Sometimes I marvel at how a hockey team can provide such life drama and real life lessons. I always try to maintain that \”things always happen for a reason\”, plus \”good things happen to good people\”, and \”if you do the right things it will work out.\” So now after hearing that, I should have realized that day earlier in the season that Ryan McGrath\’s fortune cookie was a sign of what we were all about to experience.
We got off to a flying start winning our first 26 games. I remember in the August Camp telling JP (JP Beilsten), who was coaching with us for the first time that this team was going to be a nightmare to play against. We had skill, we had the knucklehead Roux twins, we had some tough defensemen, and we had an attitude of always competing. So we were just a handful in every type of situation.
On our first bus trip in November, Ryan McGrath came back on the bus with a fortune cookie and he proudly showed it to me. He folded it up, put it in his wallet and gave me that McGrath crazy grin and proclaimed it to be our destiny.
The regular season was spectacular in many ways but we had our bumps to go with it. Things were going very good. On January 30, Nick Saracino scored a spectacular OT goal to beat Toledo. The win was my 500th as the Jr. Blues coach. The players had a plaque made and what should have been a great day was probably the worst day in my estimation. Ryan Trenz had been hurt in a high school game the night before and as our game ended we got the word that he had a lacerated spleen. We were thinking at the time it probably would end his season. Ryan is such a good kid, it just didn\’t seem fair. I was devastated for the kid.
As it worked out, we got a minor miracle and Ryan was back in the line-up right before playoffs. Maybe good things do happen to good people. That was such a huge break for us. Ryan had become one of our most important players, especially on the power play. We needed Ryan and luckily we got him back just in time.
This team had more drama outside the rink than any other I have ever coached, most of which only the coaches and the effected player knew about. There were so many reasons for so many of our players to become distracted or even quit to deal with real life issues but somehow they remained focused. All I can add to it is this wasn\’t one or two players, it was a huge percentage of the team who had been thrown a curve in life but somehow continued to function. I can\’t even explain how impressed I was with their commitment.
On February 14 we had a chance to clinch the league title in a game at home against Pittsburgh. It was the worst performance of our season by a large margin. It was a terrible effort. I thought things out and decided changes were needed. Things had become stale. I started by changing the locker room stalls around with everyone moving to a new stall with different people around them. I was looking for that perfect line combination for Nationals so I changed the lines around each and every game for the rest of the regular season. We ended the season 44-4 with Nick Saracino netting 100 points to become only the third player to do so in CSHL history. Slowly but surely I saw some line combination come together that I thought might do the trick. Looking back at it, that loss to Pittsburgh was very fortunate. Maybe \”things do happen for a reason.\”
Playoffs in the CSHL are always tough. We had already secured a birth in the Nationals by winning the league so we were playing against teams who were playing for their lives while we were just playing for pride. I had a good talk before the playoffs with the team. I explained to them that adversity will hit us time and time again but we have to always remain focused, respond and never panic. My quote when a little like this \”we will without a doubt get kicked in the ***** many times these next 3 weeks and that\’s OK, but you better get right back up and compete!\” That became our theme. Sure enough it took about 25 minutes of playoff hockey to realize it. Quad City was playing terrific at the end of the season and had built a 3-1 lead. Our first test and we came through with such poise and determination to come back and win the game. We swept them the next night with another good effort and now it was on to the Hurster Cup.
We weren\’t happy for long as the next day Doc\’s (assistant coach Frank Runco) mom passed away. The funeral was the first day of the Hurster Cup. With the Hurster Cup in St. Louis, luckily I was able to attend the funeral and then go right to the rink for our game with Cleveland. It was very strange not having Doc on that bench but the boys played well and blew it open in the third period and won 5-2. Jamie DeMarco, who I had used on defense for much of the year, scored 2 goals on forward. Honestly, he became the final piece of the puzzle in those line combinations that we needed.
Our next game was huge. We played Dubuque and there definitely was some bad blood between the two teams from our January meeting in Dubuque. We had beaten them the first game of that weekend and the second game they went after Ryan McGrath. It was obviously pre-meditated as a seldom-used defenseman took the draw against Ryan and attacked him. A line brawl was started and the Dubuque player got 9 games and their coach got 3 games for the incident from the league. During warm-ups in our second Hurster Cup game the same Dubuque player was constantly chirping McGrath, telling him how he was going to hurt him again. Well that was perfect because all it did was unite our guys even more. We played great in a game that was probably the most intense game I have witnessed in years. The game ended up 3-3 but we outplayed them badly out-shooting them 31-14. We were kicked in the ***** again with some crazy bounces but still kept playing great. It was the first time all year that I thought we were on to something special.
The third game of Hurster was against Pittsburgh and we needed to win. We had absolutely no legs for the game and found ourselves down 1-0 in the second period. Ryan Trenz saved the day with two blasts from the point to give us the lead and we went on to win 5-2. What occurred after the game was and still is mystifying to all of us. The Pittsburgh coach went ballistic and wouldn\’t allow his players to shake our hands. He also went across the ice screaming at the ref. It was such a good life lesson that our kids got to see on how not to lose. It must be noted that several of their players did congratulate our players later without their coach knowing it. Those kids definitely showed great class. So we were in the Hurster Cup Championship Game and we would be facing our friends from Dubuque.
The league reviewed our game tape from the Pittsburgh game and gave Justin Roux a 1 game suspension for a hit from behind. I couldn\’t argue with them because he clipped the kid with his back turned so we had to do without him. Once again our resolve would be tested. It didn\’t take long in the Championship Game to get kicked again as Dubuque scored in the first minute of the game. Down 1-0 in the second period Tony Giacin deflected a Sean Gammage centering pass to tie the score. But once again we were down as Dubuque scored moments later. Nick Saracino then tied the game on the power play as we finished 2 periods. The third period wasn\’t easy but the guys played terrific. Erik Boning knocked home an Eric Aldag rebound to give us our first lead. We were getting scoring chance after scoring chance but not cashing in on our chances and then the glass broke. Unbelievably it took one hour to replace the glass. 12 minutes to go, one goal lead and we get to sit there and think about it for an hour. It\’s never easy. Well with four minutes to go Kyle Everett gave us that big insurance goal and that was how it ended up with a 4-2 win. The kids really enjoyed it with a huge pile up on our goalie Josh Hillegas. They skated the Cup around and savored a huge win. Fun to watch, gratifying to see.
Well true to form, another bump in the road as after the game the league notified us that because of the injury that the Pittsburgh player had, they changed Justin\’s suspension from 1 game to 8 games. We found out the Pittsburgh people had given the league incorrect medical information about the player and in fact did not have the injuries they claimed he had so we appealed the decision. We had a conference call to set the record straight with the GM\’s of the league. The league even said had they known the injuries were not what Pittsburgh had claimed the suspension wouldn\’t have been that severe. Well, Dubuque led the charge to gig us and got the rest of the GM\’s to go along with keeping the 8 game suspension. Justin went to pieces when I told him. It was really tough to see that he bore the brunt of the political winds of the CSHL. Once again, we got kicked…..
We left Wednesday night for Hartford. I could already sense this was going to be a special trip. The Hurster Cup win had the guys so close and so determined, I could just feel it. At the airport in St. Louis, Ryan McGrath came up to me and got out that fortune cookie he had been saving in his wallet. He once again read it to me, smiled, put it back in his wallet and walked away. We spent the night in Hartford and bussed Thursday to the New England Sports Complex in Marlborough, Massachusetts for a practice. That practice was the best practice I have ever been on the ice for in my 12 years with the Jr. Blues. Not one bad pass, not one mistake, it was unbelievable. It was so good that we started to draw a crowd of players and coaches from other teams just watching. That night we appealed Justin\’s suspension with USA Hockey. Justin did an admirable job representing himself and frankly the video and the facts didn\’t warrant an 8 game suspension. USA Hockey reduced the suspension to 1 additional game. It was a great boost to our team.
Friday we lost our first game to the New York Bobcats 4-3 despite out-shooting them 37-24. It could have been a devastating loss but I explained to the guys that we still controlled our own destiny and needed a big game tomorrow.
A big game is what we got against the Seattle Totems. We led 4-1 after one period and I kept on pushing the guys to keep going knowing that goal differential would be huge in determining if we made it to the Semi-finals. Goaltender Denis Chatsev had played so well most of the season and in fact led the CSHL in most goaltending stats for much of the year. Unfortunately he hit a rough spell at the end of the year and when he gave up a soft goal and then looked very shaky on another shot, I replaced him even though we were winning 5-2 at the time. A tough call but that goal differential was so important. Ryan McGrath finished with 4 goals as we went on to win 10-3 and we got that big game we so desperately needed.
Now we needed to beat the Rochester Ice Hawks out of Minnesota to advance. This was the same team that beat us 5-1 at Nationals last year. Several of the guys of course remembered and were looking forward to play them.
What occurred in that game was amazing, to say the least. I am not going to comment on the officiating but after one period Rochester had 5 power plays and we had one power play for less than 30 seconds. Remarkably, Ryan Trenz scored on that power play and we had a 1-0 lead after 1 period. While shorthanded once again in the second period, McGath got smoked from behind and was hurt on the play. No whistle, no penalty as he lay on the ice for over 30 seconds. Luckily Rochester didn\’t score but McGrath was hurt. He couldn\’t catch his breath after he got to the bench and was vomiting. I was almost ready to call for an ambulance but our trainer; Mike Heffner, calmed him down and took him to the locker room. The score was tied 1-1 after two periods and it was all on the line.
Huck (assistant coach Nathan Hucker) and JP had done a great job of scouting Rochester, as we were ready for every trick they tried to pull. We started the third period on the power play and Kyle Everett gave us the lead just 17 seconds into the period. Sure enough, Rochester tied the score. McGrath wasn\’t available but was on the bench. We had a power play and I decided to use him with his begging me to play. I told him to stay out of harms way and not get hit, as Mike was sure he had a cracked rib or at least a muscle tear to the rib cage. Well he got in a few seconds, looked OK so when we had another power play I put him out there. Well, he doesn\’t follow directions very well and he just destroys a Rochester player on a clean hit. The play hurt McGrath and this time he was definitely done. I noticed later the player he hit was the same kid who had hurt him on the hit from behind.
Now, with the game tied, we go on a 3 on 2 break and Everett once again gives us the lead on the passing play with Saracino. We played great in that period launching 21 shots on goal and continued to push despite all the adversity. Rochester pulled their goalie and we broke up a play and Everett found himself going in all-alone on an empty net. Everett passes to Hutton instead of notching the hat trick as Hutton buried the empty netter. At this point, I told the guys to make sure to keep that 2 goal lead because it would insure us a spot in the Semi-finals. In reality, I knew we were in because both Dubuque and New York would have had to win their games by 7 goals to knock us out on a one goal win. Well the craziness of this game continued as there was a flurry in front of our net in the closing seconds. The ref blows the whistle, the puck at that point trickles in after the whistle and for some reason with .5 seconds left he counted the goal. Well, that goal was huge as it allowed Rochester to advance to the Semi-finals with us and that goal eliminated Dubuque. Karma is a strange thing sometimes.
I was so proud of my guys. Hutton had a terrible hip flexor pull and was about half speed. McGrath gets hurt and Saracino\’s ankle was getting worse with each game to the point he could hardly bare to have a skate on. We kill 10 of 11 penalties and score on 2 of our 5 power plays. This team was so resilient!
So, the good news is we advance, the bad news is we play the 3 time defending National Champion New Hampshire Monarchs in the Semi-finals. The Monarchs are the beast of the East as they say with 14 players committed to NCAA Division I hockey next year. Amazing! They are of course the champs of the EJHL which has never lost a game at the Tier III Jr. A Nationals to a non-EJHL team. But we had our own issues, health issues. McGrath was very tender, but was going to give it a try. Saracino\’s ankle was swollen and painful. Hutton\’s hip flexor really limited him. Trainer Mike was busy Sunday night and Monday trying to get them ready. So, we have our top 3 scorers hurt and questionable playing the HUGE favorite to win Nationals. No big deal.
I was very relaxed because we had no pressure; it was all on New Hampshire. JP was confident we would pull off an upset then about 3 minutes into the game he gave me a look that he had no idea they would be that good. The early going was rough with Josh Hillegas keeping us in it. Justin Roux was out of sorts and taking stupid penalties. Not good timing. New Hampshire scored a power play goal, the ref put us two men down moments later and Huck decides its time to get his first ever bench minor in his three years coaching with us. In Huck\’s defense, he didn\’t say much and the ref reached a little for that one. So we kill off over 2 minuets of 5 on 3 and make it to the second period only down 1-0.
I warned Justin that one more penalty and his career was over so sure enough his first shift he takes his 3rd penalty of the game putting us two men down once again. It was the sixth time in the Tournament that we were down two men and we successfully killed off all six. JP and I were talking between periods just wondering if we were ever going to get a 5 on 3 power play in the entire Tournament. Sure enough in that second period we got what we needed with a minute 5 on 3 power play. Our 5 on 3 had been deadly all year and we were good for it as Saracino tied the game on a rebound from a Hutton shot. Amazingly we were tied with the Monarchs late in the second period. Josh stood tall again the last few minutes of the second and it would come down to one period of hockey.
In between periods I looked down at the Monarchs end of the hallway and the body language was terrible on their players. At that point, I really for the first time thought we had a chance to pull off the unthinkable. Now, we did have some issues of our own. Hutton was dazed by a hit late in the period. McGrath was hyperventilating a couple times a period but courageously didn\’t miss a shift. Saracino\’s ankle was worse. Plus I had benched Justin so things weren\’t exactly rosy. I talked to Mike about Hutton and as cautious as Mike is about head injuries he thought he was OK. Only one way to know, and I knew how to find out. The first shift of the third period I started Hutton\’s line with a different center. If looks could kill I would have been a dead man, so I knew he was fine. In fact he was more than fine winning battle after battle in that third period. The next hurdle was Justin. I really needed a few shifts from him and gave him one more chance. He didn\’t disappoint and that was very important because we needed the energy from everyone and all four lines. That third period was intense, they hit a goal post, we nearly scored on the other end. So it was getting late and with just under 7 minutes to play we get a power play. We didn\’t get a good shot early in the power play but controlled the puck. We changed forwards but left Trenz and Terry out there on defense sensing this was going to be our best shot at scoring. Well it paid off as Trenz was set up perfectly by a McGrath pass as Trenzy blasted a one timer top shelf from the point. I don\’t know what jumped higher, the water bottle on the Monarchs net from the blast or every St. Louis player, coach or fan in the building as we had a lead with 5:45 left in the game. Later, many would call it the shot that was heard around Junior Hockey. It seemed like it took 5 hours but we played so poised and so well in those last few minutes. It was really something to see; blocked shots, clearing rebounds, big hits, winning battles, we just fought to the buzzer and pulled off the miracle! Unbelievable!
Coach Tremblay of the Monarchs asked to speak to our players after the game. He stuck his head in our locker room and congratulated the guys on the win. He told them not to let anyone tell them that it was a fluke that \”you deserved to win this hockey game.\” It was a classy move and another life lesson for the boys. This time, they witnessed first hand how to lose with class.
We were slated against another powerhouse team from the EJHL the South Shore Kings. They had outscored their opponents to that point 29-5 in four games. I had other things on my mind though. It\’s a part of coaching that I will never get used to, making decisions on who to play in the National Championship Game. All I can say to the guys who didn\’t play that game, you made me proud in the way you handled the situation with class and dignity. So as much as we should have been enjoying the moment, my thoughts were with those guys.
Throughout the year I never once said the words \”National Championship\” to the team. I always would refer to winning the league championship and winning the Hurster Cup as goals. But I always referred to the Nationals as a \”chance to do something special.\” I truly understood the impossibility of winning a National Championship against the EJHL teams so I never went there. However, on this Tuesday morning, I changed my tune. Our game with South Shore was at 12:30 PM, much earlier than any of our other games. I woke each room with the same words: \”time to wake up and win a National Championship.\” We had a good breakfast, and Jeff our bus driver up there all week was pretty excited for us as well. Back in 2005, George McNichols was our trainer and he was driving the equipment van for us at Nationals. George accidentally hit the curb at the rink before our first game and because we won that game Doc proclaimed it good luck. So each game George would have to hit the curb as we went on to win the Jr. B National Championship. It was a tradition we continued and told Jeff, our bus driver about. Well Jeff made no mistake pulling up in front of the rink as he put half the bus on the sidewalk to emphasize hitting that curb. Once we got to locker room number 3, same one as yesterday, it was time for Ryan McGrath to take that fortune cookie out and tape it above the door in the locker room.
This South Shore team had 9 D-1 commitments and they also had two superstar players. Their leading scorer had set an EJHL scoring record and his line mate is slotted to be a first round NHL draft pick this June. From the start of the game though I could sense we had no fear. We worked and created scoring chances right off the bat. Like normal, the team\’s undisciplined play would drive me nuts and we took the first penalty. Travis Wool deflected a pass right to Paul Zuke who wristed a quick shot for a short-handed goal. The goal stood up as we went to the room up 1-0 after the first period.
The second period was a classic. This period told the story of our entire season. South Shore coach calls a timeout just six minutes into the second period. It was clear to him, clear to everyone that we were just outworking them. It was special to see, we bridged that talent gap with hard work, heart and determination. Seconds after the time out, South Shore tied the game. It would have been devastating to most teams, but it was just another kick in the ****** that we would overcome. Nick Saracino is a special player, and he was hurting so bad that he could hardly skate. He was late on the backcheck on that South Shore goal and when he got to the bench I ripped into him. Now, I knew Nick well enough to know how he would react. Moments later we had a power play and Nick scored to give us the lead back. He was so angry with me for yelling at him he forgot about the pain he was in and just played. Everything was falling into place.
Once again, we were shorthanded. In the second period the defensive zone is at the far end and my penalty killers were stuck out there for over a minute. Zuke intercepted a pass and I was calling for an icing so we could get fresh legs out to kill the rest of the penalty. Zuke instead hit Patrick Gregory with a pass in our zone and Gregory danced around their defenseman who missed him pinching. Now it was a 2 on 1 break as Zuke hustled to join the play. Gregory\’s passing lane was blocked so he sniped a shot right over the goalies shoulder with an unbelievable shot for our second shorty of the game. We should have iced the puck but we didn\’t and we were rewarded for our stupidity. Just like all year, they did it their way. The goal sent their Division I goalie to the bench as their coach was trying everything to change the momentum.
So here we go, one period away from a National Championship with a 3-1 lead. You could tell South Shore was stunned, and my guys, they just seemed relaxed and looking forward to finish it off. Like usual, it wouldn\’t be easy. Early in the third period, South Shore split our defense and went down as he was shooting. The ref called a penalty shot. Josh made the save look easy. We were playing so well, doing all the right things. Eric Aldag had the puck on a turnover off a South Shore rush. Dags backed up into our zone then made a 100 foot pass to Gregory at their blue line. Zuke hustled on the play and it became a two man breakaway. Gregory faked the shot, passed it over to Zuke for the tap in goal. I can\’t tell you how happy I was for Pauly as the entire year he was hobbled with an ankle injury. It was without a doubt the most frustrating year I have ever seen a player go through but he never gave up and had such a positive attitude about it. It was great to see that he was rewarded with this very special Championship Game.
So now we had 10 minutes to go and a 3-goal lead. Well Mr. Ref called us on 3 consecutive penalties and with 6:44 to go in the game South Shore had scored twice and made it 4-3. I called time out, settled the guys down. I then looked at Josh to see how he was doing. He just had a smile on his face and was having a good time. I think he, more than anything, calmed everyone down. Josh had one more, huge save to showcase his spectacular weekend and boys did the rest. It was the time of the game that one would normally shorten the bench, but fresh legs was the most important thing I thought as all we were doing was working our tails off. Several face-offs in our own zone in the last minute with their goalie pulled added to the suspense. Right to the final buzzer it was in doubt but the miracle did indeed happen. We were National Champions!
After the game, it was emotional. I could hardly speak. Each of the players spoke, it was fun and it was something we will all remember. Some talked about how proud they were that their names would now be up in the Jr. Blues locker room back at Affton listed forever as National Champions. I had pointed to those previous teams names numerous times speaking to this group. Telling them they could be like them if they would follow through with what they were asked to do. So that was cool to hear how much that part of this experience meant to them.
Now as I was leaving that locker room, I looked one last time at that damn fortune cookie McGrath had been saving. It was taped to the wall above the door and like I said earlier was so appropriate for our season: \”The Road to Glory will be bumpy but fulfilling.\” I asked McGrath if he was going to save it. He said no, it had done its job. So if you find yourself at the New England Sports Complex, look above the door in locker room 3 and you will see that little fortune cookie paper taped to the wall probably for a long time.
After the game, several Division I schools talked to many of our players and rightfully so. We boarded the bus; Jeff was so excited for us. As we pulled out of the parking lot, he turned up the music and sure enough he had what I thought was a CD of Queen \”We are the Champions.\” I thanked Jeff for that and he said, \”Coach that is on the radio, this must be your day.\” So the entire team was on that crazy bus, singing, \”We are the Champions.\” This time not one single bump on the road.