by Dr. Steve Mancini
Photo courtesy of RMU Athletics.
For reasons that many still don’t understand, Robert Morris University’s former President cancelled the RMU men’s and women’s division 1 hockey programs. Understandably, many students, players and fans alike were outraged and weren’t ready to give up. Over the past several years, what began through a concerted grassroots effort, the path to return D1 hockey to the ice of Neville Island has come to fruition.
Enter—Associate Head Coach Matt Nicholson. For anyone who knows RMU ice hockey, that name should ring a bell. Coach Nicholson was both an assistant coach and associate head coach for the Colonials from 2009 to 2015. As a former coach, including one who has experience building a team from scratch, he knew the challenges that were ahead.
So, what are his expectations for their first season?
“We are in a unique situation as an expansion team on one hand,” he said, “but one with a
successful hockey history on the other.”
Coach Nicholson believes the pieces are here to “get back and exceed the timeline” for having a winning program. In fact, he compared RMU to NHL expansion teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken. He explained that RMU was able to pull existing and experienced players from the transfer portal while still recruiting young talent from high schools and prep programs.
So how was the team reconstituted?
Nicholson noted the team roster roughly consists of 1/3 transfers, 1/3 from junior clubs and 6 from the previous programs who stayed to play at the collegiate level. And just like those NHL expansion teams, RMU players are likely playing with a chip on their shoulder that should translate into intensity. Coupling that intensity with skill, Nicholson believes it will create an immediately competitive atmosphere.
In his eyes, are the playoffs possible this season?
Nicholson’s confident in his patchwork squad and set a goal to finish in the top 5. To accomplish
this, he wanted to build the team from the net out, beginning with starting goalie, Chad Veltri. Veltri is an experienced goaltender whose name should be familiar to hockey fans. When he played for Niagara, he beat RMU 4 times.
And Nicholson warned supporters not to sleep on their backup netminder Francis Boisvert.
Boisvert is another experienced goaltender, playing the past 4 years for St. Lawrence University.
And Nicholson feels this “1–2” punch means the team has built with the right foundation to start.
What about the rest of the team?
Starting with the defense, Nicholson looks for big things out of Luke Johnson. He described Johnson as an intelligent player with a great hockey IQ, landing him on the first powerplay unit. He’s a veteran player, with a year at Providence College, and has experience playing against some competitive teams.
As for forwards, a few names jumped out, including Rylee St. Onge, from Mercyhurst and Logan
Ganie. Ganie transferred in from perennial power Michigan Tech. Nicholson believes St. Onge can easily be a 20-goal scorer this season, especially with a player like Ganie, who is a known setup guy. Then there’s Dallas Tulik, another seasoned veteran coming from Ferris State. Tulik finished second on the team in scoring with 19 points (7 goals and 12 assists) last year.
Coach also noted there are a few younger players to keep an eye on, such as McKay Hayes. Hayes is a freshman coming from the Markham Royals (OJHL), bringing all of his 6’ 2” and 205 lbs. frame to the offensive zone. In the 2022-23 season with Markham, he scored 31 goals and had 50 assists in 50 games. Big numbers for a big guy, and he’s only a freshman.
So, what does the future look like to coach?
“Very bright,” said Coach Nicholson. He feels with a balance of experienced and younger players, RMU hockey is here to compete, and “will put that winning atmosphere back in the Island Sports Center.”
While there are many new faces, there are still some recognizable ones, like Nicholson. No one knows how the season will unfold, but if Coach Nicholson’s attitude mirrors the team, then the future looks very bright indeed.