2007-08 Memorable Moments Part I
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
It is a near certainty that this weekend's NCAA tournament regional action and the subsequent Frozen Four in Denver will bring to many fans — and, ultimately, to one team in particular — memories that will last forever.
But this dramatic, controversial, and historic 2007-08 season has already provided us with more than its share of memorable stories — from a slew of suspensions and off-ice incidents to one of the most hyped regular season showdowns in recent memory.
Now, as we gear up for the NCAA tournament, here is Part I of our look at the 10 most memorable moments and stories from the season so far (in no particular order):
The Showdown in Oxford
Michigan may have defeated Miami in Detroit on Saturday to win the CCHA title, but the game that almost certainly had more hype occurred last month on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After all, the Wolverines and Redhawks had been the nation's one-two punch ever since November, yet this late winter game was their first meeting of the season.
The February 9 nationally-televised showdown was also a showcase for many of the nation's top players. For Michigan, Hobey finalist Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik are the country's top-scoring teammates. For Miami, Ryan Jones — a Hobey finalist himself — was welcoming back teammate Nathan Davis, the Redhawks' leading scorer from a year ago who injured himself mere minutes into the first game of the season.
All four players — Porter, Kolarik, Davis, and Jones — were in the starting lineup for the game, and the atmosphere at the Goggin Ice Center was electric as goaltenders Billy Sauer (Michigan) and Jeff Zatkoff (Miami) — both of whom are in the top seven in the country in goals-against average — readied for battle. In the end, Michigan blitzed Miami, scoring four goals in the first period en route to a 4-2 win. Porter tallied the eventual game-winner.
The next night, the Wolverines and Redhawks skated to a 5-5 tie as Michigan cemented itself as the top team in the land. Miami then won seven of its next nine to reach the CCHA championship game and earn the No. 2 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Michigan and Miami thus enter the national tournament as the top two seeds and are a combined 63-12-5 this season.
The Okposo Incident
There was no sophomore slump for Minnesota star Kyle Okposo, who was lauded as a freshman phenom a season ago. In fact, there was hardly any sophomore season at all.
On December 19, after totaling 11 points in the Gophers' first 18 games of the season, Okposo flew to the Czech Republic, where he played as a member of the United States World Junior team.
And in a move that sent shockwaves through the college hockey world, he never returned to Minnesota, opting instead to forgo the remainder of the season and his NCAA eligibility to sign an NHL deal with the New York Islanders, who selected the St. Paul, Minn. native with the seventh overall pick in the 2006 entry draft.
Players had left school early before, but rarely had a high-profile player left a college team mid-season. And certainly not under these circumstances, as Islanders general manager and former Maine goaltender Garth Snow sharply criticized Minnesota coach Don Lucia, saying, in part, "[Okposo] just wasn't getting better — bottom line. And to me, that's the frustrating part. We entrusted the coach there to turn him into a better hockey player, and it wasn't happening. We feel more comfortable in him developing right under our watch."
In a conference call with the NCAA on March 17, Joel Maturi, Chair of the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee, expressed concern over this and related events, stressing the importance of a better relationship with the National Hockey League and commissioner Gary Bettman.
Following Okposo's departure, Bettman was quoted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, saying, "It was a mutual decision. Nobody makes somebody leave college. Both the team and the player have to come to an agreement. You can't look at one instance and suggest that the rules and bargaining agreement aren't working.
"If it becomes more common, we'll have to look at it."
Perhaps playing with a chip on its shoulder, Minnesota went on a dramatic Cinderella run to close the season, advancing to the WCHA championship game just a week after playing one of the most stunning WCHA quarterfinal series in history, edging Minnesota State two games to one in a series in which each game went to overtime. The Mavericks won game one, but the Gophers rallied, getting the game three double overtime winner from Tony Lucia.
The Gophers will play Boston College in a first-round NCAA game this weekend, while Kyle Okposo will continue his late-season stint with the Islanders, for whom he has one goal and two assists in four games so far.
Wayne State Folds
Really, this is an ongoing story with regards to what it means for the future of the College Hockey America conference, but it started before the season fully got underway.
On September 26, 2007, Wayne State announced that it was dropping its men's ice hockey program at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season.
The move drops the number of Division I men's hockey programs to 58 teams and also effectively ends the functionality of the CHA — just over a year after it appeared the struggling conference was saved. With only four teams remaining, there will be no chance of the CHA retaining its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Perhaps the last ever CHA bid to the NCAAs was claimed by Niagara, a team that suffered a mid-season departure of its own only to find an explosive offense that led the Purple Eagles to the league championship.
As for Wayne State? The Warriors, led by veteran coach Bill Wilkinson, played their final home game on March 8 with little fanfare, a 7-3 loss to Niagara in front of only a few hundred people in the stands.
Many of the players will transfer next season to renew their college hockey careers at other schools across the country. Unfortunately, Wayne State men's hockey, for now - and perhaps for a long time — is dead.
"I don't know what rabbit you got there," Wilkinson told CHN. "Maybe 60 years from now we'll resurrect it again, but it won't be in my lifetime."
The Bracket Complications
This memorable story is the most recent on the list, but at least two things regarding the NCAA tournament selection may have people talking for a while.
First, Notre Dame found itself in an interesting scenario over the weekend — a scenario in which a win or a loss against Northern Michigan in the CCHA consolation game would have guaranteed an NCAA berth but a tie might have dashed the hopes of the Irish. Notre Dame did make the tournament after losing the game, 2-1, but the fact that a loss was a better option than a tie created a highly unusual situation.
Second, Wisconsin, with a record of 15-16-7, earned an NCAA tournament berth over Minnesota State (19-16-4). The committee went by the numbers, leaving an over-.500 team on the outside looking in... at a sub. 500 team whose season is still going.
Of course, Wisconsin's record may have been slightly different had it not been for the most infamous no-goal call of the season (see Part II). But regardless, Wisconsin had the edge over Minnesota State in the Pairwise, and that's all that matters.
As the Badgers prepare to face Denver in its first-round NCAA tournament game this weekend in Madison, Wisc., coach Mike Eaves spoke candidly on the situation, specifically responding to any criticism that may be out there regarding his team's inclusion in the NCAA tournament.
Said Eaves, "Last year, our record was 19-18-4, and we had a pretty good team. We were on the bubble, and we didn't get in because of the system and the formula. This year, we're one game under .500 and because of the system and who we played and who lost, we get in. So, if you want to criticize something, you've got to criticize the formula. There's always going to be criticism, no matter what the formula is.
"This was done by the rankings, and we were No. 12. And 12 gets in. We don't apologize for that."
Red Hot Hockey
On November 24, just two days after Thanksgiving, Michigan beat Minnesota 5-1 and Wisconsin and Michigan State skated to a 4-4 tie at the College Hockey Showcase hosted by the Wolverines and Spartans.
But the same evening, hundreds of miles to the east, college hockey was showcased in grand fashion, as one of the sport's most storied rivalries was renewed. Cornell and Boston University played in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City, a venue often dubbed "the most famous arena in the world."
The game was a spectacle of red-clad fans for both teams, and intermission honorees included three-time Stanley Cup winner and former Cornell star Joe Nieuwendyk, as well as Mike Eruzione, the BU alum who scored the game-winning goal against the USSR in the famous 1980 "Miracle on Ice" game.
The Terriers defeated the Big Red 6-3, and afterwards, much of the talk centered on a possible return to the Garden for BU and Cornell.
"I'm a coach, not a marketing director," quipped Cornell coach Mike Schafer after the game. "But obviously, we'd love to be down here every year. I'm sure that [BU] Coach [Jack] Parker and ourselves, and people at Cornell and BU, will talk it out and try and get back here as soon as we can."
Five More tomorrow in Part II.