First, the euphoria.
I approached Merrimack’s Lawler Arena on Saturday night about an hour before game time and was suddenly gripped with fear.
Spring forward, fall back.
I must have screwed up, I thought. But Daylight Savings Time didn’t start until Sunday. I was an hour early. Wasn’t I?
It sure sounded like I was late. It sounded like the game was already underway.
No, I wasn’t late. Game time was 7:30 and it was, in fact, only 6:30 or so, but you couldn’t tell based on the volume. There was a block party going on outside and inside the cheers were already echoing in Merrimack’s little bandbox. Gold-colored shirts filled one end of the building. The band blared its joyful tunes.
The band? Merrimack had imported the award-winning Dayton University band for the festivities and the group, dressed in Warrior colors, would live up to its billing. (Clever Merrimack fans would repay some of the debt late in the game with a chant mindful of Dayton’s recent basketball clash with Xavier: “Xavier s*cks! Xavier s*cks!”) Rene Rancourt sang the Canadian and US national anthems.
First class all the way.
And when the Warriors jumped out to a 1-0 lead, followed by 2-0 and 3-0 all the way to 6-2, it only got louder.
It was the single most enjoyable Hockey East quarterfinals environment I’ve experienced in my 15 years with USCHO.
Compare all that to the half-full, far-less-noisy arenas that are more the rule than the exception during the quarterfinals. For most schools there’s a double-whammy in effect. Students, the most vocal of fans, are gone for spring break. Season ticket holders don’t have the quarterfinals as part of their packages so the less dedicated and the more jaded of them figure they’ll save their money for the games at the Garden.
(Yeah, I’ve heard of Yankee thrift but c’mon!)
Well, at Lawler Arena, you could forget about less-dedicated and more-jaded. Think more jacked-and-pumped.
It was great to see. Merrimack, as a team, got the job done on the ice. Merrimack, as a program, got the job done off the ice.
* * *
The Bracketology projections bounce all over the place at this time of year, but I do hope the ones that place Merrimack in the Bridgeport NCAA Regional, as opposed to out West, come true. I’ll be covering the Manchester games, but it’ll be fun to envision the buses headed down to Connecticut, perhaps emblazoned with the Warriors playoff logo “2000 Students, 28 Players, One Mission.”
* * *
One of my personal bugaboos (one of many, if you listen to the wrong people) is fans leaving a game early when there’s even a sliver of doubt remaining as to the outcome. Hey, it’s a free country and people can do what they like, but in my book I can’t understand the lukewarm and the front-runners who grab their coats when there’s only a one- or two-goal deficit. (And I’m perhaps the most fanatical person there is when it comes to saving time. I still don’t get it.)
So I read with amusement about the Boston University fans who began streaming out of Agganis Arena on Sunday when Northeastern scored an empty-net goal with more than two minutes remaining. It was quite likely the Terriers’ final game of the season. You couldn’t wait two minutes of clock time? I realize the empty-netter made it a three-goal deficit (knocked down to two in less than a minute), but didn’t these fans recall the 2009 national championship game?
Perhaps this makes me evil, but I sure hope most of them heard the cheering when BU scored again to get to within one and tried to get back into the building but were turned down. Northeastern coach Greg Cronin referred to that stretch as “one of the most stressful three minutes I’ve ever had in coaching.” If there’s any justice, the faint of heart missed it.
* * *
And finally, the sadness.
I hate to see Blaise MacDonald (Massachusetts-Lowell) and Tim Army (Providence) leaving Hockey East. Both men freely shared their passion for college hockey and the teams they coached. They were a pleasure to deal with.
To be honest, Army’s departure didn’t surprise me. For a school with Providence’s past history, missing the playoffs three straight years (not to mention finishing last in home attendance) wasn’t going to cut it.
MacDonald, however, is another story. Two years ago, the River Hawks advanced to the Hockey East title game, losing 1-0 to BU, the eventual national champions. Last year, they tied for fourth place, but based on a tiebreaker traveled to Orono for the playoffs instead of hosting. At the hostile Alfond Arena, they took the series to overtime in the third game. When Maine advanced to overtime of the title game against another eventual national championship team, BC, Lowell fans (and perhaps MacDonald) had to wonder if only for the tiebreaker…
Although attendance predictably dropped at the Tsongas Center this year, it had risen significantly during MacDonald’s tenure.
Blaise and I shared a special bond since for a time we co-hosted College Hockey Drive Time on the UML student radio station. I’d arrive with my carefully constructed agenda; Blaise would just grin and wing it. We had a lot of fun.
I had fully expected him to be back next year.
It just goes to show you that it’s a very competitive league. Not just for the players.