For centuries, tales of Spartan valor and victory filled the pages of history. The Michigan State Spartans have written a new one, capturing an improbable national championship against a heavily-favored squad from the heights of Boston College.
“The first word in every interview on Saturday was ‘unbelievable,'” said head coach Rick Comley.
Unbelievable is right. MSU sputtered into the postseason, dropping four of its last six games, some to the bottom-tier teams of the CCHA. Yet, somehow the Spartans found their game, and they did it when the most was on the line.
A brilliant run through the NCAA tournament ensued, including a pair of victories in the nearby Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Some will say that the draw set up like a dream for the Spartans, but things often do for teams of destiny.
When the Spartans battled past Boston University and top-ranked Notre Dame, there was a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, and, for the first time in the season, a sense that MSU could actually win the whole darn thing.
As Comley said in the locker room following the victory over Notre Dame, “We’re not just going to St. Louis; we’re going there to win!” And win they did, even when they were overmatched, undersized, and outmanned.
Ancient Spartans implored their warriors to return with their shields or on them. These Spartans heeded those words. Still with their bruises and stitches fresh from battle in the Frozen Four, MSU’s Spartans marched victoriously down the streets of East Lansing to a hero’s welcome complete with a parade and pep rally before thousands at Munn Ice Arena on Tuesday evening.
Although the ancients were known for their warrior mentality and stoic composure, there was not a dry eye in the building when senior captain Chris Lawrence wept and addressed the loyal followers of MSU hockey. From players, to coaches, to fans and media, a feeling of great pride and accomplishment swept Munn.
And when Lawrence, using his battle-torn jersey to dry his eyes, professed his true love for his teammates, the raucous crowd cheered in agreement.
As the great Lycurgus once remarked, “Behold the walls of Sparta: 10,000 men and every one a brick.” His legendary words ring true with the 2007 national champs. A team without a Hobey Baker candidate, an All-American, or even an honorable mention for an all-league position, Michigan State proved college hockey is still a team sport. And as the teams with lines of first-round NHL draft picks crumbled in their path, the Spartans’ unity, togetherness, and depth shone brightly.
Now lost in the memories are some of the moments that built a season of greatness. More than just the David/Goliath title game, the Spartans handled real adversity so well along the way to a championship.
Many will forget that MSU’s leader, junior captain Drew Miller, signed with the Anaheim Ducks just a few months before the home opener. Enter Lawrence, the fourth-liner, the walk-on, the player who seriously considered transferring after a sophomore season in which he only laced up for four games.
Maybe sophomore goaltender Jeff Lerg said it best at the rally, “I’ve played for a lot of captains, but Chris Lawrence is the best.”
The Spartans were on the ropes on several occasions this year, but they avoided the knockout blow. A huge turning point dated back to early December. After a disastrous 3-6-1 November slide, MSU was all but finished in a game at Northern Michigan before a fortuitous checking-from-behind penalty in the third period propelled the Spartans back from the dead. The win ignited a streak that saw MSU go 11-1-2 over a 14-game stretch from December to February.
Early in the second half, with the Spartans’ newfound momentum in a fragile state, they found the courage to battle back in their second game of the series against Miami. After being badly outplayed in the first game, a sweep would have likely spelled doom for any sort of confidence. Yet, even when ravaged by the flu, MSU found a way to battle back in the third period to steal a win.
“Guys were throwing up on the bench during the game,” said Comley. “I had to run down to the other end of the bench and make sure that they were going to be able to go for the next shift. Sometimes, I think they play better when they aren’t feeling 100 percent.”
“If I had to describe this team in one word, it would be ‘resilient.'”
That stretch was hardly full of effortless wins. It was dotted with one-goal games and overtime victories, many of which were decided by junior forward Bryan Lerg, who led the nation with eight game-winners.
Still, with all the hard work and sacrifice, it was only fitting that the Spartans’ game-winning goal in the national championship game would take no fewer than six different efforts to put the puck in the net.
First, BC’s Brian Boyle bore down the ice into the MSU zone with a head of steam where he was poke-checked at the blue line by Tim Kennedy. With the puck loose in the neutral zone, Tim Crowder collided with BC’s Joe Rooney to spring Kennedy, himself, and Justin Abdelkader on a three-on-one break the other way.
Abdelkader uncorked a wrister that beat goaltender Cory Schneider but clanked off the right post. Still, Abdelkader followed the puck into the corner and dug it out when other players would have been dejected.
He shoveled the puck up the right-wing boards where Tyler Howells beat not one but two Eagles to the puck. Then, he had the mental fortitude to poke the puck through the massive Boyle way down low on the right boards by the goal line. Kennedy retrieved the puck behind the net and danced around Dan Bertram with a silky-smooth spin move, feeding Abdelkader on the right post for the quick-strike putaway.
That is but one of a host of memories that the Spartans and their followers will remember for the rest of their lives.
If it wasn’t for an out-of-this-world glove save by Jeff Lerg, sliding from right to left to rob Boyle’s two-on-one wrist shot, the stories of valor would likely be coming from Chestnut Hill.
If Justin Abdelkader hung his head in shame instead of racing to the corner after his wrist shot clanked off the crossbar in the final minute of the game, it seemed certain that BC would capture the crown in overtime.
And if Tyler Howells hadn’t chased down the puck coming up the right wall, beating a man a nearly foot taller and 75 pounds heavier for a loose puck not once but twice, the pep rally and parade surely would have been put on hold.
All these moments of excellence — the hard work, the 6 a.m. workouts, the wins and losses, the fanfare of St. Louis and a magical run — culminated on Tuesday.
It was the first time when the fog surrounding the accomplishment began to dissipate. Maybe it was the cold ice of the arena or seeing the fans picking out the spot in the rafters for the new banner. It was the first moment when people could begin to realize what their Spartans had done.
Still, nothing brought it home quite like Comley when he remarked, “I’m amazed by all of this. Saturday night’s win was tremendous, but coming back here it’s more than a team win. It’s a campus win, a family win, and a community win.
“I’m so excited by all of this that I wish we were starting next season right now.”