March 11, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Wayne State Bids Farewell

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

They skated onto the ice at Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum last Saturday like it was any other game. And after 2 1/2 hours, they skated off. Some of them might have pondered the nostalgia internally, but there was no pomp, there was no circumstance, there was no sendoff. There was a final buzzer, and then ... it was over.

Wayne State hockey played its last home game ... ever.

"It was senior night and we knew it would be the end of the program, so I think emotionally we were a little spent. And it showed," said Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson. "The first 10 minutes we were in a fog. But we got through it.

"I know the kids have had this on their mind all year. But it (became) a reality. This is it, the final games we'll be playing at home forever."

It was a far cry from 1999, when the program's first home game was played in front of thousands at the Fairgrounds, and with a school offering the promise of a great future. A new building was on the horizon, a chance to compete in the state of Michigan against long-time hockey powers, with a coach that had taken teams to the NCAA tournament before.

That arena never came.

In the intervening years, the team played games at the Great Lakes Sports City Arena (in Fraser, Mich.), Compuware Sports Arena (in Plymouth, Mich.), Taylor SportsPlex and a couple of games (vs. Notre
Dame and Bowling Green) at Joe Louis Arena.

Now, here they were, at the place where it all started — like disillusioned nomads in the desert never to find their oasis, forced to return right back to the beginning. Playing in front of 300 friends and family. Playing out the clock of a 7-3 rout at the hands of Niagara.

The end.

"A lot of times, I think we feel we're the lone wolf in the pack, we're alone by ourselves and playing for each other basically," Wilkinson said. "But Wayne State does not support the program, so in the end, we have to rally around ourselves and do the best we can."

If there was one tiny positive amid the horror it was being given enough time for the players to find new homes. The announcement was made early enough to give the current players time to find new teams for next year.

This put the team in the odd situation of looking for new teams to play on next season, while still trying to commit itself to this season.

"Some of the kids have already got commitments from other schools, but we're still in the process of trying to help everyone we can," Wilkinson said. "But they really don't have a place to go yet. So the longer we play the more they'll get noticed. That's how it's been all year long."

One of those people is Wilkinson, who spent 17 seasons at Western Michigan before coming to Wayne State.

"I'd like to (stay in hockey), in some capacity, stay in coaching and see what will be available."

There was some rumors recent about Wayne State finding a savior. But there are no rabbits to be pulled out of the hat.

"I don't know what rabbit you got there," Wilkinson said. "Maybe 60 years from now we'll resurrect it again, but it won't be in my lifetime."

Wayne State's season goes on — to the final weekend in the tournament for College Hockey America, an entity that itself is on its last legs. Hockey fans across the country will be pulling for Wayne State, which has a big hill to climb to make the NCAAs and give a collective "take that" to the administration that didn't support them. It comes in to Buffalo as the No. 4 seed, and plays Friday against Alabama-Huntsville in the play-in game, with semis and finals on Saturday and Sunday.

"We'd like to win it all if we could, but we know we have steep competition in front of us. We just need to do the old adage, one game at a time," Wilkinson said. "We're the underdogs. We'll go along under a difficult scenario — but stranger things have happened."

The weekend will be played under the specter of bigger problems for the league as a whole. With Wayne State gone, the league will go down to four teams, meaning it no longer will qualify for an automatic NCAA bid. A lot of hoops were jumped through just to allow five to be the minimum threshold.

There have been rumors in this area too, ideas about other teams switching leagues to join the CHA. But all possibilities appear exhausted at this point.

"There was some positive stuff coming out, but now I'm not so sure," Wilkinson said. "It doesn't look like that's happening — it's not happening this week, who knows what will happen next week."

Wayne State may be a microcosm of the league as a whole, fighting against a tide. For the Warriors, one way or another, that fight ends this weekend. The other CHA teams hope that's not the case for them.

"We'll do the best we can, and if that's not good enough, so be it," Wilkinson said. "But I know the kids have tried the best they can."

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