FAIRFIELD, Conn. — The story behind Saturday night’s Iona-Fairfield game was not the Gaels’ 6-0 victory over the Stags to close out the regular season.
Instead, it was the way Fairfield’s faithful decided to celebrate their team rather than dwell on the passing of the program after more than three decades. With Fairfield eliminating its hockey program, it ended up being Senior Night for all of the Fairfield players and coaches — not just the eight graduating Stags players.
As Fairfield hit the ice, the Stags were greeted by red, white and black balloons by the entranceway to the ice and matching balloons were tied to the glass behind their bench. Signs like “We Will Always Love Stags Hockey” and “Thanks for the Memories” adorned the glass.
“I think they came through this [situation] great,” Fairfield coach Jim Hunt said of his players and their month-long ordeal. “They showed a tremendous amount of character. This [game] was an exception for what’s gone on since the announcement was made, and really, for the whole second half of the season. We haven’t been dominated like this in a long time. Obviously, the emotion had something to with it.”
“This is a tough day when you know you’re saying goodbye to the seniors and now you’re saying goodbye to everyone. It’s a real hard situation to handle.”
Iona coach Frank Bretti offered his own praise of the way the Stags handled their no-win situation.
“I thought the Fairfield players played with a lot of class tonight considering the circumstances,” he said. “The seniors on the team should be proud of what they have done.”
It was a bittersweet night for Gaels assistant coach Rob Haberbusch, who played four years for the Stags before graduating in 1993.
“It’s a very sad day for a lot of people. I feel very bad for these 30 kids and coaches that were brought in here under the guise that there was a long-term commitment to them and their goals. It is devastating to the alumni as well,” he explained.
“There are 34 years of tradition here. Countless people have come through here and put in a great deal of hard work, dedication and commitment to this program. To see it taken away with the snap of a finger is very hard to swallow [and] that something so many people worked hard to build isn’t there any more.”
Despite the feelings and sentiments, there was still a hockey game at hand. The Gaels were looking to build up some momentum as they head into the MAAC playoffs next Saturday night.
Iona opened the scoring in the opening minutes as Jamie Carroll scored the first of his two goals on the night. Seconds after failing to redirect a pass behind goaltender Craig Schnappinger, Carroll got a second chance as he tipped home Ryan Swanson’s shot from the left point at 2:11. Tim Krueckl received the second assist.
Despite taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, Haberbusch saw plenty of room for improvement.
“I thought Fairfield got the better of us in the first 12 minutes of the game. We had a lot of trouble breaking out against them. It seemed like they were forechecking differently — they were clogging the middle and being a little more passive than normal,” he said. “We were lucky to finish on that one opportunity and go into the intermission up a goal.”
The Gaels’ luck turned for the better in the second period as they turned a one-goal lead into a four-goal lead in five minutes.
Jean-Paul Chaput got the puck rolling when he intercepted a pass at center ice. The senior blueliner crossed over the blue line and let loose with a howitzer that beat Schnappinger and banged in off the left post at 7:29. The goal was Chaput’s third of the season.
Iona scored the first of their two power play goals at 9:02 of the second period as Chad Van Diemen’s cross ice pass from the right point found Carroll below the left wing circle. The freshman winger beat Schnappinger by roofing a sharp angle shot for his 14th of the season. Mark Hallam was credited with the secondary assist.
After a Fairfield timeout, Hunt sent Andrew Martin in to replace Schnappinger. The change had little effect, as the Gaels would score again on the power play a little more than three minutes later.
Ryan Swanson scored his fourth goal of the season as his shot from the left point beat Martin to the stick side. Hallam and Carroll assisted on the goal at 12:37.
Overshadowed by the Gaels offense was the fine play of goaltender Ian Vigier who stopped all 33 shots he faced to post his second straight shutout.
“It’s a good thing to get on a roll going into the playoffs and hopefully it carries on to Saturday night at Mercyhurst,” he said. “We’re prepared for the playoffs. We just have to work hard this week and make sure we’re focused and get some good rest. We’ve had some good games against Mercyhurst so hopefully we can come out on top.”
Iona finished off the scoring with a pair of goals late in the third period. Chris Martini scored an unassisted shorthanded goal as he recovered from a Hunter Greeley trip to beat Martin for his fourth goal of the season at 13:08.
Chris Connerty scored his first collegiate goal at 19:17 thanks to some excellent cycling and board work by Jaymie Harrington and Chad Nordhagen.
Fairfield finishes its final season of Division I hockey with an 8-22-2 overall record and a 7-17-2 MAAC record. Stags’ fans can take solace in the fact they had an opportunity to pay tribute to the players and the hockey program — something they would not have been able to do if the University did not go public with its plan (forced or not).
Iona (11-21-2; 11-14-1) will travel to Erie, Pa., to face number one seed Mercyhurst in the MAAC quarterfinals on Saturday night at the Mercyhurst Ice Center — game time to be announced.