanted to protect his identity shared his account of a former assistant coach “sucker punching” a player and “spearing him” beneath the belt during a scrimmage.
The player said Bennett was there and saw it, but didn’t do anything.
“Honestly, I do not remember that incident, seeing a coach punch a player,” said Bennett when asked about the allegation. “I have never seen that in my time.” He added that had he seen an assault, he would have taken disciplinary action.
McLaughlin says no complaints were filed along those lines, and he believes Bennett always had the best intentions at heart. Liam Morgan, a former Dutchman forward, would disagree, saying that Bennett ruined his college experience. “A lot of the stuff that he did wasn’t too kosher, I thought,” he said. “Sort of took the love of hockey away from me.”
Morgan was with the program for two seasons. He was the highest-scoring freshman and got better as a sophomore, but he felt like a target of body shaming. He says he was part of “the body beautiful club [Bennett] called it for the guys that tested over 12% body fat.”
Bennett forced those players to put in extra work when practice was over, and on “weigh-in Wednesdays,” Liam says if he was even a fraction of a pound overweight, he was punished. “At the beginning of practice, he would tell everyone to get on the bench and watch me skate by myself,” Morgan detailed. “He would say, ‘You know what this is for, right?'”
Bennett says he doesn’t remember doing that, but he did stress being in shape. “This program is not sprinkled with first-, second-, third-, fourth-round picks in the NHL draft,” said Bennett. “These guys gotta be in the best possible shape to outcompete these other teams, and I always felt they had to play bigger than the jersey. And playing bigger than the jersey, there was a culture of accountability with how you present yourself on that ice. And if you were overweight, now you’re carrying extra weight or extra body fat that now you’re just slowing yourself down.”
The unidentified player who shared his account of the punching incident, said he’d watch some of his friends eat “only spinach after long training sessions,” and starve themselves a day or two before weigh-ins.
Alex Sakellaropoulos, one of many former players NEWS10 reached out to since Morgan came forward, said he too was in the “fat club” all four years. “I was taking fat loss supplement pills as much as I could because [Bennett] was so hard on it,” said Sakellaropoulos, who was a freshman on Union’s 2014 national championship team. He said he tried to eat the best he could, but he was young and didn’t understand his body yet.
“Maybe if he approached it a different way, it probably would have helped and clicked faster for me,” Sakellaropoulos offered. The goalie, who currently plays for the Adirondack Thunder, didn’t take Bennett’s methods personally, though. He said, “I respected the man, because he obviously was doing what he thought was going to make me a better player.”
Bennett says he’s always had an open-door policy and wished he knew there was a problem earlier. “I do feel for them and I wish they would have came to me and we could have talked about it.” Bennett added, “This year we put in a rule that there was no body fat test done because I had heard just talking to our staff that this could affect a player’s mental approach.”
Bennett sometimes referred to as an “old school” coach, admits he’s seen the need to evolve in recent years with what he calls a culture shift within college hockey. “I’m not saying it’s for the worst. I’m not saying it’s for the better. I just have seen a shift,” said Bennett.
It’s a shift former Dutchmen still playing the game have also seen. “Some guys you can be hard on, some guys you can’t,” said Sebastian Vidmar, who declared his support for Bennett. He and his former teammate Jack Adams agree they respond best to an authoritative coach like Bennett.
“He’s demanding,” said Adams, who has a close relationship with Bennett and his family. “He demands your best effort, that’s non-negotiable, but as a player, that’s what you want. If that’s too much nowadays, I think our society is getting a little soft.”
Adams transferred out of Union when COVID canceled the 2020 to 2021 season. He made it clear that his departure had nothing to do with Bennett’s coaching, and shared a personal story. “When my brother passed away, he was at my dorm at five in the morning, and drove me home and talked to me the entire time, and literally checked in on me every single day for an entire year,” he said. “Always checking in on my parents and my siblings, just an unbelievable person.”
Adams doesn’t have children but said Bennett would be the first guy he’d call to coach his kid. Julseth-White agreed. “He instills good values in men, in young men, and creates them to be better people, better versions of themselves, and prepares them not only for hopefully a professional hockey career, but by coaching them through the student side of things and the study halls that he puts in place and making sure they’re on top of their academics and balancing that student-athlete demand, preps them for life after hockey,” said Julseth-White, who added that Bennett should have a lot to be proud of, and left the program in a better position than he found it.
“What resonates with me is how much he cared, how much he believed in every single guy in that locker room,” said Matheson, now a decade removed from the program. “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s put more effort into maintaining a relationship with me and building a relationship with me from the moment he met me to where we are today.”
Despite making mistakes, Bennett said, “I tried the best I could and I helped every individual regardless of whether they found issues or not, and I never held it personal, I never will.”