March 13, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

The Long Haul, Together

by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent

Here's the funny thing about playing witness to history: you usually don't realize what you're seeing until it's over, and you never know you're going to see it before it begins.

Game 3 of the WCHA series between St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth wasn't supposed to be a game that would be long-remembered by the people in it or watching from the stands. The teams were going to come together, probably play 60 minutes of hockey, and when it was over, one team would be off to the Final Five, the other left to contemplate what might have been. End of story.

Even once the game started into overtime, the sensation was still the same — obviously, someone was going to score and the game would be over, right?

Until you've heard crowds ooh and aah over every meaningless wrister from the blueline and vigorously applaud or bemoan every change of possession, you're probably not witnessing anything special.

And it was special.

As the game drew on, it became strikingly obvious that neither team deserved to lose. Both the Bulldogs and Huskies put up brave efforts on both ends of the ice, none more apparent than the focus and excellence of the two netminders, Josh Johnson and Bobby Goepfert. Like heavyweights who had parried and jabbed their way through opening rounds, the goalies went blow for blow through the night.

There was high drama — especially with more posts than a picket fence on the open range, as both teams continued to act more like they were trying to play three-bar instead of putting the puck in the net. That's probably because it was far, far easier to put the puck on iron than to get it past either of the solid walls that had eyes for every shot.

One started to wonder exactly how both teams kept moving. Not only was it the third game of a playoff series which had been an all-out war, but the two teams had played an extended overtime game the previous night — this one ending late in the first overtime — and if all that wasn't enough, Daylight Savings Time had gone into effect early that morning, meaning the teams got an hour less rest before doing battle once more. The cumulative effects were obvious. The game, from the second overtime on, looked like it was moving in slow motion. Passes were slow and awkward. Shots had something taken off of them. Even defenders at the point had a hard time focusing enough to keep slow-moving pucks from exiting the zone.

I'm sure the game tape from the last two overtimes could be replayed at twice the speed, and it'll look like a normal hockey game.

It was inevitable, though — one team had to emerge victorious. After Andreas Nodl was able to finally put the puck in the net (with a shot he would later say he couldn't even remember entirely), the stark contrast of emotion on the ice was in many ways difficult to take in.

On one end, elation. Nodl leaped several times, managing to make his way from the slot to center ice faster than any player had been able to do since maybe the second period. The SCSU bench erupted and mobbed Nodl and their warrior between the posts.

On the other, dejection. Perhaps the most striking image of the evening was from UMD goalie Josh Johnson, who turned in an absolutely brilliant performance all night — just adding to his outstanding show all weekend, on the ice after giving up the goal. While all those in the stands and wearing the home whites celebrated with all the energy they had left, he stayed in the same position he had been in to play the puck, on his knees, facing the direction of the shot, his head hung down as his teammates gathered around him to commiserate.

That's not something you see all the time. Too often we hear about athletes who lose the final game of the season and practically before they're out of the rink, they're making Spring Break plans — or worse, implementing previously assembled plans.

Josh Johnson is clearly not one of those. He put his heart and soul into what he did. He did everything that could have been asked of him, and more. He didn't just set a new school record for saves in a playoff game, he annihilated it. The end result was not what he deserved, nor was it what any single player on the ice that night deserved.

Here was a man who was a loyal Bulldog for four years, never getting his chance to shine as the starter until late in his senior season. He took his team on his back, and he nearly gave them a ride to St. Paul. Here was a proud athlete, who came up just a hair short of achieving more than anyone was willing to give them credit for just a few days earlier.

The whole scene was reminiscent of the old ABC Sports tagline — "the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat."

The crowd, which moments earlier had been in joyous celebration, turned to the fallen UMD netminder. As Johnson's name was announced as the game's third star, the Dogg Pound — the notoriously loud and obnoxious student section that had been riding him relentlessly for five-and-a-half periods — led the entire remaining crowd in offering the man a standing ovation for his valiant and noble efforts.

As the teams met at center ice, exchanging handshakes in one of the truly great rituals of sport, one couldn't help but notice that the SCSU line seemed to be continuously holding up when it reached Johnson. They were clearly impressed, and to some degree saddened that their success had to come upon his defeat.

That's when the gravity of what you just watched starts to set in. It was as if both teams understood at that time just exactly what they'd gone through together. A level of mutual respect was achieved that goes beyond the usual sound bites in the locker room praising the efforts of the other team.

It's unlikely that anyone on the ice that Sunday night in St. Cloud has ever experienced something like that in their hockey careers. It's unlikely that most of them will ever experience something like that again.

Clearly, Minnesota-Duluth had nothing to be ashamed of, even in defeat. That didn't make things easier to swallow. St. Cloud State was too tired to do much in the way of celebration afterwards, but it was certainly easier to deal with than in the Duluth locker room, where tired and unsatisfied gladiators stared at the walls for minutes on end, trying to comprehend exactly what had just taken place.

Everyone who was at the game, from players, to coaches, to students, alumni, spectators, even rink employees and press, played a part in history, and everyone had their roles. It wasn't on the grand stage of the Final Five or the NCAA tournament, and it wasn't the longest game ever played. Thus, history may soon forget about the exploits of two teams heroically fighting for every inch in every moment.

That's not to say that those who were there will ever forget the night history came to visit the National Hockey Center.

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