Rob Morgan grew up in Medicine Hat, Alberta, about three hours down the road from where Islanders Hall of Fame center Bryan Trottier played junior hockey for the Swift Current Broncos. So, when the LIU Women’s Head Coach leads his Sharks onto the ice against number one ranked Wisconsin on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum, there will be plenty of emotions.
Not only is Morgan in the middle of starting up a brand-new program at LIU, but he’s also coaching to be coaching on Saturday in an NHL arena that has a special place in his heart.
“It’s incredibly special for me,” said Morgan. “That arena means a lot. As a Western Canadian, I remember watching in front of the television the Islanders win those cups. I loved watching Bobby Nystrom and Clark Gillies and Billy Smith.”
LIU is the first Division One hockey program, men or women, ever in the Long Island/New York City area. The Sharks already have a strong connection to the Islanders by splitting their home games between the Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow, the Islanders’ practice facility and Iceworks, the Isles’ former practice facility in Syosset.
And now the opportunity came up for them to play the second of back to back home games against the best team in the country at “The Barn” on Saturday at 530pm after Friday’s contest at Iceworks.
“Not only to we get to play in that arena but we also walk into their practice facility and they have all of these images of the greats that really put the New York Islanders on the map,” said Morgan. “When we eventually get out there and get through warmup and go back into the room and talk to the team and come out and start the game then it’s for sure all about our Sharks.”
Sophomore defenseman Grace Dima from South Huntington is the only Long Islanders on the Sharks team. When she was a youth player, she played at the Nassau Coliseum in-between periods of an Islanders game as part of a fund-raiser for her mite team.
“I must have been like eight or nine,” recalls Dima, a Sharks alternate captain. “There were fans out there and I barely remember it but I do remember just being in that huge rink.”
Dima, one of just two non-freshmen out of 23 players on the Sharks’ roster, is over the moon with the opportunity to be back on Coliseum ice, this time as the main event playing in a Division One College Hockey game.
“This is crazy,” said Dima. “We’re a brand-new team and being able to play the number one team in the country is really nerve-wracking but it’s just rewarding for all of us and just so excited to see this group of girls because we look up to them. Playing at Nassau Coliseum, we’re all just blown away. We can’t believe that this is actually happening.”
While it will be somewhat nostalgic and very exciting for Dima to play in the Coliseum again, she’s not about to look up at the Islanders’ Stanley Cup banners or all of the other Isles’ championship banners and retired numbers with any sense of pride or connection.
That’s because she’s not an Islanders fan.
“I’m a big Rangers fan,” admitted Dima. “But honestly it doesn’t really matter to me. I love Nassau Coliseum. It’s a beautiful building and to be able to play in the most elite place that we can play is the best part of it. I have a lot of respect for the Islanders. They’re a great team and it’s just the idea of it and the dream of it.”
For the Sharks, the dream is officially underway in terms of building a program and eventually building a winner. After the athletic departments of LIU Post (formerly CW Post) and LIU Brooklyn merged, there’s been a lot of changes including the football team moving up to Division One, the nickname change from Pioneers (Post) and Blackbirds (Brooklyn) to the unified nickname of Sharks, and the start of the women’s hockey team.
Morgan, who spent 2018 developing women’s professional hockey in China, has put together a team that is competing in the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance. He’s been hard at work since mid-September and hit the road in October to begin the recruiting process.
“It definitely is a lot of work,” said Morgan. “I was fortunate to have a list of prospective student-athletes from previous years working Division One. We’re making history. Certainly, it’s going to take a good two or three years to get to where we want to be. We believe that we can be very competitive within our conference but we’re not satisfied just being competitive within our conference. We want to be competitive nationally.”
LIU tuned up for their first ever season by facing the Metropolitan Riveters, a professional team in the National Women’s Hockey League. The Sharks lost that game 10-3 at Iceworks on September 28th and then opened the regular season with home-ice losses (4-0 and 6-1) to the University of Connecticut in Syosset.
And now, they get set for a pair of games against the best team in the country, an opportunity that the first-year program welcomes as they continue to grow on and off the ice.
“Things are going pretty well,” said Dima. “We’ve been, all of us, connecting off the ice so much. We’re one big happy family. I think that translates to our game. We started out barely knowing each other. We’ve only been practicing since school started and I see amazing progress. We’re moving the puck and we’re communicating. I see big things coming for us.”
There have already been some big things including starting the program and getting some games under their belts. Now the Sharks will play the number one ranked Badgers twice with Saturday’s game taking place at an iconic venue when it comes to hockey in this area. There’s a lot of history in the Nassau Coliseum and now the Sharks are going to add the Coliseum’s hockey legacy.
It’s also a good measuring stick for the Sharks in their infancy as a hockey program.
“Having the opportunity to play against Wisconsin is going to be a great experience for us,” said Morgan. “It’s going to allow us to see and compare where we’re at and help us understand the work we need to do to get where we want to go.”
The LIU Sharks have a long road ahead of them in building a hockey program, but that road will take them to Uniondale on Saturday night for a matchup with Wisconsin at Nassau Coliseum. It’s certainly a night that, win, lose or draw, will help build a foundation for what lies ahead.