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Little-known Quinnipiac climbing out of Yale's shadow to the top of college hockey polls

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HAMDEN, Conn. - Quinnipiac captain Zack Currie says a lot of friends and family back in British Columbia didn't even know until recently how to pronounce the name of his school.

"They would say Kwin-ah-pick, or Kwin-ah-PIE-ack, there were some pretty bad ones too," the senior defenceman said.

For the record, it's pronounced KWIN-ah-pee-ack and its making a name for itself among the elite in college hockey. The Bobcats are 18-3-3, unbeaten in their last 17 games. They are ranked second in the nation, just behind perennial power Minnesota in the latest polls.

Coach Rand Pecknold believes his team would already be No. 1 if the name on the front of the jersey read "Michigan" or "Boston College."

"There's still some old-school voters that don't have the respect maybe they should have for our program," he said. "I bet some of those people haven't even seen us play."

A lot of people haven't. Quinnipiac, a school of about 8,500 students located north of New Haven, is in just its 15th season as a Division I program. It joined the ECAC conference in 2005 and the No. 2 ranking is the highest in the school's history, for any sport.

The team began its 15-0-2 unbeaten streak on Nov. 9 with an overtime win over Colgate. The biggest threat may come Saturday when it heads seven miles down the road to face its top rival, No. 8 Yale. The game already is sold out.

Pecknold is in his 19th season at Quinnipiac. The Bobcats were a Division II program until 1998, and he has guided it to 20-win seasons 14 times, including last year. But he acknowledges this year the team has a chance to be something very special.

That, he said, is due in large part to the play of goalie Eric Hartzell, a senior from White Bear Lake in Minnesota. The 6-foot-4 netminder has a save percentage of .934 and leads the nation with a goals-against average of 1.46. And he's considered a leading contender for the Hobey Baker award (hockey's answer to the Heisman trophy), a prize normally reserved for offensive stars.

As a result, Hartzell has been getting a lot of attention recently from NHL scouts and the national media. But he said it doesn't bother him, and won't affect his focus.

"We're not going to lose," Hartzell said. "I don't use the words, 'don't,' 'can't' or 'lose.' We have lost, but it's not something I like to use for future reference."

Hartzell, who was recruited by several name programs, such as North Dakota, was among those who hadn't heard of Quinnipiac growing up. But a friend, Zach Hanson, was recruited by Pecknold two years earlier, and that put the school on the goaltender's radar.

Pecknold said he first saw Hartzell play in a juniors tournament, where he performed poorly. Many schools, Pecknold said, lost interest after that. But Pecknold had come a day early to watch practice, and was convinced Hartzell had the skills to someday play in the NHL.

"Now you look at the finished product and all these schools are like, 'Wow, we should have taken him,'" Pecknold said. "Well, they could have but they didn't want him. I think we've done a good job of finding these diamonds in the rough, because a lot of times we just outwork other teams."

It's working. The Bobcats have also landed Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Matthew Peca, forward Jeremy Langlois, a former Eastern Junior League MVP, and a highly recruited pair of twin brothers, Conner and Kellen Jones.

It's an intelligent, but somewhat superstitious team. Twenty-four of the 28 members earned a 3.0 or better grade-point average last semester. But about the same number sport facial hair, because they believe it is helping them win.

It's a superstition that literally grew in November, when the players were growing moustaches as part of a prostate-cancer awareness campaign, "Mowvember." The team didn't lose a game, and the facial hair had to stay.

"Everyone's just having fun with it," said Currie, who is starting to resemble actor Wilford Brimley. "I'll keep this thing as long as I can."

Currie is one of 12 Bobcats from western Canada. The team also has three players from California, and one from Arizona. Just one, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, is from Connecticut.

Pecknold bristles at that. He said it's not because he hasn't recruited the state. The problem, he said, has been that the elite players here have grown up wanting to play for New England's bigger-name hockey schools. He points to Boston College star Pat Mullane, who is from Wallingford. Mullane's mom told Pecknold she gave her son a BC jersey when he was 7 years old, and he never wanted to go anyplace else.

But that might all be changing. The Bobcats are looking down on all of those programs in the rankings now, they have a resume to boast in the recruiting world, and they also have a state-of-the-art facility — the TD Bank Sports Center — that seats 3,386 fans. The Bobcats share the dual-arena complex with the basketball programs.

"Down the road, we won't lose the Pat Mullanes of the world," he said. "Those kids will get their Quinnipiac jerseys for Christmas and they'll want to come here."

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