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He didn't cry. I want to make that perfectly clear. But I can tell you, late Saturday night inside the Verizon Center in Washington, at the end of an exhilarating, exhausting NCAA hockey tournament, even the cool, calm, confident Miami (Ohio) hockey coach Enrico Blasi came pretty close to losing it.
He wasn't alone.
When it was over, when top-ranked Boston University had roared back, brilliantly, with two goals in the final minute of play and another in overtime to win 4-3, Miami's players, mostly undersized kids from the Midwest who weren't even sure they'd get an invite to the regionals, collapsed forward onto the boards in front of their bench. Meanwhile, Miami's president, Dr. David Hodge, who had been less than a minute away from celebrating the first national title in any sport in his school's 200-year history, looked lost and ill. A reporter from the Miami student newspaper appeared to break down in mid-question during the post game news conference. And as a graduate of Miami and a former varsity athlete at the school many, many moons ago, after the final shot deflected off a Miami player and fluttered over the left shoulder of the helplessly trapped RedHawks goaltender, yes, I may have held my binoculars in front of my eyes for a few more minutes than necessary.
|Miami in a national title game? Uber-alumn David Fleming must be dreaming.|
As he spoke after the game, Blasi, the national coach of the year in 2006, folded his arms and started tapping his finger against the media table. It was slow at first. Tap. Tap. Tap. But the more he talked, the more emotional he became and the more he tapped away, fighting back what had to be a rising torrent of emotion so that he could say what needed to be said.
"What the boys did this week, the last couple of weeks, is they made history," Blasi started. "Right now I just want to make sure that we focus and pay tribute to this team, because nobody gave them a chance a few weeks ago. We didn't get the bounce in at the end. But in my book -- and I know in the hearts around campus, and alums and supporters -- they're national champions."
Later, Boston University coach Jack Parker, a 36-year veteran of the sport, called it the best championship game -- ever. Indeed, this really was one of those moments that forever changes your standard of how to define a great sporting event. Because if you measure great sporting events by emotional investment -- meaning tears as well as cheers -- then even for heartbroken Miami fans, the 2009 Frozen Four was one for the ages.
Frozen Four observation No. 1: On Thursday afternoon, I had been in the arena for all of five minutes, lost, wandering down some dark cement hallways behind the rink when I took a turn and ran smack dab into a circle of Miami players warming up by playing with a soccer ball before the semifinals. I didn't know this until later, after hanging out a bit with the team and talking to the players. But this was such a laidback, cool group, I'm pretty sure if I had dropped my computer bag and asked to join they would have waved me right in.
FFO2: Boston coach Jack Parker is the kind of ambassador every sport needs. Brilliant coaching mind. Funny. Wildly successful, but down to earth. Old-school values. The vision that sums him up, for me, were his blue hands at the Frozen Four. Wielding his dry-erase board on the bench, he never bothered with a towel or eraser the entire weekend, instead clearing the board with a wave of his palm, which gave his hands an inky-blueish tint.
FFO3: We should just go ahead and address my obvious bias right away. I attended Miami for four years. (OK, it was five.) I paid for school with a wrestling scholarship, won four letters and captained the team my junior and senior seasons. And I met my wife on campus. A few years ago I returned to campus to impart my wisdom on students during the school's "Eye on Alumni" event. And the one piece of clothing I'd run back into a burning building to retrieve is my favorite baseball cap, which is also -- you guessed it -- from Miami. So, yeah, I'm just a tad biased.
FFO4: The oldest goaltender in the Frozen Four was a sophomore.
FFO5: BU's Colin Wilson, Kevin Shattenkirk and Hobey Baker award winner Matt Gilroy have bright futures waiting for them in the NHL.Wilson's dad, Carey, played 13 seasons in the NHL but missed the Frozen Four to stay home in Winnipeg to help with the flooding that hit the town last week. Gilroy is also an especially cool story. Former walk-on. Wears No. 97 to honor his brother. Parker was so sure he was going to take the millions and turn pro last summer that he gave Gillroy's scholarship away.
FFO6: Favorite moment from the weekend: With the final tied 1-1 early in the third, during a TV timeout both teams stood under the JumboTron watching the amazing, relentless stream of highlights from this year's tournament. (The montage was proceeded by this bit of trivia: Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters is a Washingtonian.) By my count, eight of the NCAA's 16 games were decided by one goal; four of those went into overtime and another three were decided by goals scored in the final minute of play. And I can't think of a better advertisement for the sport, especially when you contrast it against the total flop the NCAA hoops tourney turned out to be.
FFO7: I think at least part of the reason why NCAA hockey is flourishing is the unique relationship between college and pro hockey. The Washington Capitals moved out of their own locker room so that the top-seeded team from Boston could take over and feel at home. Part of that is because Caps GM George McPhee is a former Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner from Bowling Green. Can you imagine the Redskins doing that? Also, NHL teams draft the rights to players before they turn 20 but the players are then still allowed to compete collegiately. It's not a perfect system. NHL teams would prefer that prospects play 85 games a year instead of the 40 or so they get in college, and the NCAA rightfully throws a fit when pro teams snatch players away in the middle of the season. (These early departures have created the kind of parity in the sport that has allowed programs like Miami to take center stage.) But hockey's system is still better than what goes on in the NFL, MLB or NBA. NCAA hockey graduates 84 percent of its players, while nearly a third of NHL players (279) got at least one year of school under their belts before going pro.
|Don't slide down the banister ... because that is reserved for federal officers.|
FFO8: I've covered lots of Super Bowls. Been to the Olympics, Stanley Cup Finals, NBA playoffs, NCAA hoops tournament, College World Series, Manchester United -- you get the idea -- but I have never, in such a high-pressure situation, seen a more amazing, skilled, game-altering, gutsy, leave-it-all-out-there performance like the one turned in during the finals by Kevin Roeder, Miami's senior defensemen and assistant captain .
Roeder's listed at 5-foot-9 and has not been drafted by an NHL team, so if the BU game was his final performance I hope he walks away from the sport knowing that he left behind a singular performance that earned him all-tournament team honors, but also a spot in history in this up-and-coming program.
"Miami played an unbelievably physical game," Parker said. "They played through us every single time. They had the better of the play as far as the physical play is concerned and I thought in the second period especially they were much more disciplined positionally than we were. I was impressed with Miami on film when I saw them. I was more impressed with them tonight and how hard they played. They certainly deserved [to win]."
BU was bigger at almost every position and loaded with the kind of future NHL talent that, at times, gave them the look of a minor league affiliate. But most of that advantage was neutralized by Roeder and freshman Matt Tomassoni.
They were everywhere, attacking and hitting everything that dared cross their sights and they did so in a way that made it seem like they relished in disregarding their own physical well-being. It reminded me of Ray Lewis in the Super Bowl. It was that good. And I know it will be a long time before I see anything so breathtakingly violent and courageous; the living embodiment of "the brotherhood" the Miami players talk about that has elevated this program to an elite level.
FFO9: It's just funny how things work out sometimes. Roeder does everything right and, while sacrificing his body to try and block a slapshot in OT, he ends up redirecting the puck into Miami's net. Meanwhile, Boston's Colby Cohen takes two ill-advised penalties late in the game and then ends up the hero by shooting the game-winner.
FFO9.5: That said, here's the blunt truth for Miami: When you're up by two goals and a minute away from the NCAA title you have to be able to close out the win. Period. After the RedHawks third goal, they started watching the clock, sagging back and daydreaming about the parade down High Street, past Skippers and across Oxford, Ohio. Who wouldn't? But when Boston pulled its goalie a little early (at 3:23, I think) it caught them off guard, and when they tried to snap back into underdog warrior mode, it wasn't there anymore, it had leaked out of their hands like cupped water. It was gut wrenching to watch. It was as if karma had opened a miracle-win window for Miami and then slammed it shut on their fingers. The momentum swing was so dramatic and palpable that, I swear, if the third period had been two minutes longer the final score would have been 8-3. Miami didn't give the game away as much as Boston woke up and snatched it out of their hands. What BU did was remarkable, not a fluke.
FFO10: At first, the wild discrepancy in the penalties during the final was bothersome, even for a Miami homer. But Parker cleared that all up -- in his usual fashion. "We took some stupid penalties tonight," he said. "I thought the referees did a great job. We deserved the penalties. I had guys slashing sticks out of their hands and breaking them in half and then looking at the ref like, 'How did you just call that?' If they didn't call it they would have been hung."
FFO11: Overheard in the concourse of the Verizon Center during the semifinals, from a BU fan to a Vermont supporter: "Hey, what's a Catamount anyways?" I believe it's some kind of panther-like creature. But judging by the rivalry between these two teams, it might also be an insect that burrows under the skin of Terriers. After losing back-to-back games to the Catamounts at home earlier this season BU bumped off Vermont in the semis, 5-4. It might have been 6-4 but at the end of the game but a Vermont player rocketed down the ice, dove head-first and risked life and limb to stop a puck from going into an empty net. That's the kind of stuff you only see in college sports.
|Cody Reichard left everything he had on the ice last weekend.|
FFO12: Overheard outside the team locker rooms: "The beauty of this is that we don't have any classes tomorrow. Well, we do but they are several hundred miles away."
FFO13: At the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is a tiny sign that asks people to show reverence and remain quiet while inside the monument. I saw a similar sign a few years ago inside the Sistine Chapel and it had about the same effect: meaning, absolutely none. During the national anthems at the Frozen Four, I noticed this annoying habit of idiots yelling out certain words of the song that somehow relate to different schools. Honestly, one of the things we've completely lost in our Facebook "Dave is clipping his toenails" Society (and I include myself in this) is the ability, or maybe the security, to just shut the hell up for five minutes.
FFO14: The only real not-so-ready-for-the-big-time blunder Miami made -- besides, you know, allowing those last three goals against BU -- was this little obnoxious gem plastered on the front of every lineup card at the Frozen Four: "When referring to Miami, please use only Miami University or Miami. Please do not use Miami of Ohio, University of Miami of Ohio, etc. The latter are not proper names for our institution." First of all, is it me or is it impossible to read that last line without using a fake, snobby British accent? What a terrific way to send this clear message to every media outlet in the country: Hi! We're Miami and we're both totally unknown and super pretentious. This ridiculous request was a total waste of energy and bugs me to no end. (I'm not the only one, it was mocked by most media members.) Look, college nicknames are no different than the ones we all got in middle school: Once one sticks, that's it. Accept it. Go with it. Have fun with it. Relax. If I can name my column the Flem File then, honestly, how bad can it be to have people calling you "Miami of Ohio"?
FFO15: Speaking of totally unknown and super pretentious. I couldn't help but notice that in both the school's program and in the JumboTron introductory video montage, a certain writer for ESPN was completely left off the distinguished alumni list. Instead, they featured some television guy who I haven't seen on the air in, like, 10 years. (What about Miami alums like P.J. O'Rourke or Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow?) At the same time they ignored a guy who has written, like, 50 cover stories for ESPN and Sports Illustrated during the past 15 years, published two books, gotten a handwritten note from the president, and recently had his work selected for the 2009 anthology Best American Sports Writing. This guy also has made it his mission during the past decade to shoehorn totally random Miami plugs into his Internet column which, at times, were the school's only national sports exposure. And yet nothing. No love or honor from Miami. (I'm totally kidding, of course. I think.)
FFO16: Good omen No. 1: There was a Dunkin Donuts inside the Verizon Center. Good omen No. 2: Bemidji State was wearing green and white, the colors of Miami's old rival, Ohio U, which, sadly, dropped sports altogether six years ago. Or at least that's what I heard. Good omen No. 3: Miami sophomore center Andy Miele is from my hometown of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. Good omen No. 4: The press box here is located just above where my seats were for U2's Elevation Tour concert. Good omen No. 5: Miami senior forward Justin Mercier, the star of the team's NCAA regional run, is from my mom's hometown of Erie, Pa.
FFO17: Just how wonderfully, beautifully messed up does an event have to be to have a student from Bemidji State, a school located in the fictitious hometown of Paul Bunyan, a locale that appears to be closer to Winnipeg than it is to Minneapolis, and was the hockey equivalent of the 64th seed in the hoops tournament, hold up a sign that says: "Miami who"?
FFO18: I don't think I ever wrestled in front of more than 100 people while at Miami so to pull into our nation's capital and see the streets crowded with people wearing red Miami hockey jerseys was shocking and surreal.
FFO19: This was the first national final in any sport in Miami's 200 year history. Naturally, understanding the significance of this event, I spent a good deal of my time interviewing one of Miami's postseason standouts about ... the school's traditional Green Beer Day. (To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, the bars uptown in Oxford open at 5 a.m. One of my finest academic accomplishments was attending GBD, catching three hours of sleep and then acing a poly-sci final.)
Back in the day, I told the player, Green Beer cost a nickel a glass.
"What's it up to now, like a dime or something," I asked.
FFO20: One of the things that has helped Miami become an elite program is the school's new state of the art Goggin Ice Center. How to describe Miami's beloved ice arena -- the one where I played intramural hockey at all hours of the night (our team name was called Tenacious D) and waited in line for hours to see a Miami team that, back then, was 5-20? Hmm. How about this: A cement bomb shelter shaped like a bowtie that smelled a bit like a hockey glove, filled with milk that had been left out in the sun for a day. God, I loved that place.
FFO21: I've never wanted to ban fighting from hockey. There is so much violent pressure that builds up over a single game -- the slashing, the elbows, the bumping and pushing and kneeing -- that the game needs the release valve of a good fight every now and then. But the NCAA hockey tournament made me rethink that stance. There were no fights in the 10 games I watched. And I certainly didn't miss the constant pile ups and pawing you see after every whistle blow in the NHL. I used to get a kick out of those -- until I realized just how much they make the game drag on.
FFO22: If I had to rank the merchandise at the Frozen Four on a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a minus-3. Lame, predictable, formulaic stuff. I wanted a Miami jersey and a hat and I probably would have bought anything that said "Beaver Power" on it. But I couldn't find a thing.
FFO23: Overheard near the Miami skate-sharpening machine: "I guess that s--- stomping we got from Northern Michigan in the CCHA tournament turned out to be a blessing in disguise." Indeed. After that shocking loss many of the Miami seniors, with tears in their eyes, walked around saying goodbye to their teammates inside the locker room, thinking they would not get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and that their careers were over.
In life, as in hockey, there is nothing quite as sweet or fulfilling as a well used second chance.
|In the end, the Terriers did not steal, but earned the right to be called champions.|
FFO24: I know a lot of teams do this now but after each game Miami lined up around the face-off circle below their fans and, as the band played "Love and Honor to Miami," the players tapped their sticks on the ice to salute their supporters. While doing this, after the win over Bemidji State in the semis, the RedHawks started to realize what they had accomplished. "It gave me goosebumps, hearing that song and seeing those fans," said sophomore center Carter Camper, a second-team all-America selection.
Whether it was talking to Camper, Justin Mercier or Miami senior captain Brian Kaufman, what struck me the most about this team was how fully aware they were of the history they were forging for Miami -- how the school would never be thought of the same way again in athletic circles -- and just what that meant to people like me.
FFO25: My second favorite Miami hockey ritual is how the players, one-by-one peel away from the warm-up skate and pile into the net around the goaltender, forming what looks like a human RedHawk Jell-O mold before the game.
FFO26: I was pretty sure it was over for my Li'l RedHawks at the end of regulation. You know how you get a sense that momentum has changed in most games? Well, this was visceral. I mean, you could feel it. It was over. (And yet, Miami did have two or three pretty good chances on fat pizza pie rebounds in the extra period.) But with my phone buzzing with texts up in the press box I couldn't sit still. So I went down into the hallways below the stands to walk it off and bumped into Miami players who didn't dress for the game: they looked sullen, beaten and devoid of all hope -- like the poor dad on that show "Jon & Kate Plus 8." And that's when I knew it was over.
FFO27: Earlier in the week, when asked what he knew about Miami, BU's Parker replied with a half smirk, "I know it's warm there," implying the school was in Florida. But by Saturday night, he and maybe the rest of the college hockey world had changed their tune quite a bit.
I thought his postgame comments were candid and gracious. "[In the future] we will sit back and watch this game and realize just how fortunate we were to win and how hard Miami played against us for 60 minutes," said Parker, the coach who now has three NCAA titles in four decades. "They had a hell of a year. Miami University has the best winning percentage of any team in the nation the last five years in college hockey. They're a hell of an opponent. And everybody knows who they are now."
FFO28: Hours after the game-winning shot fluttered over the left shoulder of Miami goaltender Cody Reichard, I was making my way out of a pretty much deserted arena when out of the Miami locker room walked a red-faced and wet-haired Reichard in a black suit, leaning heavily on Miami assistant coach Brent Brekke, who looked to be supporting the goalie's entire weight with his left arm. Reichard occasionally glanced down at his cell phone and Brekke seemed to be working his gums from the inside-out, the way you do when you're trying to physically fight back a lurking tidal wave of emotion. This is exactly what Blasi meant when after the game he said: This is going to sting a while.
Remembering the Lincoln Memorial, I didn't say a word. I followed in silence and thought back to the game when Kaufman had made a dumb pass deep in his own zone that was picked off by a BU player whose shot was then turned away by Reichard. After the play Kaufman skated back to the goal to thank the freshman for saving his bacon. Instead of the kid screaming at him or ignoring him, from behind Reichard's mask you could see he was smiling and laughing and having a blast, like a kid playing street hockey in his driveway with friends.
At the end of the hallway, Reichard and Brekke turned left and walked off into the underground garage, where the team bus was waiting. They disappeared down a corridor lined with red carpet and blue curtains, and the heavy fluorescent lights overhead gave off a surreal, distorted but somehow appropriate feel of a Donnie Darko parallel universe.
Upstairs, crews were already busy converting the Verizon back into a basketball arena. The NCAA banners were lowered and crumpled up on the seats like kid's coats at the movies. And when they started lowering the JumboTron, the weight of the structure caused the support cables to let out an ear-shattering wail that made it sound like -- I swear -- the arena itself was physically upset about the end of the Frozen Four.
All I could think as I walked out of the arena and into the cold night was: that makes two of us.David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," which has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Wednesday during the NFL season.