Outside the Robert Morris locker room was Derek Schooley. Young and enthusiastic, Schooley was fighting a losing battle to hold back tears. He looks younger than some of his players, and if his face told it all, he took this loss as hard if not harder than they did.
Doug Ross was 100 feet the other way, around the corner in the bowels of the 95WKGGO Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. The Michigan native who has spent more of his hockey career in Huntsville, Alabama, than anywhere else had a bit of a smile. The veteran had been in overtime of CHA championship games before and lost. The what if’s were over.
Ross, who showed up in Huntsville to start up a Division III hockey program 25 years ago, had just coached his last CHA game. He’ll get two weeks to coach what presumably will be his last as his gutsy Chargers will face a national powerhouse in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. However, no matter what happens on his last day as an NCAA head coach, Doug Ross will be America’s coach.
Ross, who grew up playing junior hockey with Mark and Marty Howe in suburban Detroit, has been the only coach the Chargers have ever known. He won titles at the D-II and D-III level with Huntsville, but had never made it out of the CHA with an automatic bid to the elite field of 16.
The Holy Cross miracle of last spring notwithstanding, the Atlantic Hockey Association and College Hockey America have not fared well in the NCAA tourney. Two years ago a game Bemidji State team took the defending national champs from Denver to OT, rallying late to tie. The Beavers lost but came as close as any team not from the Big Four conferences to seeing a regional final.
Ross’ veteran-laden team brought only one color to Des Moines, and that was its road blue. As the No. 5 seed out of five teams, the Chargers were not given much of a chance. Down 3-0 to Wayne State in the play-in game, they rallied to win in OT with four unanswered goals. Down 3-1 to offensive juggernaut Niagara, the top seed, they rallied with four goals and held on for a wild 7-5 win. In the title game, they saw their senior goalie knocked out after three first-period goals allowed, and inserted a freshman with very little experience.
That same freshman was the one who had given up three to Wayne State before being pulled. Doing an impression of Ken Dryden, Blake MacNicol, the former Bay State Breaker, allowed one more goal, then made save after save in periods two, three, and OT. His shutout performance, coupled with the third straight game in which Huntsville scored four or more consecutive goals, gave Ross perhaps his most memorable win.
“I think these kids like me, and I think they like playing for me,” said Ross, who sounded somewhere between humble and truthful after Huntsville’s upset of Niagara. “They told me that they want to send me out with a CHA title, and that they want to win for me. That’s nice. At the same time this is a resilient bunch with a lot of seniors and I’d rather win out to send them out a winner.”
If most other coaches played that piece of humble jive, I’d compliment them on their team-first attitude but might not completely believe it. Coaches have egos, but the great ones check it at the door so that their kids shine in the spotlight. Young coaches have chips on their shoulders and something to prove. It’s only natural. Ross has neither youth, anything to prove, nor an ego. Schooley has the youth, but also the composure of a older veteran.
Ross is unique. He’ll be between periods at a CHA championship tourney game and be up chatting with the pep band. He’ll be in OT against Bemidji State, like he was last season at the CHA championship tourney in Detroit, and he’ll be out near the concession stand chatting with fans.
He trusts his assistants, especially the guy who should be the next coach there in Lance West. Ross maps out things, and West gets them done. That’s confidence in self, knowing that you can delegate, stand somewhat in the background and watch the team be successful.
I first met Ross in 1996. I was coaching in the Central Hockey League, and Huntsville had a team in our league. UAH was coming off a D-II national title, and the pro Channel Cats were defending Southern Hockey League Champs and had just moved up to the CHL. Huntsville nicknamed itself the “Hockey Capital of the South.”
Ross was running the Chargers though practice before we were scheduled to skate. One of his best players was a really small kid who looked 13 years old. After practice I introduced myself and asked Ross who the young stud was. He told me it was his son Jared, who could be a pretty decent player one day.
Jared Ross went on to dominate the CHA for four years and is now in the American Hockey League after Doug Ross mentored him into a promising pro career. He has done the same for countless other players in careers on and off the ice.
My first win as a full-time head coach came when I was with the Memphis RiverKings in the CHL. We beat my old team, Macon, with a rookie goalie fresh out of UAH named Steve Briere. Two seasons before that, another former UAH goalie, Derek Puppa (you may remember his Vezina Trophy-winning brother Darren from the Buffalo Sabres), put together a season for the Huntsville Channel Cats that ranks among the best in minor professional hockey history and was capped off with a league title and an MVP award.
In this game there was no underdog, only two winners. Robert Morris and its young and talented bench boss will play again next season, and learn from what had to be the most stinging defeat in their three-year hockey history. Schooley is an up-and-comer and he’ll get past this, and improve on what has been getting better every year.
Doug Ross has won his last big game at UAH. No matter what the final score is in the regional semifinal they play, Ross has won this season. He took a last-place team to the big dance in his swan song season, going there for the first time. He did it by overcoming two-, three-, and four-goal deficits.
Root for the Chargers from Sweet Home Alabama. In his silver-anniversary season, Ross has won gold.