DETROIT — Jason Crain, Yan Des Gagne, and Mike McCormick have seen it all. In 1998-99, their rookie year with Ohio State, the Buckeyes went to the NCAA tournament, bowing out after a 4-2 loss to Maine.
At the end of the 1999-2000 campaign, the Buckeyes found themselves watching the CCHA playoffs from the bleachers, having missed postseason play for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Last year, it took the favored Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks three games to eliminate Ohio State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, a series in Omaha that was decided by one goal.
This year, the Buckeyes dispensed with Western Michigan in the first round of CCHA playoff action in two games, in Kalamazoo, en route to the Super Six. After beating Alaska-Fairbanks in a thrilling 6-5 overtime quarterfinal contest, OSU finds itself facing top-seeded Michigan in the semifinals.
The Buckeyes began the 2001-02 season strong, slumped through the second half, and have now one three consecutive playoff games.
At this point, while fans around the league question the strength of the OSU program, the three-member Buckeye senior class finds only one thing about this season surprising, and that would be the slumping.
For Ohio State, this has been a quiet year. No locker-room drama. No early departures. No obvious personality conflicts.
In short, all’s quiet on the Buckeye front, and that’s just fine with Crain, Des Gagne and McCormick, the three remaining soldiers in the class of 2002.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Des Gagne, who watched three members of his class depart early. “Looking at the facilities we have, it would be hard for me to play anywhere else. We’ve got a good program, and I’m happy I stayed.”
Former members of the OSU class of 2002, Matt Weber and Jeff Marshall, left of their own accord, and Nick Ganga was dismissed toward the end of last season. Scott Titus and Ryan Smith were originally classmates of Crain, Des Gagne and McCormick, but each had to take a medical redshirt in different years, making them members now of the class of 2003.
Said McCormick, “You deal with adversity while you’re here, and you try to change the negatives to positives.”
Crain, the captain of this year’s Buckeyes squad, said the mood of the team is calm, positive, and focused, and while he would have liked to have seen this kind of team unity in previous seasons, he’s happy to have it now.
“We’re more mature as a team,” said Crain. “We still have a lot of young guys, but in years past we’ve had guys going in many different directions, whereas this year it seems that we’ve come together and we’re all working as hard as we can for one goal. It feels really good.”
The tightness of the team is reflected in the defensive corps, which is the heart and soul of Ohio State’s style of play. As goes the defense, so go the Buckeyes.
“My freshman year, we had a tough one,” said junior blueliner Pete Broccoli. “When tempers get going, the guys lose focus on what they’re supposed to be doing. Our main goal this year was to keep focused on the game. When things go wrong, don’t worry about it, just keep working. That’s what we’ve been doing so far.
“There’s a lot of good camaraderie on the team. On the ice, you know that each one of those guys will have your back.”
The Buckeyes provided tangible evidence of that camaraderie the week before they played Western Michigan, when nearly every member of the team bleached his hair, as light as he could get it. The idea was sophomore Scott May’s. Housemates Chris Olsgard and Mike Betz were quick to endorse it, and to persuade other players that the platinum look could lead to postseason success.
“It was a house thing,” said Betz.. “We all live together. Next thing you know, we’re calling up the guys [asking], ‘Who wants to dye their hair?’ It was an inertia kind of thing — the more guys we got, the harder it was for each guy to say no.”
Crain, a natural blond, and Des Gagne and McCormick — decidedly brunets without the help of peroxide — are enjoying the sense of team unity in this, their senior year.
“It’s all about reaching that team goal,” said Crain. “We’re mature. We’re focused. All the guys get along.
“It’s a good feeling.”