DETROIT — Three teams in this weekend’s CCHA championship tournament field are proof positive of how difficult it is to win a league playoff championship. Among them, the only team to have claimed the CCHA playoff championship was the only team to advance to this year’s title contest.
Yesterday, Walt Kyle finally broke the Curse of Consolation. Until Friday’s 5-4 semifinal win over Miami in OT, Northern Michigan had played in seven of the previous eight CCHA championship tournaments under Kyle, never advancing past its first semifinal contest. The joke around the league was that the CCHA third-place game should be called the “Walt Kyle Consolation Game.”
“They can name it after me,” quipped Kyle after the win. “I just don’t want to play in it.”
This year, the top two seeds entering CCHA championship tournament lost their semifinal contests, guaranteeing that the Mason Cup would be out of their reach, again. While their plight may not be as recently poignant as that of NMU, playing for third place has different, disappointing meanings for the Bulldogs and the RedHawks.
While some teams view the conference championship as a means to and end, an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Ferris State coach Bob Daniels has always maintained that the CCHA playoff championship is a destination in itself.
“The only time I started focusing on the NCAA tournament was going into today’s game,” said Daniels. “To me, the big thing with coming here is to win the league. It’s the only thing. Once that’s not on the table, well here’s another avenue to have some fun. Let’s see if we can’t keep this fun going.
“During the course of the year, very rarely do we talk as a coaching staff about the NCAA. We figure if we do well here, we’ll get our bid.”
“For our team, obviously, we haven’t been to this championship weekend since 2003,” said Bulldogs senior forward Blair Riley. “You play 28 conference regular-season games, so that’s where the majority of the focus is, and then two playoff rounds just to get here.”
His classmate and linemate, Casey Haines, said that the Bulldogs come into every season focusing on three championships. “The Christmas tournament, the CCHA and then the national tournament,” he said. “We try to take down each three as they come. We don’t look forward. Didn’t do too well at Christmas, didn’t do too well now.”
Ferris State has made three previous trips to the CCHA championship in Joe Louis Arena, most recently in at the end of the 2002-03 season, when the Bulldogs lost their only title game appearance to Michigan, 5-3. That was the season in which Chris Kunitz scored 35 goals, propelling the Bulldogs to their only NCAA tournament berth. FSU beat North Dakota before bowing out with a 7-4 loss to eventual champion Minnesota.
“Getting into the tournament, that’s nice,” said Daniels, “but the CCHA championship is the main focus of our team.
“Myself, knowing how hard our league is and knowing how good our league is, the idea for me is that this is the end. Then beyond here, we’ll worry about that once this tournament’s over.”
While the Bulldogs will have to play a brief waiting game to find out if they’ll play in this year’s NCAA tournament, the RedHawks knew they’d be going to the NCAA tournament even before Friday’s game. A third-place win in Detroit and a Denver loss in the WCHA third-place game Saturday makes Miami the No. 1 seed nationally for the 2009-10 NCAA tournament.
It’s not a Mason Cup — and the RedHawks do want that hardware — but after what Miami has endured in the last 12 months, the seeding does provide some consolation. Miami began the season a few short months after a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Boston University in the 2009 NCAA championship game. In that contest, Miami led 3-1 going into the final minute of regulation.
As difficult as that was for the RedHawks to endure, the entire Miami program learned a far more real lesson in heartache when the team’s student manager, Brendan Burke, died in a car crash in February.
“I’m extremely proud, as our staff is, as our university is,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi after the RedHawks’ 2-1 win over the Bulldogs Saturday. “If we know the number right — and I think you know the numbers better than we do, playing the committee in the locker room after the game — if this team ends up being the No. 1 seed overall, it’s a pretty good season. You want to go into the tournament on a winning note.
“I’m just really proud of our guys. I know that yesterday was disappointing, but today was a new day. Right now we start our quest to get back here to Detroit.”
Miami entered the CCHA championship tournament as the No. 1 seed in this field for the third time in program history; in each of two previous attempts to capture the crown as the top team, the RedHawks fell in the title game. In 1993, No. 1 Miami lost to No. 3 Lake Superior State, 3-0. In 2006, the RedHawks fell to No. 2 Michigan State, 2-1.