Founding members of Quinnipiac College varsity hockey squad reunite to talk glory days, toast national champs

July 11, 2023

Photo of the Braves ice hockey team

In his playing days with the first varsity hockey team at Quinnipiac College, Tom Roche was a 5-foot-10, 150-pound fireball, a penalty magnet of a defenseman who always seemed to be at the center of every skirmish.

He was grateful to share the ice with some bigger players on the 1975-76 Quinnipiac College Braves such as forward Joe Roche, who was not related but always stuck up for him like a big brother.

“My teammates always had my back,” said Tom Roche, who now serves as the senior capital project manager at his alma mater, overseeing the renovation of the home locker rooms for the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams at M&T Bank Arena and the South Quad development. “They gave me a little more courage.”

“Pound for pound, he was the scrappiest defenseman I ever played with,” recalled Joe Roche, a Hamden native who co-captained the Quinnipiac College varsity baseball team as a senior. “We all had each other’s backs and I did not shy away from physical contact, I’ll put it that way.”

Scrappy was a way of life for the Braves, a team battling not just for wins but for their very survival. And the spirit of brotherhood that bonded them was flowing at Eli’s on Whitney when Tom and Joe caught up with former teammates Cliff Pollack, Mike McKeon, Ted Spignesi and coach Jim Kennedy for a long dinner on June 5.

Pollack, apparently eager to reclaim his role as team prankster and provocateur, set the tone by walking through the front door wearing his old goalie mask. Mercifully, he was not wearing the raggedy T-shirt he cut up with scissors as a response to his teammates bestowing him with the nickname Swiss on account of his leaky goaltending stats.

The group then spent about two hours reminiscing about that rough-and-tumble first season, the rollicking bus rides, the 5 a.m. practice sessions, and, of course, the small yet pivotal role they all played in paving the Bobcats’ path to a national championship.

It was as if “time stood still,” according to Tom Roche, who organized the reunion and has plans for more events that would bridge eras in a half-century of Quinnipiac hockey history.

Support for varsity hockey was waning in the spring of 1975 when those founding players, then members of the club team, took the necessary steps to drum up support on campus and directly petition then athletic director Burt Kahn to approve funding for a four-year trial run, planting the seeds for the powerhouse program coach Rand Pecknold and his staff would build following his appointment in 1994.

Drawing on the New Haven area’s heritage as a hotbed for high school hockey talent, the roster was comprised mostly of local players, some of whom were members of other varsity teams on campus.

“It was a mix of kids who played high school hockey, some who didn’t, some who just played pond hockey — but everybody had a love for the sport and wanted to see the team succeed,” said McKeon, a center who had been a standout player at nearby West Haven High when he was recruited by another player to join Quinnipiac’s fledgling varsity outfit.

Crucially, the project had Kahn’s backing. But, as Joe Roche put it, there wasn’t a “dimmer switch” on the program’s long-term prospects; if it had floundered in those early years, the lights would have been turned out altogether.

The on-ice product was indeed a bit rough around the edges — “we’d get beat 14-0 but the guys didn’t care,” recalled McKeon. But the spirited bunch managed an 8-5 record in their maiden campaign, generating enough buzz to keep the program afloat.

“That got the program started. It was Division III, just another athletic program,” Tom Roche said. “And then Rand came and his vision changed it to become a national team compared to just a local hockey team made up of mostly local kids.”

The moment when Jacob Quillan scored 10 seconds into overtime April 8 to lift the Bobcats to a 3-2 victory over top-ranked Minnesota in the national title game brought a flood of congratulatory text messages from family, friends and ex-teammates, Tom Roche said.

“When they scored, I was sitting by myself and it was just so exciting,” he said. “Words couldn't describe it. I jumped off the couch and I was just in awe, just watching them celebrate. It was pretty amazing to see that and just to think I was a little part of the start of it. Almost makes me feel like a national champ.”

Watching at home in his old Braves jersey, McKeon — who served as an assistant coach for a season under Kennedy’s eventual successor, Ralph O’Connor, while he finished his degree — said he could tell the Bobcats were firmly in control of their destiny once Pecknold made the bold decision to pull goalie Yaniv Perets late in the third period, creating a 6-on-4 advantage that prompted Collin Graf’s tying goal.

It was extra gratifying, he said, to watch the Bobcats prevail over one of the sport’s “bluebloods.”

Added Joe Roche, “If somebody asked me back in 1976, would you ever envision this program being national champions? I would have said, ‘are you kidding me?’ … It's all the coaches along the way. They just kept building it, kept building it, from Jim Kennedy to Jim Armstrong to Rand. They kept recruiting better and better players.”

Tom Roche said he made a point of suiting up for the alumni game when the new rink was christened in 2007 and notes that the young alums, some of whom were pro-caliber prospects, were “the most respectful kids.”

“When I got the puck, nobody was all over me,” he said. “They would play each other really hard, but the older guys, they let us skate for a little bit. My neck hurt from watching them go by me so fast.”

With their skating days (mostly) behind them, the former players are content to pass a love of Quinnipiac hockey on to their grandkids. But with the 50th anniversary of the inaugural varsity season approaching, the group is looking to put together more events that would honor the past and this glorious moment in the present.

One friendship among founding players was rekindled when Joe Roche spotted a license plate in town that read “QUPUCK76.” The owner of the vehicle was Pollack. Now that they’ve seen how easy it is to reconnect and slide right back into their familiar banter, there’s a push to partner with the alumni office on a database that would allow for more frequent meetups.

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