Perfectly Imperfect

Ohio State at California (PA)
Rostraver Ice Garden
Belle Vernon, PA

February 1, 2020

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It’s hard to explain Rostraver Ice Garden to someone who’s never been there, other than by pointing out that she was born in 1965 and just kind of stuck around. She’s dated, but comfortable, like your grandparents’ house.

Other structures of a certain age make allowances for vanity at some point. Botox, a hair transplant, a tummy tuck. Most of those things aren’t essential procedures (does anyone actually need the standard “enhanced seating and concessions” included in a typical rink renovation?) but most buildings are trying to be seen as younger than they actually are by any of several groups, including fans, tournament committees, and recruits.

Not Rostraver. Inside her hangar-chic exterior, you’ll find plenty of wood paneling, a bathroom declaring that it’s for “gents” without a trace of irony, and seating that consists of loose wooden benches perched on shallow-angle concrete. There are also hand-painted signs everywhere, from the “ICE GARDEN ARENA” above the main entrance to the “DO NOT SHOOT or THROW ANY THING AGAINST THIS WALL” all the way on the other end by the locker rooms.

None of that is retro, a word that implies deliberate activity and new procedures to undo previous ones. She has spent more than half a century being her authentic self. Sometimes that authenticity includes things like a devoted audience of snowmen and other random Christmas decorations that intently watch every game played from the stage just off the lobby end of the ice. It also includes a banquet room that sees far more drylands than receptions.

At most places, those would be called “oddities.” At Rostraver, they’re just kind of normal.


The ACHA counts several venues old and famous enough to be identifiable by a single name among its home rinks – Yost, Matthews, Munn, Wally B – but those places exist primarily for the varsity teams at their respective schools and give in to the pressures of modernization every few years.

There’s another constantly growing category of course, the relatively new palaces that grab headlines because newness and eight-figure price tags are inherently headline-worthy.

Liberty’s LaHaye Ice Center might be the standard bearer, thanks to a colossal top-to-bottom renovation in 2015 that produced 4,000 seats, a four-sided LED scoreboard, a full video production room, luxury suites, and improved locker and concession options – all for lead tenants that are ACHA teams. The McKendree Metro Rec Plex is another jewel, as is Minot State’s Maysa Arena, which was renovated and expanded in 2016. The mostly-for-NCAA set on this side of the ledger includes several arenas recognized as among the finest in college hockey: Miami’s Goggin Ice Arena, Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena, and Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena.

Fundamentally though, there’s a problem with them. Their differentiation isn’t any unique architectural trait, earned character, or history witnessed, it’s simply the fact that they’re newer and shinier and contain better technology than those built earlier. At least until another one goes up and the sports-industrial complex demands it have a bigger scoreboard, more space in the locker rooms, and stronger wifi while the incumbents have only added a couple layers of grunge and maybe a crack or two. That elite status only sticks if the construction docket remains relatively empty.

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People don’t listen to signs, even hand-painted ones

Rostraver, though, is undeniably ours, in a way the others aren’t. In a landscape filled with NCAA arenas and faceless, nearly-identical community rinks she’s an outlier, a legitimate entry in that ever-shrinking list of historic hockey destinations, and one whose credibility comes largely without the help of more mainstream sports leagues and their media machine. Others can take The Gut, I’ll wager that Rostraver has done more living in roughly the same amount of time and feels like home to more people.

That last part isn’t really a coincidence, it’s an atmosphere cultivated over the decades by long-time owner Jim Murphy.

“The owner ‘Murph’ – myself and my fiancé literally don’t know his real name, but everyone knows Murph,” Vulcans all-time goal scoring leader Kelsey DeNardo said. “Anyone that grew up playing at Rostraver has their own Murph story. He has been the owner there since anyone can remember and has had an incredible impact on hockey at Rostraver and in the area. He is a unique guy. He keeps the history in the rink throughout, pictures of youth hockey through the years and trophies dating back to the late 70s.”

“Honestly, everyone that works there is very unique, the workers make you feel like part of a community bigger than just your team, they make Rostraver feel like home.”

In 1975, with the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins foundering in red ink, she was a vital local practice option. While Rostraver lives a healthy jaunt down the Monongahela River from the former site of Civic Arena, she was certainly a much more cost-effective option than Canada, where the team had been holding training camp.

A Cal U media guide claims that the quintessential barn hosted a Muhammad Ali amateur fight but, given that the man then known as Cassius Clay began his professional career five years before she was around, it’s a dubious story at best. A more verifiable one involves an eventual winner of the Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophies, Ron Hextall, who started in net for the first time at Rostraver at the age of eight in 1972. A handful of other NHLers have also braved her infamously spartan locker rooms and frigid temperatures as youth players.

Her wheelhouse, though, is the blue-collar hustle and staying in business by working the edges as a place that’s far more Amanda Slezak than Amanda Kessel. There are the three Vulcans women’s and men’s teams of course, but Rostraver is also home ice for numerous youth and high school teams, and a couple of short-lived low-level pro teams. She’s also welcomed arena football, comedy shows, pro wrestling, and concerts – including several notable artists on the left or right tails of the fame curve like Modest Mouse, Slayer, My Chemical Romance, and Machine Gun Kelly.

She’s even seen at least one on-ice engagement, between DeNardo and former men’s player Steve Oberly prior to Cal’s alumni game in 2018.

“My fiancé picked Rostraver and the Cal hockey alumni game because we both played ice hockey at Cal U and it is actually how we met,” DeNardo said. “We met my freshmen year but did not officially start dating until my junior or senior year. About two years later he popped the question at the annual alumni game hosted at Rostraver, it kind of brought the whole thing full circle.”

“We also plan to get some actual engagement pictures done there, because my fiancé grew up playing there for [the Mon Valley Thunder] and I finished my career there.”

Rostraver has met with triumph, and also disaster, never the latter more than on February 14, 2010 when a rink-sized chunk of her wooden barrel-vaulted roof came crashing down under the weight of a couple feet of snow.

Mercyhurst defender Sara Ochterski, then ten years old, was there that day, watching her brother win a tournament championship with the Erie Lions mite team.

“They had gotten off the ice after winning and were celebrating in the locker room, and people heard a slow on and off cracking,” she recalled. “When that continued, everyone started to run out of the building. I remember my dad tossing my brother over his shoulder and carrying him out fully dressed, skates and all. Everyone was outside maybe ten minutes after getting off the ice when the roof collapsed. You can never forget the cracking and popping sounds it made.”

“Everyone made it out, but it was a game that could have easily gone to overtime, and that would have been an entirely different outcome than what thankfully occurred with no injuries. Walking back into that rink to play [today] is just surreal after being there when it collapsed, it’s a chills running down your spine kind of deal.”

Many predicted a permanent demise as the cratered edifice spread news of the misfortune from a hilltop home; Murph managed to have Rostraver back on her feet and re-opened in October.

The roof replacement segment certainly took away some of her celebrated old-time hockey aesthetic, a loss frequently lamented by locals. But, in a bizarre way, the incident crystallized her bona fides as the Hobey Baker of ACHA venues, as she now consists of a modern steel structure spanning most of the length of the ice, awkwardly sandwiched between the original ends of the building, with a bunch of support stumps outside leading to nothing and serving no purpose other than reminding people of what once was.

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Reminders of both good times and bad seamlessly exist side by side at Rostraver

A lot of times, even in better days, her victories are something less than absolute.

She’s appeared in a major film, as the home to Seth Rogen’s beloved beer league team in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. But it was a role that amounted to one fairly inconsequential (though funny, if you enjoy goalies sucker punching players on breakaways, and honestly, who doesn’t?) 45-second scene with most of the Rostraver iconography barely visible. In fact, she wasn’t playing herself, but rather an imaginary rink roughly 40 minutes away where the Monroeville Zombies did their best to keep the western Pennsylvania tradition of Slap Shot alive.

Nearly a decade later, Rostraver enjoyed a much less anonymous turn in the spotlight as the winner of the 2017 Kraft Hockeyville USA contest, beating out 1300 other arenas (after initially being nominated by Cal’s equipment manager) to win rink upgrades through three rounds of online voting.

“Winning money from Hockeyville was a pretty huge event for the rink, because it needed serious remodeling,” Vulcans forward Mira Rolin said.

To be specific, the successful grassroots effort pulled in $150,000 to complete some piping and lighting fixes, and the NHL chipped in some protective netting and work on the boards. Nevertheless, the league deemed her unfit for Hockeyville’s centerpiece, a preseason game between the Penguins and St. Louis Blues.

Everyone did their honest best to compensate, including using Rostraver for the Pens’ morning skate on gameday and other fan events throughout the week, but the sparkling UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on the other side of Pittsburgh got the NBCSN cameras and the associated eyeballs.

She’s venerated locally, but largely unknown a couple hours from the Monongahela Valley. Her victories are often qualified and her losses can be catastrophic and nearly tragic. She will never be the subject of a commemorative coffee table book like many sports facilities that survive through the decades, even though she retains more of her age than most of them. She’s welcoming and genuine, despite the structure that covers most of her ice surface only having a decade under its belt. She’s seen an immeasurable amount of history under her roofs from future NHL stars to championships, and even to film and music A-listers, but relatively few are aware of any of it.

Rostraver is imperfect, but she’s also perfect in her imperfection.


If Rostraver is the perfect ACHA building, Cal U might be the perfect tenant for Rostraver. Sure, the 2008-09 vintage Vulcans women’s program might be neophytes in Ice Garden terms, but they’ve driven plenty of hard miles as well. There was early success, a couple DVCHC titles, then a couple more after moving over to the CHE, roughly coinciding with five straight nationals appearances between 2012 and 2016.

“We had a great group of girls who just knew how to play hockey,” DeNardo said. We wanted to win and we all just pushed each other. We made efforts for dryland together and did a lot of team bonding and dinners. Many of us were absolute best friends and still are today.”

“I think the fact a lot of us grew up playing together or against each other was a big deal too. Maria Sciacca and I were giant rivals our whole lives and it continued in a positive way when we were on the same team, along with many of the other girls I was rivals with. Megan Cooper and I constantly pushed each other to be our best and play our best on the team. I’m thankful for leaders like Melissa Gleason and Michelle Daley who brought a little bit of an older perspective and really made everyone focus.”

Then their own roof caved in, as a disproportionate amount of the roster responsible for the success moved on and there was nobody to replace them. The Vulcans were forced to take a hiatus during 2016-17, a stunning move given the team’s success. Hiatuses are for irrelevant teams on the brink of oblivion that have been creeping towards the abyss for years, not for one of Division 2’s dominant programs.

“That had been brewing for some time,” DeNardo added. “We did so well for so many years and picked up some recruits along the way, but because we had a great core, recruiting was not a strong suit. Many players actually continued on and went for master’s degrees so we could all keep playing and have a team.”

“Unfortunately, during my senior year recruiting efforts fell extremely short, and our coach quit at season’s end, and that obviously made recruiting that much harder for the following year. Many players that did not graduate also had a bad taste in their mouths and refused to play that following year as well even though they were healthy. That hiatus year was sad. I was going to continue my career with Cal U while I received my master’s that year, but there was not a team.”

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Like Murph before it though, the school in one of the most unflinching sections of a famously-unflinching metropolitan area got back on its feet quickly.

The Vulcans managed to put a team on the ice for 2017-18, but were plagued by low player counts and lopsided scores until things started to click into place this year. A bevy of players from the successful Steel City Selects program – Rolin, Jayda Mears, Katie Hill, and Morgan Gloeckl among them – converged on Rostraver, as did a renewed spirit.

“There has been a big improvement since 2017 when we only had eight players and most didn’t know how to play hockey,” Mears said.

“Now we have people transferring here who know how to play hockey. We started from trying to keep up with the other team to actually becoming more serious. Everyone is starting to work harder to win games and practices are taken more seriously.”

The results followed, starting with a stunning season-opening upset of Delaware, a team had hung a 12-3 result on Cal at the 2019 CHE playoffs. Then came the East Coast Showdown, where the Vulcans blitzed DVCHC teams Towson, Montclair State, and Penn to take the showcase title. Then came an important sweep of Pitt, a team threatening to fill the vacuum left by Cal’s absence (both physical and metaphorical) and become the Pittsburgh area’s hegemon.

Then came Ohio State.

In terms of seismic activity, Delaware was bigger. The Blue Hens are a strong program, while OSU has had their own struggles over the last few seasons. But taking down the Buckeyes might prove even more important to the team’s development, simply for the way the Vulcans were pressed and persevered. Iron sharpens iron, and the hottest fires produce the strongest steel, if you enjoy regionally-appropriate platitudes.

Mears, who has spent most of her career among D2’s scoring leaders, and linemate Rolin got to work late in the first period, when Rolin chased down a loose puck, pivoted in the slot, then found Mears collapsing down the back side for a pretty goal. Less than five minutes of game time later, with the second period just beginning, Gloeckl nicely broke up a Buckeye rush, allowing Mears to take it the other way and bury. 2-0 Cal.

While that pair of digits looked good on Rostraver’s shamrock-accented scoreboard, which somehow outlasted the ceiling that once held it up, they belied a game flow that was often carried by Ohio State.

The Buckeyes, like Cal, were short on depth but possessed good talent at the top end (though perhaps not quite as good as the person who printed OSU’s NCAA team roster in the program thought), and were able to erase the Vulcans’ lead just as quickly as it was drawn. First, St. Louis Lady Blues product Mikayla Richter took it coast to coast herself, then Clancy Chichetti converted Emma Brown’s setup to pull things level though to the end of the second period – and the third.

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Photo: David Hague (www.davidhaguephotography.com)

Meanwhile, despite allowing the two goals, Hill was stellar in keeping the game within reach. She closed with 45 saves on 47 OSU shots.

“It was a back and forth game, and we worked well as a team,” Rolin said. “We knew that was an important game, because they badly outshot us [during a 2-2 tie between the teams in December].”

“But we had timely scoring, and Katie really stood on her head and kept us in the game, like she always does.”

In the last minute of overtime, Brown tried to carry the puck out of the Buckeye zone. Mears cut her off just inside the line on the right side, then navigated to the slot and took on both Ohio State defenders at once. With Cal’s men and Penn State Altoona looking on in full uniform while waiting to take the ice, Mears twisted her scarlet-clad opponents even tighter than the rods of the black metal partition that guards the skate rental counter out in the lobby, somehow emerged with the puck on the other side of the traffic jam, and slammed it home.

As a goal horn punctuated the Vulcans’ latest big win, Rostraver echoed it off of a steel roof, a monument to her near-death experience, and back towards the ice. The old lady has seen a lot and certainly couldn’t be blamed for some indifference towards the latest of thousands of early February games, but that goal and Cal U’s own ongoing resurrection had earned her approval.

The Scoreboard

State-Imposed Quarantine
My Couch
Medina, OH

March 25, 2020

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Captain Sami Jo Henry and Minot State finished No. 2, again. Photo: Minot State Women’s Hockey

Coaches have a lot of tough conversations with their teams, in fact, it’s a significant part of the job. From the extremely minor positioning corrections to the more serious matters like off-ice discipline issues, there’s a well-creased (if entirely internal) handbook for dealing with various degrees of unpleasantness. The coach generally starts his or her career with a foundation built on a mélange of personal values and ideas taken from past mentors during a playing career. Then, as time moves forward, they can fine tune things based on experiences, seminars and other peer conversations, and the input of a staff.

All in all, it’s an effective system that finds an intersection between best practices and individual styles, and has benefited millions of coaches and athletes throughout the history of organized sports.

However, there’s just no chapter in that handbook for the unprecedented meeting Minot State head coach Ryan Miner had with his Beavers on the morning of March 12th. So he had to write his own for one of the toughest of the tough conversations any coach has had with any team, even if they already sensed what was coming: thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, second-ranked MSU won’t be able to take their earned shot at a national championship. The ACHA, following the lead of public health experts and other sports organizations, had canceled its national tournament festival, originally slated to begin today just outside of Dallas for women’s teams.

“[The morning of March 12th] Ryan texted me saying we needed to gather everyone in between our classes, and I kind of said to him like well we have class so it will have to be quick,” Beavers captain Sami Jo Henry said. “And he responded to me with ‘everyone must be there.’ When he said that I knew it was going to be canceled, because he usually tells me beforehand what a meeting is going to be about, so as soon as I felt that distance, I knew it was bad. It was pretty tough to sit through my morning class knowing that was probably going to be the outcome.”

“When [other sports leagues] started canceling, our national tournament was kind of up in the air, and we knew in the back of our heads that it was gonna happen,” Miner said. “Right away, we wanted to sit the girls down and tell them before it got released on social media, and going into that meeting, we knew there was going to be a lot of emotion.”

“It was probably one of the toughest meetings that my coaching staff and I have had to go through in terms of just telling them that their season’s done.”

Careers abruptly ended. An entire year rendered moot. A legitimate shot at an all-too-elusive championship gone.

“I think the hardest part about it is that we had such a successful season, and having that opportunity taken away from us especially, since we had the opportunity to win a national championship,” Miner added. “It’s a big ‘what if’ and it’s kind of devastating.”

“There was a lot of emotion and anger,” Henry, who was recently named first-team All-American, said. “I know I was very angry and mad because it is something you have no control over. Losing out is something [where] you have control, but having it taken away like this is not. Lots of hugs and love spread around our team because we are so close, and we do care a lot about this team.”

For Minot State, this year was both a redemption tour and a booming debut.

For the last two seasons, as a Division 2 team, the Beavers steamrolled just about everyone on the way to 21-4-1 and 24-1-0 regular season records, including a combined 10-2-0 mark against Division 1 opponents. But both years ended in national championship game defeats, with Lakehead winning their second straight title in 2018. Last year’s result was the real stunner though, as MSU was upset by Assiniboine by a 1-0 score, a result that flew in the face of the Beavers’ 6-0-0 mark against ACC through the regular season, including 7-1 and 9-2 wins during its final weekend.

Minot then moved up to Division 1, continued some of the ACHA’s best recruiting efforts, and were nearly as dominant at the higher level, going 18-4-1 in ACHA games (including 7-4-0 against fellow national tournament invitees) and winding up second in the rankings, while also coming agonizingly close to a conference championship in the brutally-tough Women’s Midwest College Hockey. Heading to Texas as one of the favorites, the Beavers were certainly driven to complete the job on an even bigger stage.

“We thought we had a pretty good chance this year,” Henry said. “We were ready to start prepping game film on our first and potential second round matchups, and had big plans leading up to the national tournament. [It was a] huge disappointment for us losing that conference final, but we wanted to take it and prepare for them at nationals.”

Now…we’ll never know how it would have turned out. MSU is a program on the rise and will certainly have other days. But those days might come without a senior class of Mackenzie Balogh – one of the ACHA’s best players ever – Shelby Tornato, and Brooke Mead that had seen the program forward from its early days and now probably won’t make it to the finish line. While each could theoretically use a fifth year of eligibility on one more shot, doing so can often be complicated by academics and finances.

“I really just feel for our seniors especially Mack, she is one of my best friends and my roommate in Minot,” Henry lamented. “It’s just sad it had to end like that for her because she is one of the best, if not the best, players Minot will ever have. I enjoyed playing with her every year I did, including high school together, so it is a very sad time knowing we will never get that chance again.”

“She deserved a ring and I really wanted to win one for her.”


The 2019-20 Beavers will forever remain an unfinished story, but just one of many truncated by the pandemic.

Liberty’s Division 2 team is also compelling for what it lost in the cancellation. The formerly-downtrodden program abruptly rose to prominence in 2017-18 and made an appearance at the ACHA National Tournament that season. But the Flames were even better last year, steamrolling to a College Hockey East title over Delaware – yet not qualifying for nationals thanks to an extremely odd and poorly-communicated awarding of the CHE autobid to Mercyhurst (which hadn’t even won its division during the regular season, let alone the playoff title). So, the champs had to sit next to their trophy on the couch and fire up YouTube to watch the Lakers and Buffalo represent the league in Dallas.

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Delaney Adams and Liberty will also miss an overdue shot at nationals. Photo: Danielle Bergen

This was the season meant to correct that wrong, as Brittany Hegele, Paige Arnosti, Holly Turner, and company left no doubt as to their nationals chops, and were ready to take a run at a manageable pool round schedule.

“Obviously this season meant a lot, when we started the season, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Flames defenseman Delaney Adams said. “We lost people and gained a few new ones, but we just kinda focused on having fun and kept nationals as our goal.”

Now…the goal will remain unfulfilled. The Flames still have a young roster and presumably will make a credible run at the 2021 tournament and CHE championship, but that’s hardly a guarantee. Motivations change, players change, and the competition changes. There will never be another moment identical to the one that just passed.

“When I got the news, I was at lunch with one of the other captains, we were both kinda shocked and extremely upset,” Adams continued. “We were so lost on why this happened because we got cheated out of nationals for two years. We just went to the gym and skipped classes to try to get our brains to slow down a bit.”

Perhaps nobody’s reality is quite as tragic as Lindenwood-Belleville, a team fighting against the ending of all endings, well beyond the expiration of any one player’s or class’ eligibility: that of the school and team itself, a bombshell that dropped shortly after a loss in the 2019 national championship game.

All year long, LUB used the rallying cry “last Lynx” in an attempt to will themselves to a title that was just as much about demonstrating their worthiness to those who killed their school as it was about finishing on top of the ACHA. The determination of whether a doomed team could manage to end on a title – literally, the plot of hockey’s most famous movie – was maybe the single most anticipated question of the tournament.

Now…it will remain forever unanswered and LUB’s existence will always be saddled with a maddeningly-ambiguous conclusion, right alongside The Sopranos’ infamous Don’t Stop Believin’-backed cut to black. At least with a TV show, the use of imagination and interpretation is permitted and even encouraged. Hockey is supposed to have a scoreboard for that, and you can be damn sure that the Lynx would pay anything to roll the dice just one more time.

It’s Minot State, Liberty, and Lindenwood-Belleville. It’s also Colorado, trying to avenge a 2018 defeat to Liberty’s Division 1 team with key players like Maura Kieft and Lexi Hartmann about to move on. It’s Boston College, New England’s best D2 squad for the last few years, and their underrated seniors like Peyton King and Jess Olivieri. It’s Michigan State trying to get a bit of a tournament albatross off their backs while taking one last shot with two-time Zoe Harris Award winner and former World University Games captain Maddie Wolsmann.

Everyone has a story. But like Miner, nobody has the chapter they need right now.


In absolute terms, the situation actually hasn’t cost that much. Seventeen of the 25 Division 1 teams and 39 of the 51 Division 2 teams managed to successfully complete their 2019-20 seasons. For the other eight and 12 who qualified for nationals, there were a maximum of five additional games on the table. Hockey’s sacrifice, in a strict numbers sense, wasn’t anywhere near that of the spring sports, which were cut off early in their seasons, prompting both the NCAA and NAIA to quickly grant those student-athletes an extra year of eligibility that may or may not be coming for the hockey players and other winter competitors.

And the hard reality is that only one team in each ACHA division gets to win the national championship – most participants would’ve seen their seasons end in a loss, regardless of the pandemic. Minot State and Lindenwood-Belleville are both in Division 1, so it would have been impossible for both of those stories to have a happy ending. In any realistic sense, there was at least as much chance that the three teams I’ve discussed would have been shut out of the titles as there was of any of them bringing one home.

One could even take it a step further and argue that, in some rational sense, the Lynx’s WMCH third-place game victory over rival McKendree on a lightly-attended Sunday morning on home ice is a better outcome as a season’s final game than most of the available possibilities at nationals. Others, like Rowan, Mercyhurst, and Northern Michigan did even better than LUB, ending their seasons with on-ice league tournament celebrations.

But that’s not really the point, is it?


As part of my pandemic-mandated social distancing efforts, I decided to binge The Office. The show had, for most of its run, been appointment viewing, but I (along with at least a couple others, I suppose) fell off the wagon when Steve Carell left late in the seventh of its nine seasons. In fact, other than the series finale, I had never seen any of the post-Carell episodes. So, okay, the last two seasons might not be quite on the same level as the rest of the show, but it would still be new-to-me television, an only slightly-watered-down version of something I’ve enjoyed watching, right?

Wrong. Despite my best intentions, it didn’t hold my interest. I knew the ending, so the road there became significantly diminished. I just couldn’t generate the same investment in the characters or the story when I already knew where everything was headed – if you know that Dwight and Angela get married and that Jim and Pam end up okay, you suddenly don’t worry quite as much about those couples’ respective hiccups.

It’s not that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aerosmith were entirely wrong when they came up with that stuff about journeys and destinations, it’s just that they underestimated the extent to which each depends on the other. The journey feels unimportant with a pre-determined destination, and few destinations are worth an unfulfilling journey without challenge and conflict.

That’s why cold calculations of games played and games remaining in a hockey season, the percentage of a journey experienced, break down at a certain level. The unclear destination of a game, a season, or a career is a vital part of what we accept as people with an interest in sports, in any capacity. Even if that destination is heartbreak.

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The scoreboard at Frisco, TX’s Comerica Center will remain off for the foreseeable future

The scoreboard, either literal or metaphorical, is the fundamental contract of sports. You might not make the team, you might not be where you want in the lineup, or you might lose the game. But if you pay the price along the way, you get to take your best shot at the scoreboard, whether it hangs above the ice or only exists on a coach’s clipboard.

It’s the single inalienable truth about all of this, the single core value we all share. Whether it’s some LED-illuminated monstrosity in an NHL facility or an old-fashioned lightbulb matrix in a community rink, we live by the scoreboard and the idea that performance trumps all. We trust that, whatever the scoreboard shows at the end of a playoff game or a tryout or anything in between, it’s an accurate accounting of not only that day’s events, but also a cumulative judgment of every practice, every trip to the weight room, every film study, and every shot against a basement wall up until that point taken by everyone who participated. It’s years and decades of sweat equity, boiled down to simple data that gloriously illuminates where things stand at a moment in time.

That’s what feels so incongruous here, so unquestionably wrong. While seasons and careers end in defeat for most, not having the opportunity to take a shot at the scoreboard – after paying the required price to do so – is much, much worse than any game result. When the pact of the scoreboard is broken, when coaches must tell teams that the final scoreboard they’ve been dangling as motivation since the season’s first dryland no longer exists, it irreparably damages the entire concept of sports as a competitive pursuit.


This would normally be the point where I shift tone while attempting to find some silver lining, in order to at least close on an optimistic note. But I’m not sure that one exists here. Opportunities were lost, careers and even programs wrapped up prematurely on open-ended terms, and both journeys and destinations disappeared while forever arrived and the scoreboards remained off.

Outside of hockey and sports, of course, the world is dealing with a terrifying virus of a scale not witnessed in modern times. Some people are dying, others have lost their sources of income while most businesses are closed to contain things as much as possible, causing the economy to tank. Even the presently-unaffected are living in perpetual fear, washing their hands and buying toilet paper at feverish rates while wondering if and when the tsunami will crash down on themselves or loved ones, while most political leaders seem more concerned with spin and blame assignment than solutions.

Worst of all, nobody can say with much certainty when the crisis will pass, whether it’s a timeframe best counted in weeks or months, or what the sum of the devastation may be at that point. Reliable information is scarce, and positive reliable information is nearly impossible. And, of course, most of the things we ordinarily rely on to help us through the hard times have been taken away.

However, just when I was ready to write things off, I noticed something in Miner’s season-closing press conference. He started by answering the obligatory questions about the cancelation and his senior class of course, but about halfway through, he seamlessly pivoted into talking about recruiting and the construction of the Beavers’ 2020-21 schedule. The scoreboard may have failed him once, but he still believes in it. He’s still pushing towards that next time it’s ready to tell him whether he’s filled the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run.

Michigan-Dearborn does too. The Wolverines offered one of the first forward-looking statements I saw in the hockey world after the pandemic shut down most of society, retweeting a graphic from the Michigan High School Athletic Association defiantly insisting that “we will play again.” Adams’ Liberty team, newcomer Maryville and Midland have recently announced commitments, and all three will certainly also stand and be counted when the time comes and have a renewed appreciation for the opportunity.

In the rear-view mirror, of course, are the miles driven in 2019-20. They were too few to reach the end of the journey, but they are still worth some degree of celebration and reflection. The ACHA announced its individual award winners last week, and Henry, who narrowly lost out to Michigan State’s Wolsmann for the Zoe Harris Award, was still able to draw some good from the campaign.

“Positives are hard to come about in a situation like this, [but] we had a very good inaugural season in Division 1, ending in the second ranked spot,” she said. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a team and created an identity, which is something you can always build on.”

Adams also found a positive nugget in the chaos.

“We had a lot of injuries so I think it’s potentially positive now we can heal and have a lot of time to train,” she said.

“But right now, it feels like an L.”

The Pros

Connecticut Whale at Buffalo Beauts
Northtown Center at Amherst
Williamsville, NY

October 19, 2019

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Maddie Norton sat at a long table in the rink lobby, along with her teammates, in her number 16 Buffalo Beauts jersey, signing any souvenir pushed in front of her – pennants and shirts mostly, with the occasional hat or puck thrown in. As the NWHL’s standard postgame autograph line inched its way past her, it’s unlikely that many realized that Norton’s powder blue jersey, the primary thing that identified her as one of their heroes and worthy of scribbling on a $30 piece of merchandise, has not actually been used in any of the Beauts’ games to this point.

As far as Norton remembers, nobody’s said “nice game” to her in those lines, in my mind the worst thing that can happen in that situation, but the reality of a healthy scratch isn’t without some mild uneasiness.

“One time I was sitting in the bleachers watching our game and a little girl named Daisy, five or six years old, who I helped coach previously, came over and said to me, ‘Hi Maddie, your team is playing really good,’” the native Buffalonian remembered. “I kind of laughed to myself, and then replied, ‘Yeah they are!’”

“At first, I felt awkward that I was even signing autographs, but the fans don’t care, they love us all just as much. They are a great supportive community of all of us, regardless of our playing time.”

Of course, navigating those situations isn’t the worst part about not playing, not playing is.

“It’s definitely different than what I’m used to,” Norton added. “In college, I went out every other shift, sometimes double-shifted if needed, power play, penalty kill, you name it. It’s frustrating not making the lineup, but it motivates me each week to come to practice and try to be better than I was the previous week. Everyone’s really talented so the bar is set high, hopefully I’ll be in the lineup soon.”

After the postgame autographs were complete, a more relaxed Norton reappeared in the rink – wearing sunglasses, but not her jersey – to take in her alma mater, the University at Buffalo, as the Bulls hosted SUNY Oswego. She certainly couldn’t be blamed for wanting to shake off the frustration of her situation by leaving and doing just about anything else, but at that point she was no longer a healthy scratch, she was the best player in program history, triumphantly returning to overlook her queendom. After five College Hockey East regular season or playoff titles, four nationals appearances, 208 points, a pair of first-team All-American honors, and the 2018-19 Zoë Harris Award, Norton has certainly earned that much.

She was still sitting and watching at a rink where she wasn’t used to sitting and watching, but the energy of the situation both on and off the ice had changed dramatically.

“Going to a UB game actually leaves me with a feeling of ‘did I actually play at that level?’” Norton explained. “It’s just such different skill level and a totally different pace compared to the NWHL. It was a great time, but it really wasn’t an optimal place to be ever since I realized I wanted to take hockey seriously. I enjoy watching but not as much as I love playing.”

The atmosphere of UB game is also significantly different from that of a Beauts game. It’s almost impossible to believe that only an hour before in that same Feature Rink, Marie-Jo Pelletier snuck low on the weak side of an overtime power play and converted, following up her own shot. That goal capped a Buffalo rally from a 3-0 deficit, exploded a crowd of maybe 1000 ticket holders, and drew a very loud “REBOUND…THEY SCOOORE! M.J. PELLETIER! ON THE BACK DOOR, CHIPS IT BEHIND SHELLY!” from play-by-play guy Steve Bermel.

Just about the only noises produced by the Bulls-Lakers game were skates on the ice, sticks on the puck, communication between players and coaches and, occasionally, a whistle. A couple dozen onlookers managed to find their way in, but it was uncomfortably quiet, even by club hockey standards, sort of how I imagine one of those European soccer matches where a club is forced to play behind closed doors after a fan violence incident sounds (or doesn’t, I suppose).


I’m admittedly obsessed with the handful of ACHA alumni who have played in the NWHL, the defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, or, in a couple cases, overseas somewhere. The most obvious reason is that those players offer the opportunity for all of us to be counted. The opportunity to say hey, we might not be considered “real” college hockey by most people, but we’re still pretty good, even when competing with and against some of the best in the world.

Norton is just the latest in that light, but steady, stream. Unofficially (since a comprehensive record doesn’t exist) Lindenwood’s Kat Hannah and Penn State’s Andrea Lavelle were the first two, as each had a brief stint in a coincidentally-named National Women’s Hockey League, unrelated to the current outfit, in the early 2000s. When the modern NWHL started up in 2015 and nearly doubled the number of North American professional roster spots, Paige Harrington (UMass) and Hayley Williams (Robert Morris/Miami) found a home on the Buffalo Beauts. Cassie Dunne (Penn State) signed with the Connecticut Whale in 2017, followed by Norton with the Beauts in 2019.

Over in the CWHL, Liberty’s Sarah Stevenson was picked 17th overall in the 2015 draft by the Toronto Furies, while Rhode Island’s Kristen Levesque and Sydney Collins went to the Boston Blades a year later. Williams crossed the border in 2016 to spend a pair of seasons in the CWHL with the Furies and Brampton Thunder, while the European ACHAers include UMass alumnae Chelsea and Raschelle Bräm, twins who have carved out a six-year run in Switzerland with SC Reinach.

That group has found some measure of success. Williams was voted to the first NWHL All-Star Game in 2016, scoring a goal in the contest. Harrington won the Isobel Cup as a regular in Buffalo the following season. Stevenson’s selection came ahead of plenty of women who had played in the NCAA or Canada’s U-Sports. Events like the World University Games and the IIHF Women’s World Championships offer additional support, as those tournaments have afforded ACHA players the chance to compete and win against senior national teamers from countries like China, Japan, Slovenia, and even Russia.


Studies have found that the peak age for hockey players is around 27 years old. In the women’s game, that statistic is often cited when advocating for a professional league offering full-time salaries, and guaranteeing that we see the best of what the game has to offer. As a corollary, it’s also used to lament what might have been when the latest in an unfortunate string of 24-year-olds retires. But for Norton, or any ACHA player trying to compete with the best in the world, there’s an extra dimension to it.

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While the NCAA has enacted rules to block recruitment until players are halfway through high school after things had crept to uncomfortably young ages, the fact remains that a ton of key decisions, assessments, and projections are being made on 16-year-olds. And 16-year-olds are not 27-year-olds. They aren’t even 20-year-olds.

“Pre-college I was a little bit of a suitcase, not that I was a bad player or no one wanted me, it was just how things worked out,” Norton said. “I bopped around [youth programs], from Regals to Bisons to Cazenovia. During high school I was all over the place about playing college hockey. Do I want to? Do I not want to? And before you know it, it was basically too late.”

“My last season before college, I tried out for the Niagara Purple Eagles and got cut. If I hadn’t got cut, I probably would have gone to an NCAA school to play hockey. I had received offers to go play at Cortland and some other DIII schools, but I wasn’t really satisfied and just made the choice for UB since it was close to home and I would be debt free.”

So there you have it: Norton was financially responsible and maybe a bit indecisive, and that meant she was an ACHA player instead of an NCAA Division III player, something that probably would have helped her developmentally and given her more name credibility when walking in the NWHL door.

The potential for error in the process that stamped Norton as Not Good Enough for NCAA Hockey is massive, a fact that’s been proven repeatedly by players who are cut from NCAA teams, end up playing in the ACHA, and don’t dominate. Or the numerous times ACHA teams have taken down NCAA Division III squads, or even (a couple times) ones from Division I. There’s already overlap between each of the levels at 20. So what about at 27?

Under the current reality, we often don’t get to find out. Williams turned 29 last summer and is still going, an outlier among outliers, although it certainly hasn’t been easy – since starting college, she’s played for seven different teams (in three different countries, presently including Russia) over eight seasons. Harrington played her last NWHL game at age 24. Stevenson, despite her lofty draft status, was done in the CWHL after a single season. Dunne became a healthy scratch over the second half of her rookie year and was out of the league in 2018-19, but persisted and found her way on to the roster of the Metropolitan Riveters this season, where she takes a regular defense shift.

Even the ACHA’s biggest success stories are often found around the fringes, fighting to stay on teams and in the pros, and required to make enormous sacrifices on every front to keep going, while being ignored by the minimal publicity women’s hockey has to offer. All along the way, the uncertain status of the women’s pro game acts as a sword of Damocles for the entire situation. The #ForTheGame/PWHPA protest that led to more than 150 players boycotting the NWHL this season – and probably played some role in Norton and Dunne having spots in the league – could just as quickly be resolved and take them away, or the NHL could start its own fully-paid women’s league limited to the most elite of the elite, the Olympians and near-Olympians, and drive the NWHL out of business.

Either one of those outcomes, or any number of others, could mark the end of ACHA graduates competing in the best pro leagues available at just about any point in time.


Norton is not someone who tolerates silence. Almost immediately after noting the relative lack of a scene around the UB-Oswego affair, she enlisted the help of a couple people to connect the rink’s sound system (which, for some reason, had been completely unplugged even though the Beauts had just used it for their game), casually started spinning music during stoppages, and even took a couple cracks at making public address announcements. When UB’s Hannah Latour was whistled for a couple penalties in succession, her old teammate was sure to lean down towards the boxes and offer a couple light chirps. Wherever she is, and whatever her role entails, she’s someone who’s meant to be involved, and her current responsibility of sitting cheerleader during Beauts games is completely at odds with how she’s wired.

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It’s a trait that has served her well in life to this point. NWHL founder and commissioner Dani Rylan may have coined the description “dreamer. doer.” through her Twitter profile but Norton, at minimum, should probably seek some sort of royalty arrangement on it.

“There is no typical week when you are me,” she explained. “There are two things that are consistent in my life right now: going to the gym for an hour to an hour and a half four days a week, and practicing with the Beauts two days a week. Some days I’ll work my part time job which I’ve had for five years now.”

That much might not sound exceptional in a reality where all NWHL players need a primary source of income outside of their league paycheck, but we’re not quite done yet.

Norton enjoys photography and graphic design, and has done work in both areas for UB’s men’s and women’s teams, while also producing an apparel line under the label “Top Shelf Hockey.” She hops on the ice as a coach whenever she can, and has a natural intellectual curiosity, presently including learning French. But her true passion is personal training, growing her brand, developing as an entrepreneur, and breaking into that business.

“My priority right now is focusing on growing my training business online and in person. That is what I want to do in life and that’s what’s most important right now,” she explained.

“I want to be like John Opfer, who owns Proformance Sports Training [in Buffalo]. If I can be anything like him, super knowledgeable, training the some of the best athletes in the world, and have swagger at the same time, that’s when I know I will have made it.”


The ACHA, at its core, is fueled by players with a complex spectrum of motivations. Some people treat it no differently than if they were an NCAA student-athlete and give their honest best at competing at the highest level possible while getting an education. Others will look at that group, laugh, and say “calm down, it’s just club hockey, and I’m just here to have fun,” while occasionally skating in between hockey parties. There aren’t right or wrong motivations – one of the truly glorious things about all of this is that it can be whatever you want it to be – but for me personally, I’m always looking for the ones who care. The ones who hate silence.

After all, I care. And while appreciation feels good, when I’m spending most of the night at a Pilot Travel Center and writing while fending off awkward advances from the only other person there, before trying to sleep a little bit in my car through the bitter January cold, because I only have enough money for gas to get home and not for a hotel room, what I really want is to know that there’s someone on the other side of all of that who cares just as much about excelling in their own role. Feel free to insert the locker room speech from Any Given Sunday at this point, particularly the part about the guy next to you fighting for that inch with you, or any one from an entire category of similar sports clichés, but most of them are true. When you give more, those around you want to give more too.

I’ve pushed every last one of my chips to the middle for a player or a team when I get the sense that they’re in for the full pound, and I’ve flat-out quit when that wasn’t the case.  And if you’re willing to do what it takes to navigate the world of women’s professional hockey, famously low-paid and featuring innumerable other inconveniences and hardships (leading U.S. National Team veteran Kendall Coyne Schofield to go on ESPN and infamously declare that players “dread” going pro), just to keep playing this stupid game? Quod erat demonstrandum, you’re Pilot material and I’m going to follow you off the edge of the Earth.

Norton cares too. And whatever the future holds for her hockey career, that ability to draw the best out of people and make her surroundings a little better will make her a fantastic personal trainer and a success wherever life takes her.

Last Man Standing

SUNY Oswego at RIT
Frank Ritter Memorial Arena
Henrietta, NY

October 26, 2019

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“HOW MANY STUDENTS DOES RIT HAVE?”

I had no clue what RIT’s enrollment was, but the drunk New Hampshire fans in front of me demanded an answer. They didn’t appear able to process the explanation that I was just a guy in a t-shirt because I, like many others in the spring of 2010, had fallen in love with the Tigers and their shocking run to the Men’s Frozen Four. RIT accomplished the feat as a mid-major in its fifth season of NCAA Division I play that took down two of the sport’s blue bloods on the way there, and although they had already been extremely successful in Divisions II and III (including a pair of national titles), they were an unknown on any kind of larger scale.

Therefore, to them, I must have been A Guy in a T-Shirt: an alumnus, or a Rochester lifer with season tickets, or someone who had extensive knowledge of the team and school, because who else would own a RIT shirt? Well, someone who had visited the stand near the Ford Field entrance and had $30 to burn, to name one.

So, I took my best guess at it. RIT was bigger than people assumed, I reasoned, but obviously not a colossus of a university. I knew hockey was its only NCAA Division I sport; its others were still in Division III. “Uh…about 17,000?”

“WOW! THAT MANY?!”

Their surprise made me doubt myself, although when I checked later, I found that I hit it pretty closely. I tried to refocus on the warmups taking place on the ice below, hoping that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.

“WHAT’S RIT KNOWN FOR?”

“Well, a Frozen Four hockey team, right? But also, deaf studies.”

I had heard something about that on ESPN during one of the Tigers’ previous NCAA Tournament games, helping me to pass the unexpected and unwanted quiz. I was mostly correct there too, as RIT is the home of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and deaf or hard of hearing students make up nearly ten percent of its population.


While Christopher Tanev eventually became the best-known player from that 2009-10 roster thanks to his long NHL career, in that moment, the Tigers’ stars were goaltender Jared DeMichiel (somewhat obviously, as the goalie is almost always the star on an underdog team) and the its student section, dubbed the Corner Crew for its location in the northwest corner of Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.

Student sections in NCAA men’s hockey are always lively and loud, with a cache of go-to chants. But RIT’s group was something different.

Their integration with the school pep band, while not entirely unique, was seamless. They had signs on top of signs. They had the fanatical noise level and hard edges of a group climbing to unprecedented heights with their favorite team, that those whose schools are in the Frozen Four nearly every season simply don’t. In fact, as the UNH guys and I were getting to know each other, a sea of orange-clad fans, at least a couple thousand in number, stood in the corner of the Detroit Lions’ home stadium that matched their familiar and much cozier confines at Ritter. They had been there since their convoy of buses met the freshly-opened gates, and didn’t seem like they had exhausted their cheer catalog to that point. Adding a special twist to things was the large percentage of the group who flashed the corresponding American Sign Language letters with a raised right hand while chanting “R-I-T! R-I-T!”

Could a group of UNH supporters, or anyone on the outside, be blamed for finding the nearest person in an orange shirt and trying to get at least some sense of what makes RIT and the Corner Crew, these new and exciting phenomena in the usually-staid world of NCAA hockey, tick?


In a bit of cruel irony, the Frozen Four run that pushed Ritter Arena and its fans into the national spotlight wound up being a fulcrum for fundraising efforts to replace the rink, which dates to 1968, when the school relocated from downtown Rochester to a newly-built campus in suburban Henrietta.

So one national semifinal loss and four seasons later, the Corner Crew circus packed up and left Ritter, following the NCAA men’s and women’s teams about 700 feet south to the Gene Polisseni Center, a gorgeous and state-of-the-art 4,300-seater that stands as one of college hockey’s newest gems. Polisseni has six squeegee guys to follow up the Zamboni and guarantee an even sheet of ice, Ritter has a giant window that throws light at the shoot twice end and does unspeakable things to it. Polisseni has twin video boards, one on each end of the ice, a dedicated TV studio, luxury seating, a donor reception area, a team shop, an inflatable shooting game, and history displays lining the walls, Ritter has…pretty much none of that. Polisseni (presumably) has a person to work the scoreboard, Ritter has…

“John! John! Can you do clock?”
“I don’t know how.”
“They’ll show you how to do it.”
“Do I get paid?”
“This isn’t NCAA.”

Despite the unsuccessful efforts of Tigers star Bridget Hamlin to recruit her boyfriend’s help for a game starting in a half hour, don’t count out the old barn just yet. After all, it beat the odds of most venues in a similar position by surviving and continuing to host competitive hockey, including RIT’s ACHA women’s team. And as the Tigers got underway with in-state College Hockey East rival SUNY Oswego late in the afternoon, the ghosts of the raucous student section made their presence known.

“R-I-T! R-I-T! R-I-T!”

Then…

“[clap, clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap clap] LET’S GO!”

And a little later…

“SAY IT AIN’T SO, I WILL NOT GO
TURN THE LIGHTS OFF, CARRY ME HOME
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA”

Wait, do arena ghosts know Blink-182 classics?

Of course they don’t, nor do they generally continue singing songs from stoppages after the game begins again. These incongruities (and a few others, the existence of ghosts in the first place, to name one) caused me to look in the direction of the noise, and notice that while the Corner Crew may have found a new corner to call home, they left someone behind – Tom LaSalle.

LaSalle, a recent RIT computer science grad, attends every single home game played by the ACHA women’s version of the Tigers, standing in that famed corner of Ritter Arena alone and chanting in support of the team. A one-man Corner Crew, he calls himself.

“I actually stumbled upon the team by chance,” LaSalle said, when asked the very obvious question of how one ends up being him.

“I’ve been a fan of RIT hockey for five years, and walking home one evening, I happened to see the team in the middle of a game,” he continued. “I was hooked, and the rest is history.”

Before we go any further, let’s be very clear about something: this is not a team that’s supposed to have fans. RIT is a new-ish organization, but a pretty unsuccessful one by any reasonable measure. After starting life in the non-ACHA Upstate New York Collegiate Hockey League, they first joined ACHA Division 2 in 2016-17. The Tigers won their first ACHA game on December 3, 2016 by shutting out a first-year Pittsburgh team 6-0 behind three Hamlin goals, two from Rebecca Searns, and Maddi Dillabough’s 27 saves.

They have yet to win their second. What’s more, RIT hasn’t been particularly close most of the time, allowing 9.44 goals per game over the ACHA portion of their history, while scoring 1.47. And even if they were world beaters, the hard truth is that the presence of NCAA hockey at the school will always kneecap the potential interest in an ACHA team from students and the general public.

But LaSalle is there, regardless of any of that. And his definition of “there” means showing up at 3:00 for a 5:45 puck drop, well before either team arrives, then standing and making noise for the entire game, win or (mostly) lose. Between his extreme support level without the help of alcohol or other fans, as well as the team’s nature and lack of success, he is clearly among the most extraordinary of the extraordinary. A true bearer of the Corner Crew legacy.

“It definitely is nice to have a fan that’s here all the time and pepping us up,” Dillabough, who also captains RIT’s NCAA lacrosse team, said. “When I make a good save, I can hear him no matter where I am. It means a lot that someone is noticing us and always cheering us on.”

“It means so much,” Hamlin added. “Especially because we don’t get a lot of fans, his presence brings energy to the team.”

“He loves hockey, he loves RIT, it’s so nice to have a guy on campus like that.”

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The craziest part of all is that LaSalle’s faith may actually be paying off, at least incrementally, because RIT’s team tonight was as competitive as it ever has been. Where the old Tigers were often Hamlin getting the puck, winding up, and taking it to towards the net from anywhere on the ice, players like Deirdre Cannon, Kristina Klishko, Christine Miller, and Sarah Limberger have dramatically elevated the team’s talent level.

“A lot of our incoming class is made up of people who have actually played before, while a lot of the girls last year were people who had not played organized hockey before,” defender Jess Beckmeier offered. “So I think that the experience that our new players have is really having a positive impact on our performance as a team.”

And, of course, they have LaSalle, ready to throw his arm in the air, yell “ICE! ICE!” and wave Oswego back to their defensive zone at a moment’s notice.

“He never stops,” Hamlin marveled. “He’s standing the whole frigging time.”

A talented Lakers squad remained unfazed by the upgrades though, opening the night’s scoring when Christina Ravesi buried a rebound on an Oswego power play from the bottom of the left circle five minutes into the game.

“LET’S GO RIT!”

By the end of the opening period, it was 3-0 to the visitors, thanks to a pair of turnovers that became Laker breakaway goals, first by speedy Nicole Moriarity, then from Carly Sukiel.

“WE’LL GET IT BACK!”

As the second period opened Dillabough, who wound up with 45 saves, made a pair of fantastic pad stops on Libby Morel. Then on a penalty kill a few minutes later, her right-to-left movement to poke check the puck out of danger was instrumental to the Tigers returning to even strength unscathed.

“YEAH MADDI YEAH! WOOOO!”

However, Oswego finally cracked RIT’s strong goaltender (and LaSalle’s staple “DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” chant during Tiger penalty kills) again late in the middle frame, as Lauren White tapped Sukiel’s feed from the right side home.

Then, with 1:46 to go, the most bizarre goal of the evening started with a loose puck halfway through the depth of the RIT zone, roughly equidistant between Dillabough’s crease and White. Preferring to play the puck instead of, potentially, another breakaway, the netminder barreled out towards the disc, and…absolutely flattened her green-clad adversary. Steve Atwater, Rodney Harrison, Kam Chancellor, meet Maddi Dillabough.

“It wasn’t my main motive, I was trying to get the puck, but it was kind of satisfying that I was still standing and she wasn’t,” Dillabough admitted.

Just one problem: the puck. With both players involved in the collision well out of the play, Morel wound up getting to it first and firing into the vacant net.

At 5-0 through 40 minutes, the game might have appeared as a blowout on a casual scan, but a deeper analysis would reveal that it wasn’t some throwaway game up in Rochester. The Tigers had managed a respectable 19 shots (en route to 26 for the game), most of the goals against came from a couple very correctable mistakes and a fluke play, and the ice surface had largely leveled out after early Laker dominance.

“I actually thought we improved a lot as the game went on,” Dillabough said. “Like by the third period I thought we were figuring out what we were doing wrong and fixing it.”

Hamlin, a good player for Oswego’s perennially-strong NCAA Division III team from 2013-15 before transferring to RIT (where her plan to play for the Tigers’ DI squad was undone by concussions), finally got her team on the board in the first minute of that final period. It was one of her trademark solo efforts, as she carried in off left wing to the front of the net, briefly lost the puck, kicked it back to her stick, and buried.

“It’s nice to score against Oswego, but it’s tough because I don’t relate to that team,” the sustainability Ph.D. candidate said. “When I was at Oswego, we weren’t even allowed to talk to the club girls.”

“It’s still a little nice because my mom was like ‘ooh, you scored against Oswego!’”

There were other RIT chances subsequent to that. Klishko drew a penalty soon after, Limberger drew another in the late going, Tyler Lucey fired high on a partial breakaway in between. But despite those and LaSalle’s “R-I-T! R-I-T!” guiding his Tigers to the final buzzer, the 5-1 scoreline stuck.

Defeated, but encouraged (Dillabough offered a plan to win consecutive games by the end of the season soon after stepping off the ice), the Tigers skated towards the northwest corner of Ritter Arena and, maybe for the first time in history, offered a stick salute directed solely at one fan, Tom LaSalle, the last man standing.

Introduction

California (PA) at Pittsburgh
Baierl Ice Complex
Warrendale, PA

February 3, 2018

Katie Pucci was under siege.

That fact alone was somewhat surprising. Her University of Pittsburgh team had taken a 2-0 lead in the first period against a California (PA) team that dressed just eight skaters and a goalie on that Saturday evening. And while the scoreline lingered at the cliched “worst lead in hockey” well into the third period, it looked for all the world as if Pitt would cruise to the finish line with an unspectacular, but expected, victory. Cal, as teams with fewer than ten players often must, would still be able to muster some sort of growth takeaway or moral victory from a relatively tight outcome. Or, failing that, at least it wasn’t a long trip home.

There’s no such thing as a bad day at the rink, of course, but it would have been a routine one – had the status quo held.

Instead, the Vulcans’ Jayda Mears, the team’s undisputed best player, started to find some seams that were likely part late-game fatigue and part complacency. The local native, who had cut her teeth with the Steel City Selects youth program, took advantage of two of them to score her 32nd and 33rd goals of the 2017-18 season roughly seven minutes apart. Pitt’s Lindsay Gorman connected between the two Mears goals to keep her squad ahead, but make no mistake: Cal was coming on, and every player on the short visiting bench was emptying whatever they had left in the tank with five minutes remaining to pull off an upset.

As the Vulcans pressed, the assembled crowd – maybe a hundred or so – watched intently. Me? I did the exact opposite, and squinted until my vision became blurry enough to melt years together. Because while this situation may have been lightly-charted territory for Katie Pucci, it was not for Katie Vaughan.

I’m not sure whether it was five seconds, or a minute, or more, but I let myself drift to another game in another season and another state, specifically, the 2014 ACHA Division 2 national semifinal between the Vulcans and a Penn State team backstopped by Vaughan, then an unmarried engineering undergraduate.

PSU and Cal, as the keystone geography might suggest, were bitter rivals, albeit briefly. The teams split four 2013-14 regular-season meetings, with Penn State taking the regular season title of their shared conference, College Hockey East, thanks to a 6-0-2 record against the rest of the league, compared to the Vulcans’ 6-1-1. The final PSU-Cal regular season series, bridging January and February, was an explosive one: during the first game, Cal’s Dana Bowersox took a run from behind at Nittany Lions defender Tara Soukup during a pileup in front of Vaughan. The two came to blows, and both received fighting majors and game misconducts, but Soukup got an extra major for facemasking. The Vulcans scored twice during the resulting advantage en route to a 5-2 win.

The home team, however, rallied the next day for a 3-1 win to clinch the regular season title. Elizabeth Denis, once an NCAA Division I player at Brown, but attending Penn State to earn her geosciences Ph.D., scored 52 seconds into the game to set the tone, and Vaughan’s 30 saves did most of the rest.

Appropriately enough though, the teams wound up splitting CHE titles, as Cal took the conference’s playoff championship game 2-1 a couple weeks later in what would qualify as a forgettable game, if it was played in November and out of the sight of the league’s cartoonishly large trophy.

Of course, the silver lining to the defeat, from Penn State’s point of view, is that nobody really cares what happens in the conference if you can manage to win a national championship, and PSU was still one of the favorites to do exactly that, if they could navigate through – surprise! – Cal in the ACHA semifinals, played on March 15th in the University of Delaware’s Fred Rust Ice Arena. That contest largely followed the same script as Pitt-Cal four years later, as PSU star Devon Fisk scored twice early on, and the Vulcans’ Kelsey DeNardo answered with one to set up yet another tight finish between the teams.

Penn State delivered a suffocating roster-wide closeout effort to get the last laugh against their nemesis and advance to the championship game, so it would be wrong to give Vaughan the full share of the credit, but she nevertheless was asked to stand tall through some hairy moments. “Hairy” is a term of some subjectivity of course, just ask Vaughan’s mother Kim, who was standing next to me that day and bellowing “GET IT OUT OF THERE!” whenever the puck ventured below the dots in the PSU zone. But some of the moments required objective greatness.

Midway through the third period, DeNardo worked the puck to the front of the net through heavy traffic, but Vaughan’s glove beat the mass of bodies to the rubber disc. Moments later, Bowersox won a faceoff and rifled a surprisingly quick backhand on, but Vaughan was again up to the task.

She was unflappable, an essential trait for a goalie (she probably didn’t get that from her mom), but her work wasn’t quite done yet. On a delayed call to Nittany Lions captain Carly Szyszko late in the third period, a bouncing puck to the front dangerously wound up on DeNardo’s stick on the back side, requiring Vaughan to stretch across with her right pad to make another vital stop. During the penalty, Megan Cooper found Bowersox driving the middle with a centering feed, only for Vaughan to make another routine-yet-difficult save. That Bowersox try wound up being the last the Vulcans would manage as PSU held on for the win.

While the parallels between Katie Vaughan in 2014 and Katie Pucci in 2018 were bluntly obvious, I wasn’t done daydreaming just yet. I squinted a little harder and went back a few more months, to December of 2013.

That winter, Vaughan had been selected for the U.S. National University Team, which competed at the World University Games tournament in Trentino, Italy. The games (generally called “Universiade” outside of North America) are sort of a biennial Olympics solely for college student-athletes. Its hockey tournament is something of an oddity in the sport, in that the different participating countries demonstrate wildly varying degrees of investment. The U.S. is on the lower end of that scale, and rather than send NCAA Division I players, the accepted best eligible, USA Hockey allows the ACHA to assemble an all-star team for the tournament (the alternative, for a couple decades prior to 2001 when the arrangement began, was no team in the tournament at all, so it is mutually beneficial to some extent).

Russia, Team USA’s opponent to open the tournament, is towards the opposite end.  While never a carbon copy of the country’s senior national team, the Russians do typically include several of their best on the squad. Taking the crease opposite Vaughan, for example, was Anna Prugova, who had already represented Russia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and would do so again a couple months later in Sochi, around the same time Vaughan was battling Cal for the CHE titles.

And on Tuesday, December 10, 2013, that Division 2 club hockey goalie was better than an Olympian, stopping 33 of 35 shots as the U.S. stunned Russia 4-2.

A fluke? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Eight days later, Vaughan arguably outplayed Prugova again in the semifinals, but Russia emerged with a 3-2 shootout win that time around. The U.S. recovered to beat Japan (a country that largely sends its full national team to World University Games) two days later to earn bronze medals – the first-ever podium finish for any American team in the modern era of the tournament. Vaughan played a massive role in the last contest as well, stopping 37 of 38 Japanese shots, including the final 31.

That June, she was named USA Hockey’s Adult Player of the Year, an award presented at the governing body’s annual congress. Among the others taking the stage to receive their own awards: Hilary Knight, Johnny Gaudreau, and legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker. Not a big deal, right?

As I snapped back into the present, I wondered how many people watching Katie Pucci close out Cal knew about Katie Vaughan doing the same thing four years earlier. Or about her scaling even bigger mountains that same season. Katie’s husband and parents were present, so I certainly wasn’t the sole keeper of that information, but I still concluded that few were aware of just how noteworthy their bespectacled grad student netminder actually was.

From there, I took note of the limitations in my own knowledge. Sure, I pay closer attention to ACHA women’s hockey than most people. But still, to a large extent, I only know what I’ve presented here because I know Katie, and because I worked for her Penn State team for five years. And while she had an extraordinary career, surely there are other stories to be told, ones that have been outside of my sphere of observation to this point.

Then I thought about Cal. Their journey to February 3, 2018 certainly hadn’t been smooth sailing. After dropping that 2014 semifinal to PSU (and after a heroic effort to eliminate pointless third place games by ending theirs early with an altercation the next day), the Vulcans put together solid seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and made two more trips to nationals, although they didn’t escape the pool round either time. They had much larger problems than tournament elimination on the horizon, however.

In 2016, most of the core of the team – DeNardo, Cooper, Bowersox, goalie Maria Sciacca, and standout defender Margo Laboon included – graduated. And thanks in part to heavy coaching turnover, along with the effort needed to constantly stock the cupboards in college sports, the Vulcans were stuck with nobody to replace them. The program went on hiatus for the 2016-17 season and, to their credit, beat the odds (anyone who has followed minor league sports is likely aware that “hiatus” rarely ends well) by returning in 2017-18, although with the aforementioned short bench. Suddenly, the former alpha dog found itself losing by nine to Buffalo in each of their two games prior to facing Pitt, as UB had used Cal’s stumble to help itself become the new queen of the CHE. No matter how good you are, it’s always temporary, isn’t it?

Those thoughts were interrupted by a buzzer, and Pitt gathering around their victorious goaltender before heading to center ice for the handshake. The game was over.

Time to find another one.