Growing up, my family was always more interested in baseball than hockey. My dad got turned off to hockey during the 1970s era of the Big, Bad Bruins when Wayne Cashman, Terry O’Reilly and Pie McKenzie seemed more interested in throwing punches than scoring goals. And since my dad wasn’t much of a hockey follower, his only son followed suit.
Baseball was — and still is — my passion. Watching it, playing it, reading about it. When April comes around, the sounds of baseball resonate throughout my head. The crack of the bat, the thwack of ball meeting glove, the incessant infield chatter, and, of course, the nonstop garbling of the peanut vendors outside Fenway. Even though we know full well that the Sox won’t be playing in mid-October, all is right with the world when a new season begins in the Hub.
I suppose the fact that I can’t skate and thus never played hockey also contributes to my baseball allegiance. I played baseball right through high school, and I know who the cut-off man should be on a single to right field with a runner on second. Icing, on the other hand, remains a complete mystery to me. And what about trading cards? Of my 15,000 or so cards, I’d say 14,995 are of the baseball variety. I do, however, remember devaluing a Carol Vadnais card because I thought he’d look better with a handlebar moustache.
But over the course of the past year, I’ve had a sports awakening. While I still haven’t been able to latch on emotionally to the dreadfully boring Bruins, I’ve become a devoted college hockey fan. With the Bruins, I’ve always been much more of a bandwagon fan. I remember making sure to watch some of the playoff games involving Cam Neely, Craig Janney, Andy Moog and the immortal Greg “Hawgie” Hawgood. Those were good times. But as soon as Neely was felled by Ulf, I lost my interest.
College hockey is a whole different ball game. I went to a hockey-rich school for four years — the University of New Hampshire — and became attracted to the game during my stay in Durham. Naturally, the men’s team wasn’t so proficient during the years 1985-89, but the women were kicking butt and taking names. Still are, in fact.
Since graduation, I’ve always kept a close eye on the Wildcats. I’d go to a game here and there whenever they happened to be in Boston — playing BC, Northeastern or BU. Occasionally, a bunch of us would take a trip down memory lane and head back to the campus for a Friday or Saturday night game. But it was a casual interest.
Over the past couple of years, though, college hockey became more important to me. Up at UNH, the town fathers decided to build a state-of-the-art facility and replace the old, historic barn that used to be known as Snively Arena. As a result, the hockey program began to attract more top-notch players from all corners of North America and those weekend trips to the alma mater eventually transformed into weeknight trips. This past year, for instance, I found myself driving up to Durham on a freezing, snowy Tuesday night to watch the Wildcats throttle the BC Eagles, 9-3. Any time BC gets thumped, it’s a good night.
I printed the Wildcats’ schedule off the Internet and began to chart their progress game-by-game. I know that they lost a heartbreaker to Miami during a holiday tournament, but came back to beat Nebraska-Omaha. I know that they lost three games during the season to one of the region’s worst-ever ice storms. And I know all too well about the wicked tailspin they went into toward the end of the season.
My social calendar during the past year came to resemble that of a hockey scout. I saw UNH play in Durham, Providence, Lowell, Boston and Andover. I had tickets ripped at the Whittemore Center, Schneider Arena, the new, sparkling Tsongas Arena and Matthews Arena. I got to know players on other teams and enjoyed watching munchkins like Billy Newson of Northeastern, Steve Kariya of Maine and Brian Gionta of BC. I came to appreciate the frenetic pace of college hockey much more than the TV-timeout laden pace of the pros.
UNH started out like gangbusters early in the year, and played consistently well until the month of March. Then they started losing and I began to wonder about the coaching job that Dick Umile was doing. I was actually devoting thought to the UNH coaching situation, wondering how the Wildcats could come out so sluggishly in games that meant something. I was wishing for UNH college hockey chat on WEEI, for crying out loud.
Back in late February, when the ‘Cats were plowing through the Hockey East portion of their schedule, my friends and I decided to purchase Hockey East playoff tickets. The event would be held at the Fleet Center, just a mile from where I work, and UNH would surely be toiling for the title. Wrong, puck breath. Continuing their downward plunge, UNH got beat by Kariya’s Maine Black Bears in a best-of-three series in Durham. UNH wouldn’t be going to the Hockey East playoffs, but the fact that the Commies from Commonwealth Avenue wouldn’t be going either made the lack of UNH’s presence easier to swallow. BU got upset by big-time underdogs Merrimack.
Being the devoted fans we are, we made the most of our two-night trek to the FleetCenter. Some of us are from the Lowell area, and cheering for the River Hawks of UMass-Lowell was acceptable. Cheering for BC, however, was not. But we were stuck. With the NCAA tournament coming up, BC might have to win Hockey East for UNH to have a shot at playing for the national championship. When BC beat Merrimack and Maine beat Lowell, it made for a real dilemma. Do I put aside my hatred for BC and root for the Eagles to win? Or do I root for scandal-touched Maine? I chose to root for BC, even though the loud, obese fan behind me had me contemplating physical violence. Every time BC did something good, this lout stood up and his sweatshirt rose, baring something I really didn’t need to see.
BC went on to win the Hockey East tournament and the NCAA selection committee made its tournament picks the following Sunday. I actually programmed my VCR to record the selection show, since I was dying to see if the ‘Cats would squeak in. I even found myself wondering if Umile had the boys practicing during this two-week lull. (He did, of course.)
The ‘Cats received the fifth seed in the East, and had an opening-round matchup against the Badgers of Wisconsin. I thought about making the trip to Albany, but must admit that the team’s late-season decline made me think it would be one game and out. That would have been a long drive for one game. Fortunately, the public-access channel in New Hampshire aired the game and the two-week layoff did the ‘Cats some good. With a few breaks, the vaunted Wildcat offense woke up and the good guys won, 7-4. Next up for the Wildcats: Hated BU.
The BU-UNH game merited air time on one of the Boston channels and it’s a good thing it did. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, but the golf clubs could stay in the closet for another week. Both teams played well and the game went into OT. The extra period was tense, with each team getting its share of scoring chances. Because they had played Friday night, UNH looked tired. They were getting to loose pucks just a fraction of a second after the Terriers were.
I thought they were doomed, especially when BU went on a power play. But UNH rose to the occasion. Sophomore forward Mike Souza intercepted a pass from BU’s all-everything defenseman, Tom Poti, and feathered a nice pass over to Mark Mowers. Mowers had had a number of chances throughout the game, and he didn’t miss on this one. He roofed the puck just under the right crossbar and the celebration was on. I don’t think I jumped around so much for a college game since Doug Flutie found Gerard Phelan in the end zone in a 1984 game against Miami. (Back then, I hadn’t developed my ill feelings toward BC.) It seemed surreal that UNH would be playing in the Final Four, and even more surreal that I would be going. I was on an emotional high.
The NCAA hockey championship was also played at the FleetCenter. Round one had UNH playing mighty Michigan, while BC took on upstart Ohio State. I had to pinch myself. UNH playing Michigan? The school with the country’s best fight song, “Hail to the Victors”? The school from which oodles of professional athletes graduated? What other UNH team would ever have a chance to play against the Wolverines?
After some deliberation, I decided to wear my UNH hockey sweater to the game. At first, I thought it would be kind of weird for a 30-year old guy to be wearing his team’s colors. But then I realized that if I didn’t, I would be going against all that college hockey stands for. I’ve developed a loyalty to UNH and besides, I had worn the jersey that glorious day when they beat BU to advance. I do believe in good luck charms.
The atmosphere around Causeway Street was electric. One group of fans wearing Michigan’s colors ran into another group and an older man shouted in his Midwest twang, “There’s the maize and blue. That’s the way we like it.” Lots of UNH fans strolled the streets as well, some wearing jerseys, some preferring low-key hats. What struck me as most impressive was the number of people walking around with the garb of schools that weren’t even in the Final Four. There were people from Wisconsin, Michigan State, Lake Superior State, and Colorado College.
There was even a guy that showed his support for last year’s champ, North Dakota, by wearing a large green cowboy hat complete with Fighting Sioux feathers dangling from the back. Many of these folks make the Final Four a yearly vacation. College hockey, indeed, is a special fraternity.
Ah, the game. Unfortunately, UNH was outmatched. Michigan played smothering defense, the Wolverines’ goaltending was terrific and the ‘Cats never really mounted an attack. As the well-coached Wolverines had learned, shutting down the likes of Mowers, junior scoring machines Jason Krog and Derek Bekar, and pesky Tom Nolan translated into victory. I was disappointed, but I took the glass is half full theory to heart. I never expected UNH to get to the Final Four. This more than made up for having to sit in front of Orca at the Hockey East playoffs.
The second game was more exciting, as the black-and-red clad Buckeyes — resembling the Ottawa Senators to some extent — held tough with BC. The Eagles had won 14 straight contests dating back to February or so, but Ohio State gave ’em a battle. When it was all said and done, though, there was simply too much Gionta, Marty Reasoner and Scott Clemmensen. BC won 5-2 to advance to the national championship game.
Friday — a day off for the schools — was a day that further justified my crazed, newfound interest in college hockey. A friend had secured tickets for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award presentation and I couldn’t wait to go. The Hobey is college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy, and I wondered if each of the 10 finalists would be in attendance. I figured that UNH’s two candidates — Mowers and Krog — would be there since they had just played in town yesterday. I was hoping to shake their hands and say thanks for a good season, but they didn’t go.
The ceremony was pretty good — except for the wide-whale corduroy-wearing, BMW-driving, Marty Reasoner-chanting BC fans who managed to make themselves look silly. Chris Drury from BU was a deserving winner, and his nervousness on stage was actually genuine and refreshing.
Saturday morning’s sports pages were plastered with stories about the Eagles and Wolverines. The Globe’s Will McDonough, who all of a sudden came to be a college hockey expert, interviewed four college coaches who said the key to the game would be goaltending. Most gave the nod to Michigan’s netkeeper, Marty Turco, because he had played in the big game before. BC, on the other hand, had to be feeling the pressure of trying to win the national championship in front of a scrutinizing hometown crowd.
As I read the coverage, I found myself rooting for BC coach Jerry York. Another thought crept into my mind as well. There’s no other college tournament where the chance to win the whole enchilada is so wide open. Very rarely does a fifth, sixth or seventh seed take part in college basketball’s grand event. And with college football, you pretty much know that one of five teams will be voted as the nation’s best. As I looked at the banners of past college hockey champions that hung from the FleetCenter’s rafters, I saw the names of Michigan Tech, Bowling Green and Rensselaer. Think about that for a minute: Michigan Tech won the national championship of college hockey.
After a few pregame beverages, it was on to the game. A friend and I walked in to the arena a bit later than the rest of our contingent and couldn’t believe that some BC fans were offering us $200 for our tickets. Five years ago, I would have taken the money in a heartbeat. But I had to cap off my Krishna year in fine fashion. Plus, these seats were choice — about seven rows behind the Michigan bench.
Going into the game, I had decided that I wouldn’t root for BC or Michigan, even though I’ve been a Michigan fan all my life (love the colors). Instead, I was just hoping for a good college hockey game, perhaps even an overtime game. My buddies told me I had to root for the Eagles. It was an East vs. West thing, they explained, and this was Boston.
The game came as advertised. Both teams had ample chances, the checking was aggressive and the goalies stood strong. The crowd — naturally — was mostly pro-BC and when the Eagles scored, the FleetCenter rocked like it never had since it was built in 1995-96. At the end of regulation, the game was tied 2-2. In my mind, BC had outplayed Michigan but the scoreboard, as always, is the final arbiter.
The overtime period was one for the ages. Up and down action and violent body checks. Pucks clanging off crossbars and posts. Exhausted college kids giving everything they had. At 17:51 of the extra session, Michigan freshman Josh Langfeld blasted a weird-angle shot toward the BC net and Clemmensen couldn’t get to it. Michigan had stolen BC’s dreams right in front of the hometown fans. I made a point to not only watch Michigan’s piling-on celebration, but to watch the BC players as well. Clemmensen was down on one knee, as if someone had just kicked him in the stomach. Two other players were sprawled out on the ice, wondering what had just hit them. To make matters worse, they had to stay on the ice and watch the Wolverines skate happily around their end.
Before leaving the FleetCenter, a Michigan fan gave Wolverine star Bill Muckalt a long-poled Michigan flag to wave. The senior gladly took the flag, jumped up on the dasher in front of me and flashed an extremely wide grin. I remember thinking three things as I watched Muckalt. First, I was privileged to have had such a great seat for one of the best sporting events I’ve ever been to. Second, I wanted another overtime. And third, I’ve got another sport to follow passionately.
Just what I need.
Rick Kampersal is a freelance writer based in Boston.