Loss Doesn't Diminish Canisius' Special Run
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. Keep getting better.
Just three words. Out of context, they don't mean much. A maxim coaches at every level of every sport preach to their teams. Focus on one thing to improve on, and a team will be more sound, more effective today than it was yesterday.
Canisius coach Dave Smith is fond of this phrase. He repeats it to his players.
Be better hockey players.
Be better people.
Be better citizens of the Canisius College community today than you were yesterday.
"We need people that want to engage in everything that we're doing," Smith said. "We want a high level academically, athletically and socially. If you're not prepared to do that, you're not going to succeed in life, never mind Canisius College."
The constant reminders served his club well. Canisius lost on Friday night, 4-3, to Quinnipiac — the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. It was the first appearance in the national field for the Golden Griffins, just a week following their first-ever Atlantic Hockey championship.
"It's disappointing because we'd found a way to win those games," Smith said. after Saturday's loss. "The game was there for us to win. We were playing well going into the third period. All of it was there for us to take it, but Quinnipiac reached out and grabbed it."
Canisius got better every week this season. Smith pointed out a few instances when his club lost games it should have won — others when it wasn't at its best. They learned from those times.
They got better.
Senior captain Preston Shupe knew this year's group was different from the beginning of the season. Never certain of a championship or the type of success that would bring the program national attention, it was hard for Shupe to ignore the potential the group had. The brief return of Chris Rumble, who overcame leukemia to bolster the Golden Griffins' power play, was just one of the benchmarks Shupe recalls.
"We all came together well in the preseason," Shupe said. "We could tell there was something special right then. It was just one thing after another that brought us together. We got a big spark when Chris Rumble came back. … Then we hit another little slump. One day, we actually sang a song on the bus over to the rink. It was goofy, but it was pretty cool. Little things like that helped us build momentum as a team. It just always seemed like a different group of guys."
In February, the Golden Griffins went 2-6-0 to end the Atlantic Hockey regular season. Even with a regular-season-ending sweep of RIT, Canisius finished the year in seventh place. The issues they had in February didn't turn into problems that defined their season. The offense that went flat erupted in the conference tournament — culminating with a 7-2 win over Mercyhurst to punch their ticket to this weekend's regional.
The date with Quinnipiac didn't end as the Golden Griffins hoped. Despite leading 3-1 late in the third period, the advantage quickly evaporated. A game-winning goal from Kevin Bui with 5:32 remaining in regulation clinched the win — and a spot in Sunday's regional final — for QU.
The reception for Canisius when the players return back to their campus in Buffalo, N.Y., will be warm; the community's response to the run these last few weeks has overwhelmed Smith and players.
"The support we got in the playoffs this year was just overwhelming," Shupe said. "It was really special. After every game, five or 10 text messages. After the next game, you'd get 15 or 20. After we won the league, I had about 40 text messages. It was a special thing to be a part of. All the other athletic teams and classmates have been so supportive. Before we came (to Providence), Torrey Lindsay and I were leaving a class, and all of our classmates wished us good luck. It was a pretty special thing."
Fellow athletes, coaches, professors, students and alumni reached out to the coaches and players to express pride and excitement. The acts, individually, are small, and they didn't carry CC to victory in Saturday's game. They came, though, and there was a time when the Canisius hockey team's reputation on campus would've prevented any of that from happening.
"It was a primary focus of mine to just worry about our hockey team," Smith said. "We had a lot of work to do. Now, on campus, the relationship is super positive with professors, administrators, other athletes and the general community. The number of tweets and texts we've received from other coaches and athletes has been outstanding."
"I wasn't too familiar with some of the problems Canisius in the past, but we've all heard some things," Shupe said. "It's changed, though, and there's two words to explain why: Dave Smith. He's changed everything about the program. He just wants us to excel academically, athletically and socially and always keep getting better. He deserves this more than anyone."
Smith's goal since he arrived on campus has been to amend that, to slowly rebuild the program's reputation and attract better players — and people — to his team.
Canisius isn't a college hockey power. The Golden Griffins won't be the favorite to win Atlantic Hockey entering next season.
Saturday night, though, they played like a team that knew it belonged on college hockey's grandest stage. They were proud of their accomplishment and attacked their newly lofty goals aggressively. Pegging their goals for the 2013-14 season is difficult at this point. There's always another step. Satisfied as Smith and his returning players are with the showing these last few weeks, they'll enter next season with their eyes set on another strong season, another set of goals they'll hope to achieve.
"Words can't describe how special this run has been," Smith said. "Our guys enjoy being together. When players step onto our campus, they're going to see that. They sense it already. These last few weeks didn't just happen."
"We've always expected to win," Shupe said. "We've worked hard to get here. My message to the next class is just to want it and keep going. Build off what we did and make Canisius proud."
Just keep getting better.