I’ve been overcome by disease. I believe they call it “Wildcat Fever.”
After watching my fourth hockey game in four days involving New Hampshire, my body has been overcome by the fever of the Blue and White.
All of this started Thursday night at Boston College as I saw the men’s hockey team skate to a spirited 3-3 tie against the Eagles. Saturday afternoon, at Northeastern, I witnessed an impressive UNH women’s team skate past Maine, 6-0, in the Hockey East women’s semifinal.
A ride to Durham for the first time this season on Saturday night allowed me to see one of the season’s best games. A 5-2 UNH victory for the men over BC that not only clinched home ice in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs but also denied BC its fourth regular-season title in as many years.
Sunday afternoon, I completed my Wildcat overkill, watching the UNH women win their first-ever Hockey East title in a 6-0 victory over BC.
There are a lot of things that I learned in the four-day whirlwind.
I learned that the mullet is still an acceptable style of haircut as soon as you cross from Massachusetts to New Hampshire on I-95. I also learned that the Surgeon General’s warnings don’t make it as far north as the Granite State. Being a Boston resident, I can’t remember the last time I ate dinner with someone smoking a cigarette next to me.
But most importantly, I realized that New Hampshire has an almost enviable amount of pride it its hockey programs. Walking around the many rinks this week – whether it was BC’s Conte Forum, Northeastern’s Matthews Arena or UNH’s Whittemore Center – I continuously saw many of the same faces. This is a school with passionate fans. And for good reason.
The UNH men Saturday played themselves back into an NCAA tournament position, and a quarterfinal series win next weekend against Providence might turn that into a lock.
The UNH women, this season at least, are even more impressive. After losing to eventual champion Providence in the past three Hockey East tournaments, the Wildcats not only got over the hump and took home the hardware, they did so as the No. 1 team in the country riding the back of an NCAA-record 28-game unbeaten straight and 16-game winning streak.
Along the way, the Wildcats atoned for their only blemish in their Hockey East schedule, beating Maine, a team that tied UNH, 5-5, back in January and BC, the club that handed them their only league loss, a 3-2 decision, way back in November. Not only did they get past both teams on the way to the title, they did so in impressive fashion, outscoring the two clubs by a combined 12-0 score.
To say that UNH is entering the NCAA tournament on a hot streak is a gross understatement. Besides the aforementioned winning and unbeaten streaks, the Wildcats have posted six straight shutouts, with goaltender Melissa Bourdon having now extended her personal donut streak to 282:19.
The Wildcats haven’t surrendered more than a single goal in a game since Jan. 29. So when Sadie Wright-Ward scored the team’s second power-play goal at 6:42 of the first to gave UNH a 2-0 on Sunday, the game was all but over.
“Taking those two penalties and they capitalize,” said BC head coach Tom Mutch, “You can’t play against a team like [UNH] with a defense like that.”
Sunday’s win was a matter of pride for UNH head coach Brian McCloskey. Since arriving behind the women’s team bench four years ago (after spending nine of the previous ten seasons as associate head coach for the men’s team), McCloskey has been building what he knew could be a dominant team. He knew that this club could return to the powerhouse that captured four ECAC championships from 1986 to 1998 as well as the inaugural AWCHA national championship in 1998.
When asked if it’s a good feeling to return the team to one of dominance, McCloskey’s answer was simple: “Absolutely.”
McCloskey talks of a UNH program and a tradition that is unmatched by most around the country. The men’s club, according to McCloskey, is a great catalyst for the women’s success. One club can feed off of the other. When building any collegiate athletic program, UNH’s blueprint seems to be standard every club strives for.
“The men’s team has made it easier for us and the women’s team,” said McCloskey, who admitted to being the loudest person in the hotel on Saturday night cheering for the UNH men’s victory over BC. “We don’t compete, we support each other. There are things that the men’s program does for us that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for [men’s head coach] Dick [Umile] and the men’s program.”
An hour after Sunday’s title game was over, Wildcat fans still packed the lobby of Matthews Arena cheering as each and every player made her way from the locker room. These are the fans of passion that ESPN talks about when using names like Florida State in football or Duke in basketball.
Now, Durham, N.H., can once again call itself the home of a champion.
“Durham is a special place. There are other great places to go and play college hockey but Durham is one of the best,” McCloskey said.
No wonder Wildcat fever is so easy to catch.