A Long Night’s Journey Into Day

It’s Monday, two days after Andre Signoretti’s overtime goal sent Ohio State to college hockey’s Frozen Four, and the Buckeyes are back in Columbus, where it’s 85 degrees. It’s the first day of Spring Quarter classes.

After Buckeye hockey practice, the players linger a little. There are a couple of reporters, a couple fans. Everyone is very relaxed, and few of the guys seem to realize what they’ve done.

“I still can’t believe it,” says sophomore forward Louie Colsant, who scored the game-winner against Michigan in the CCHA tournament. “I can’t. I can’t believe we’re there.”

Senior Todd Compeau — a player who has found scoring success on Ohio State’s second line — says the impending trip to Boston hasn’t yet sunk in.

“I don’t think so, no. It’s hard to believe what we’re really doing right now. I guess when we get there and we step on the ice, we’ll realize it. It’s hard to believe, though, it really is.”

“I think it has sunk in, but I expected to go,” says Compeau’s linemate, fourth-year junior and assistant captain Dan Cousineau. “[During the playoffs] it was our goal to go. Right after the [Michigan State] game I still didn’t believe it. But it’s sunk in, and we’re on to bigger things now.”

Sophomore center and CCHA league scoring leader Hugo Boisvert says that it’s a reality for him, but adds, “It feels weird, though.

“Nobody expected us to go this far, and nobody expected us to beat [Michigan] State. When I woke up the next day, I was like, ‘This is for real.’ Overall, it’s a big surprise.”

“Most of us predicted fifth or sixth place,” says sophomore forward Jason Selleke. “We had no clue we were going to be up there in third place. And just to make it here is probably one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had playing hockey in my whole, entire career.”

Says senior forward Tyler McMillan, “It’s great. I’m trying not to let things get carried away. I know I’ll have lots of time to think about it after.”

Ray Aho, the sophomore goaltender who carried Ohio State into the playoffs last season, says, “I don’t really think it’s sunk in yet. We just go into each weekend thinking, ‘Play.’ We don’t even think about losing. I always think we’ll have practice next week.

“But now, this is the last weekend of the year.”

He laughs and adds, “You can tell we’re definitely new at this.”

Everyone in Columbus is new at this.

Just two years ago, when Ohio State went 10-19-5, the Buckeyes would regularly draw just a couple hundred people to games in the teeny, tiny OSU Ice Rink.

The team had no radio coverage. The Columbus daily paper, the Dispatch, didn’t even carry game write-ups. The Ohio State student paper, the Lantern, ignored the team altogether. Local television never reported the scores.

At most games, one lonely reporter comprised the entire Buckeye bandwagon.

These days, Ohio State hockey is the lead story on local television sports. Reporters regularly show up at practices, as well as games. Well, at least since the playoffs have begun, anyway.

But it’s not quite the media circus that surrounds hockey programs at other schools, schools where football fans don’t wear T-shirts that read “F*$# Michigan.”

Assistant captain Ryan Root thinks that’s just fine.

“I think living in Columbus is great, because no one talks about it, nobody knows about it. If it was Final Four basketball or something, I probably wouldn’t be able to deal with it.

“It’s been nice because things have been kind of calm so far. I’m sure once we get to Boston, it’ll start sinking in a little bit.”

Every game Ohio State has played beyond the CCHA finals is new territory. This team — making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament — won just 12 games last year, 10 the year before, and seven the year before that, when this year’s seniors were rookies.

When Root joined the squad.

“When we came in as freshman,” says Root, “they told us, ‘We’re bringing you guys in to rebuild this program,’ and I think each class after that was told the same thing: ‘Hey, you guys are supposed to turn this thing around.’

“When we came in, the press interviewed the freshmen early on and asked, ‘What are your goals?’ And I said, ‘Well, I want a championship ring. I want an NCAA championship ring.’

“The next day, all the older guys were just giving me hell for it. Now the attitude around here has changed immensely.”

Root says that he always thought things would get better. “But I didn’t think it would be this quick.”

That’s what seems to amaze even the players themselves, that the Buckeyes have turned around a program within a year — within a single season.

Cousineau says, “For a lot of years, I just wanted to be competitive. We definitely are now, and I think we have a legitimate shot. But it’s not something I even thought of at Christmastime.”

Like other players who have been along for the changing of the guard at Ohio State, Cousineau has had to adapt or ride the bench. He sat out his sophomore season with an illness, and the year became a redshirt. Last year, he played defense. This season, he’s an integral part of a line that has almost as much success as the fabled trio Quebecois.

His linemate, Todd Compeau, didn’t even know if he had a place on the team at the start of the year. Midway through last season, head coach John Markell told Compeau to clean out his locker; the then-junior was told that if he could prove he was disciplined, he could return to the team.

Ryan Root sat a good portion of two years under Markell, and finally got to play when the coach was satisfied that the offensive defenseman could play the more defensive style of hockey that the new head coach demanded.

Tyler McMillan, who anchors the tough, defensive Buckeye fourth line, saw a lot of time in the bleachers until Markell thought the forward could accept the role the coach saw for him.

“We were picked fourth to eighth,” says Markell, “and that, I thought, was a good range depending on the transition of a young hockey club.

“It’s our senior leadership that came through in the end, and showed us the way to do it. They became great leaders.”

Says Compeau, “Everyone seems to have come into his own this year, from the freshmen right up to the seniors. Everyone has a very important role on the team.”

Compeau says that everyone on the team has responded to the recent support shown by the university. The Buckeyes are set to begin play in the brand-new Schottenstein Center in the 1998-1999 season.

“It’s like night and day, compared to the first couple of years,” says Compeau. “We were brutal my first couple of years. The whole program, everything surrounding the program, our performance on the ice.

“Things have been run well here the last few years, and it shows on the ice now too. There’s a change in attitude from the administration right down to each player. It’s been excellent.”

Perhaps the happiest guy on the team is Root, who’s been sporting a wide, sincere smile ever since Ohio State hosted the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

“It’s been great. I’m enjoying every game. I think I’ve been able to play relaxed. I’ve settled into my role, and I’m pretty comfortable when I’m on the ice.

“That’s why I’m always laughing, talking to the refs. I’m still intense and focused, but the pressure’s been off us since the beginning, so it’s kind of nice to play like this.”

Root says that his teammates have had the advantage of being the underdog all through this season and postseason, and since the Buckeyes have nothing to lose, the team is loose.

“It’s amazing. It’s great that we do have a shot at it. I think if we show up, we can play some good hockey.”