When Dave Smith took over the Canisius hockey team five years ago, the program didn't have the best of reputations.
Wins and losses seemed to come with no rhyme or reason. A coach was fired amid a winning streak. The players seemed to be staging a mutiny while getting into various sorts of trouble.
Those days are long removed for the Golden Griffins. Active in community service, their players have good grade-point averages and now a berth in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals.
When No. 5 Canisius (17-14-5) takes on No. 1 seed RIT (24-11-1) today at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester (4 p.m., Radio 710 AM), it will be the capstone on the rehabilitation of the program's image. The winner plays either Air Force or Sacred Heart at 7 p.m. Saturday in the final at Blue Cross Arena for the league's bid into in the NCAA Tournament.
Smith never called the process "rehabilitation" but that was what had begun, particularly with that first full recruiting class -- which is now a core group of eight seniors and one red-shirt junior.
"We never talked about fixing anything," Smith said. "We talked about what [the program] could be, what we wanted it to be. Maybe the difference just is that we've had these guys for four years and they've seen the growth in our program, they've seen the growth of individuals within their own class and now we can piece those things together."
The journey was not easy but it was one players like Josh Heidinger were ready to take. Heidinger (Timon-St. Jude) remembers early phone calls with Smith and was eager to stay close to home and help build a program. The senior did just that and will leave as the program's career leader in points (132) and assists (95) in the Division I era.
"When [Smith] was recruiting me he was telling me it's going to be more than just hockey," said Heidinger, who has 11 goals and 39 points this season. "It's going to be setting the groundwork for years to come. . . . And it's been hard.
"They relied on all of us freshmen from day one but it's been a great experience and humbling, too. It's been wonderful to walk through campus and have people look at you in a positive way."
The on-ice improvement comes from adding talented pieces. The measurable results are impressive.
The Griffs won their first Atlantic Hockey playoff series since the conference went to the best-of-three quarterfinal format three years ago. They became the first lower-seeded team to win a series in the league and did it in dramatic fashion in the second game, coming back from a 4-1 deficit to win, 5-4, in double overtime for a sweep at Mercyhurst.
Junior Cory Conacher earned Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year honors. He has 53 points (20 goals, 33 assists) while his 1.56 points-per-game average ranks second nationally. Conacher set school single-season records this season for points and assists and tied the mark for game-winning goals with five. His 44 points in Atlantic Hockey games is the second most in league history.
Conacher isn't the only Griff lighting it up. Canisius averages 3.47 goals per game, which ranks 10th in the NCAA. Vincent Scarsella (St. Francis) has 11 goals and 41 points, while defenseman Carl Hudson has 14 goals and 34 points.
"Cory is the focal point for other teams because of his production and on-ice ability but we don't win if we don't have everybody contributing," Smith said.