Commentary: Miami May Now be Battle-Tested

It was a unique weekend at The Joe for many reasons. It saw one era continue and one come to an end. First, we give some recognition elsewhere.

There was one national championship decided Saturday night. It was at the Division III level and Norwich beat St. Norbert 2-1 in the last minute of double overtime in a game seen on CBS College Sports. It was the longest game in Division III playoff history. Mike McShane was the winning coach and he added to his legend as one of college hockey’s great coaches, having been successful at the D-I level and even more so at the D-III level at Norwich. In their 100th year of college ice hockey, the Cadets won a national title on the men’s side and the women’s team was a national finalist, losing the title game Saturday night. Congrats to the Cadets on 100 great years of hockey history and a national title.

Back to Detroit.

Miami didn’t win the CCHA playoff championship crown. By not doing so, they just might have themselves in the right frame of mind to win the national championship.

Now, not to blow my own horn here but I did say it on a CBS College Sports broadcast that I worried Miami wasn’t battle tested enough by the CCHA regular season to win the playoff championship. Not that I wanted to see the RedHawks lose. Pat Cannone played junior for me on Long Island and I’m a huge fan of him as a player. Tommy Wingels is a great kid to whom I had the pleasure of presenting the CCHA’s Best defensive Forward Award last week. There are a lot of people in that program I have a ton of admiration and respect for, starting with the head coach.

I was on record saying that same thing about the Canadian World Junior team and the USA men’s Olympic team, so that makes me and that “not being battle tested” theory 3-0 this season. RedHawks coach Enrico Blasi told me earlier this season it “might take us learning how to lose to learn how to win.” Losing to Michigan might have been exactly what the dominant and deep RedHawks needed to win this whole thing. That might have been the wake-up call they needed, the fire that lit the fuse.

There is a chance they will get Michigan again in the Fort Wayne regional next weekend (no disrespect to Huntsville and Bemidji State), and you’d have to like Miami. That is a hard team to beat twice in a championship situation. Michigan could be the most dangerous team in the dance, having literally picked itself up off the mat in the second half and become the best story in college hockey. The Wolverines made a stretch run on the back of a goalie, Shawn Hunwick, who hadn’t played much in his career until a month ago. Matt Hunwick probably blocked more shots in his Michigan career than Shawn as of three weeks ago, and Matt was a defenseman.

Pressed into service when the dependable and usually healthy Bryan Hogan got hurt at Yost against Notre Dame, Hunwick won that game, struggled in the next one at ND, and has been close to perfect since. Michigan looked awful in getting swept at Nebraska-Omaha in mid-February and at that point you had to wonder not only was their 19-year run into the NCAA tourney going to end, but would they even get home ice for the playoffs?

Then Hogan got hurt.

You figured it was lights out. What a story Red Berenson and his crew have written. It is as good a Cinderella story in college hockey as Bemidji State was last year or Maine’s run to within 52 seconds of a national title in 2002 after their coach passed away in the preseason.

Michigan bombed Miami and then the RedHawks nipped Ferris State to avoid being swept at the Joe. The last team swept at the Joe with national championship aspirations was Notre Dame, and it found itself in the national title game against Boston College three weeks later. In an interesting twist of fate, the Irish beat Michigan in the Frozen Four to get there. That game saw Bryan Hogan come of age as a Michigan goalie, relieving Billy Sauer down 3-0 and almost pulling of an improbable upset before a 6-5 OT loss.

Keep your eye on the RedHawks. They can score, defend, hit and play as well as any team on any given night and they need only a four-game winning streak, something they have done away from Oxford this season. The loss Saturday night should help make them more “battle tested.” Remember, the U.S. had to lose to Canada at the World Juniors before beating them to win the gold medal.

Now, back to those eras alluded to at the top.

The era of Michigan being in the NCAA tourney for a 20th straight year was close to coming to an end if it didn’t win the CCHA tourney. It did.

The other era that was ending was that of Shireen Saski and her great run of 11 years as the face of the CCHA on FS Detroit.

Saski has been a rink-side reporter for CCHA games and also a features reporter, host, and producer for CCHA All-Access. She has won three Michigan Emmys for CCHA stories and received nine nominations. That resume landed her on the Hobey Baker Award selection committee this season for a three-year term which coincides with her place on the Heisman Trophy selection committee the past two years for her on-air college football work for the Big Ten Network.

Rink-side reporters come and go in college hockey, but she stayed and did so because of several reasons. She had a tireless work ethic, knew her stuff and was able to get to the essence of what was on the line each and every game. Her pursuit of the real stories in each game, her ability to tell those stories in a live game or in a CCHA All-Access feature was what made her the best college hockey reporter on TV in America.

Seven seasons ago in prepping for a Michigan game I had for CSTV (now CBS College Sports) that weekend, I first saw Saski at work watching a Michigan game from the past week on tape. I had never met her or seen her work. After watching two periods and two intermissions I called my producer at CSTV, Ross Molloy, and said, “I don’t think our company policy is to use rink-side reporters but if ever do I found us a great one.”

He asked who?

I said Shireen Saski of FSN Detroit.

Ross, who was trained by some of the best in TV at ABC Sports on “Monday Night Football,” the Indy 500, the British Open and college football, was intrigued.

“Tell me more.”

I told Molloy that it was so obvious that this was someone who just knew her stuff and wasn’t reading off cards handed to her by a producer. This was a lady who spoke with authority about her material which gave you the impression that she talked to her subjects for stories that week. In-game, she related some current stories in a historical context of past games and seasons, meaning that this was someone who knew the league and teams pretty well.

Saski has co-hosted the CCHA awards banquet for years and has done a great job with co-host Fred Pletsch on that event. She has brought class, elegance and savvy to an evening that is choreographed extremely well. She has worked 11 CCHA Championships in that time, 10 as the rink-side reporter/host.

She is leaving FS Detroit and her coverage of this great conference to pursue other challenges. During her time there she has spent countless hours working with local charities and donating her time helping to raise funds for great causes. She is a cancer survivor who never let herself be a victim of a bad break but rather used her second chance to make a difference in other people’s lives, mine included. She has emceed the MAHA dinner for Michigan Amateur Hockey and several others in the Greater Detroit area.

In light of her remarkable career, some type of public recognition by her colleagues at either the banquet or on air this weekend was in order and maybe by oversight it didn’t happen. She is long on class act and short on ego which is why she never expected it nor would she ever want to be bigger than the event. She rested easily Saturday night when it was all over knowing that she had finished 11 years in her dream job covering Detroit sports.

She spent all day Saturday at the Joe talking with both teams extensively about the title game that night. As she did her interviews, many folks there came over to her to say goodbye and to wish her well. That included employees at the arena who she had gotten to know over the years and who had adopted her as one of their own. She was moved to tears several times at the outpouring from so many people whom she had known at the Joe during the past decade.

This will serve as the public recognition she deserves for what she has accomplished at FS Detroit and I’m glad that USCHO allowed me to do so.

As a kid growing up in the subburbs of Detroit, she grew up wanting to play center field for the Tigers. She rooted for her beloved Red Wings despite living in Connecticut while working for ESPN and later being a radio sports personality in Dallas.

When John Tuohey of FS Detroit gave her the chance to come home and cover the teams she rooted for as a kid she jumped at it and the rest is history. She has covered the World Series and four Stanley Cup Finals for FSD as well as a Frozen Four and numerous big games in the CCHA. It is a conference she has come to call home.

The coaches, players and SIDs put their trust in her as a responsible and ethical sports journalist. A Michigan State alumni and proud of it, you would never know where she went to school during a broadcast involving the Spartans (even when it was against Michigan) in any sport. There is no rooting interest in her professional work. She roots for the games to be good and the fans to be entertained by the telecast.

She was part of the broadcast team for the Cold War game in East Lansing and the Camp Randall Classic in Madison; the only broadcaster to be part of the two most attended college hockey games in history. That in itself is impressive. Both FSD and the Big Ten Network (which did the Camp Randall game) knew that she is the sideline reporter you want on a big college hockey game where the CCHA is involved.

FS Detroit will fill the role she leaves behind but will be hard pressed to find someone who could do the job as well and loved it as much as she did. It is hard to find someone who brought what she did to the table. She cared; she was the consummate pro who knew how to find a story, how to bring it out of people and how to put it into words and pictures. She knows what to ask and what not to, when to be compassionate with a subject and when to hold firm.

During a postgame interview this season, a coach asked her if she thought a goal that was waved off was actually a goal, referring to her having seen the replay. That’s being put on the spot. She smoothly responded “they called it no goal” and the interview moved on. A wrong answer there gets you fired or embroiled in a controversy. She played it off like a pro and all walked away with their dignity intact. That’s veteran savvy; that’s what makes a good reporter and enhances a good broadcast. It is why the NHL Network brought her on board to work the women’s Olympic team’s pre-tourney games as its rink-side voice. That is the esteem in which she is held in the business.

She leaves FS Detroit with her head held high and the respect of her colleagues in college and professional hockey as well as the many other sports she covers. She left on her own terms and at a time of her own choosing. Life will go on and new challenges will be there to tackle.

She might be replaceable to FS Detroit, but she isn’t to me. I guess that is why I’m looking forward to marrying her in July. She will be Shireen Starman then, but to her fans and supporters in Michigan she will always be Shireen Saski, the face and voice of the CCHA.

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