Another Hill to Climb
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
DETROIT There's few bigger follies in sports than the "can't win the big one" mantra. It's a label fans will pin on one program or another, or one coach or another.
Maybe such a team exists, one that, for whatever reason is not equipped to fulfill its potential. But in the vast majority of cases, it's a myth — a myth based upon a innate human need to ascribe reason to the randomness.
Look at it like this: If there were just 10 championship-capable programs in college hockey, and you picked the national champion out of a hat each year, the mathematical probability that multiple teams would never win in a 30-year span is very high. In other words, pure randomness can account for lack of championships.
It also overlooks all the big ones, and little things, teams need to accomplish just to reach a Frozen Four. The one quality for any team that wins a title is putting in the hard work that gets yourself in position to win it. Keep doing that — keep being one of those 10 teams in the hat — and one day, you'll get picked.
Over the last five seasons, Miami has the highest winning percentage in college hockey. But each year, it's had its heart broken by a team from Boston — four times Boston College and of course last year's NCAA title game crusher vs. Boston University.
What's easily lost amid this season's disappointment — a 7-1 defeat at the hands of BC in Thursday's national semifinal — is just how difficult it was for Miami to get back to this point. Deluged with questions all year long about how it would get over last year's heartbreak, the RedHawks not only had to put up with that, but actually put in the hard work to overcome it and accomplish new heights. And it had to do it with a team that lost a significant amount of talent from a year ago.
"I don't want to say the pressure, but we had to play at a high level all year long," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said Thursday, well after the loss had sunk in, reflecting on another season of disappointment. "And we had a lot of questions to answer. And so sometimes it's taxing. And again, you don't want to make excuses, but that did not look like the Miami team that we coached the entire season."
Miami would have been easily forgiven for taking a step back this year, but it raised its own expectations by flying out of the gate and remaining No. 1 most of the year.
That's why the 7-1 loss was — as opposed to last year's devastation — just merely frustrating and puzzling.
"There didn't seem to be a lot of energy for some reason," Blasi said. "We made poor decisions. Little plays — like, icing the puck and it leads to their goal, and not paying attention to the detail stuff. Give them credit, they took advantage. Look at our season as a whole, our success was always based on playing physical — but we weren't as good as we could have been, and the score was very indicative."
But this is what happens. The margin of error in college hockey is so slim. There are a lot of good teams, a lot of good players, a lot of good goaltenders, and a lot of good coaches. You have to be good every game, and then you have to be lucky too. Any thing goes wrong, and it's all over.
Teams that manage to come back to the well — to get their name back in the hat — year, after year, after year, are the teams and coaches that should be commended. Not scorned for falling short again. We're thinking of New Hampshire, St. Cloud State, Maine (in recent years), Notre Dame, Denver (in recent years), and so on. And Miami has been better than all of them — but still not won it all.
"You've got to have the bounces, you have to get the calls, you have to get the right guys scoring, you have to get the goaltender ... there's so many factors that go into continuing to win," Blasi said. "We're getting closer and closer, and hopefully one year, maybe it will happen. And if not, that's not what we're all about it. Our program is about making sure we develop these young men on the ice and off the ice, and winning championships is obviously nice and it's part of our program, but the process is the thing we focus the most on. And if we continue to do that, hopefully we'll be in position to continue to be here."
And so this is the daunting challenge in front of Miami again. Will next season be the one where the program hits the wall? Where it's not able to muster the strength — or the skill — to put itself in the hat again?
"You hope not," Blasi sad. "And I think we have a lot of character in our locker room returning, that I think we're going to continue to get better and give ourselves an opportunity to get back here. There's lot of good programs that never find a way, and I don't know why. I have some really good friends out there ... it's tough."
It will inevitably happen. One year, Miami won't make the NCAAs. Michigan has been to 20 straight NCAA tournaments, but the list ends there.
The thing Miami believes it has over some other programs, is "the brotherhood" that it talks about so much. It appears to be more than just empty words. You can see it in the ability to overcome adversity. You can see it in the quality of individual on the roster. You can see it in the desire of players to continue to come back to Miami for a complete four years, while so many other programs constantly lose players early.
"We're a team and the brotherhood actually means something," said sophomore defenseman Will Weber, a 6-foot-4 second-round draft pick of Columbus, who said he is definitely returning for next season. "There's not one guy on this team that's a sour apple or anything. We all get along. Everyone's a great guy. And I think that's a big part of it, with the culture and the coaches, it's just a joy to go to the rink every day.
"Obviously I feel pretty bad about how the season ended, but we have to move on and try to get back here next year, and I want to be a part of it. It's so hard to leave these guys in this room, it's just a great group of guys. I just need another year to develop I think."
Credit for this starts at the top, with Blasi. The last five years — two CCHA championships, five NCAA appearances, four regional finals, two Frozen Fours. And players that graduate. It speaks for itself, national championship or not.
So it's back to work for everyone, because disappointment or not, that is what you do. If sports is a microcosm of life, then resiliency is a great life quality to have.
"I might take a week to reflect on the season, then it's right back to work until next season starts," Weber said. "I think that's the best way for me personally, to work hard and get better. ... I can always get quicker and stronger, stick handling, working on my shot — I just feel like, I had a decent season, but I feel I can take my game to a whole other level."
Meanwhile, Blasi knows all too well that, at the end of the day, as disappointed as everyone is, this is just a sport. You live another day, and there will be more games.
"I'm disappointed about the game tonight, but our program has come a long way. I'm pretty proud of all the players that have been here the last five years," Blasi said. "Tonight's disappointing, we'll get over it, we'll get back to work in the next couple of weeks, and there's always tomorrow. That's the nice thing about our game — there's always another game. I feel bad for the seniors, it's their last kick at the can, but I think when they look back, it's a pretty damn good career."
Something that can also be said for Blasi.