Over the course of the last five seasons, the Miami University ice hockey team has compiled the best winning percentage of any program in the country.
The team has won two CCHA regular season titles, made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, competed in four NCAA Regional Finals and earned back-to-back trips to the Frozen Four.
A lot has changed since Enrico Blasi assumed leadership of the program in 1999 as the youngest head coach in Division I hockey.
A lot has changed since the program said goodbye to the old Goggin Ice Arena, moved into a state of the art new facility and made history by becoming the first ever Miami sports team to be ranked No. 1 in the country.
A lot has changed since the Red and White last found itself at the Frozen Four in Washington D.C. in 2009.
There were many things Blasi could have said in the national press conference following last season’s heart breaking loss to Boston University (BU). Rather than dwelling on the team’s collapse in the final moments of regulation, Blasi stood as a leader for his devastated players to rally around, already setting the tone for a subsequent season of moving forward.
“Right now I just want to make sure we focus and pay tribute to this team, because nobody gave them a chance a few weeks ago,” Blasi said. “And I’m proud of them and they did a great job. And it doesn’t feel good right now. But the sun will come up tomorrow and the guys will realize what they accomplished.”
The sun did come up, and the Brotherhood, despite already having reached what many would consider to be the pinnacle of talent with its National Championship run in 2008-09, continued to get better every day.
The RedHawks tackled a difficult first half schedule, recorded a historic first sweep of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and established an impressive 9-1-4 record going into winter break. In the schedule’s second half, Miami rebounded from a pair of losses to Robert Morris and went undefeated in 11 straight contests. The Red and White finished the regular season with just two total conference losses and the CCHA Regular Season Championship trophy in hand, all the while topping the national polls for 17 of 23 weeks.
After some disappointment in the CCHA Tournament, the Red and White rose again and claimed the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 2-1 triumph over Ferris State in the consolation game. Also with that victory, Miami’s senior class of Jarod Palmer, Brandon Smith, Dane Hetland and Gary Steffes became the winningest in school history.
At the Midwest Regional, the Brotherhood bested the University of Alabama-Huntsville in the semifinal matchup, and then played a classic against Michigan to advance to the Frozen Four.
By any standard, Miami put together a nearly perfect season, much of which was thanks to the indomitable faith and support that form the backbone of the Brotherhood. The adversity associated with last season’s unforgettable defeat would have been enough of a burden for any team to bear but more hardship was in store for the RedHawks.
It began with Blasi’s divorce near the conclusion of the 2008-09 season, continued with the constant pressure to prove something with another run at the national championship this time around and ended with a personal loss – the death of beloved senior student manager Brendan “Burkie” Burke in a car accident Feb. 5.
It was at last season’s Frozen Four that Burke told his team he was gay, before spreading his courageous message on a national scale. Burke’s absence felt like a hole at this year’s Frozen Four, but the team’s same faith shone through.
“(He’s) here for the ride,” junior captain Tommy Wingels said before the team departed for the Midwest Regional. “He’s going to be up there watching us, helping when he can and keeping an eye on us.”
Dealing with that sobering situation highlighted the importance of family ties within the Brotherhood. In the April 8 national semifinal game v. Boston College (BC), however, Miami encountered one last bit of adversity.
By the end of 60 minutes, the Red and White had been held to just 18 shots on goal (SOG), used two goaltenders and ultimately succumbed to the Eagles 7-1.
After putting together a brilliant and inspiring season, Miami fell to Earth.
“I don’t want to say the pressure, but we had to play at a high level all year long,” Blasi said. “We had a lot of questions to answer, sometimes it’s taxing. You don’t want to make excuses, but that did not look like the Miami team we coached the entire season.”
BC has more speed than any other team in the country, and Miami had its work cut out for it from the moment the puck dropped. A frenetic tempo was set from the very first faceoff and the two teams matched lines as they raced each other up and down the ice.
The RedHawks’ normally textbook game seemed a click off, however, as they took senseless penalties, failed to finish checks and seemed to succumb to Ford Field’s subpar ice conditions in a way the Eagles did not. By the end of the first frame, Blasi’s boys trailed by one.
Miami has proven itself to be a resilient team, capable of coming back from first goal deficits. Entering Thursday’s contest, the Red and White held a nearly even record of 6-7-3 when the opponent scored first. By the numbers, the Brotherhood was far from out of the game.
“It’s important to build shifts on top of one another,” Wingels said. “We’d have a good shift here or there and then we disappear for the next three, four minutes after that. That was pretty frustrating. They’re a very skilled team, very offensive.”
BC added two more goals in the middle stanza, prompting an offensive onslaught by Miami at the outset of the third that saw freshman Joe Hartman break through with his seventh goal of the year.
The RedHawks couldn’t keep up the rally effort, though, and seemed to encounter opposition from the Eagles at every turn with mounting frustration.
“The problem is, you’ve got two teams playing,” Blasi said. “When they’re contrasting styles, one or the other is going to dictate the way it’s going to be played. Tonight it was Boston College’s night.”
At 10:10, BC turned the contest into a total blowout, netting three goals in a span of 1:35 and adding a fourth at 16:41 to close scoring out 7-1 and end Miami’s season 29-8-7.
“We turned pucks over and they put up seven goals,” Wingels said. “All the credit goes to them for taking it to us and capitalizing on their opportunities.”
The feelings that followed this season-ending loss juxtaposed sharply with those experienced after last year’s 4-3 championship defeat v. BU. Last season, the emotions that transpired at the end of the game – a sense of elation from entering the final minute of regulation followed by shock as sophomore Colby Cohen’s shot was tipped over Reichard’s shoulder in overtime – felt like a punch in the gut. This season, after all of the hard work and heartache that the ‘Hawks put into returning to college hockey’s grandest stage, the loss simply felt frustrating.
It was a critical moment in the season, a bad time to fall apart, but Blasi and the Brotherhood should be commended, not criticized.
“When you sit back and take it all in, we had a great season,” Blasi said. “We’ve had a lot of adversity we’ve had to go through this year…But I’m extremely proud of the way the team has played all year. It doesn’t take away from the relationships we have and the amount of care and love for each other.”
Over the past five seasons, Miami’s program has won on a more consistent basis than any other team in the country, national title or none. Using the championship card as a measuring stick for failure does the RedHawks a disservice and devalues all of the hard work this program has put forth.
As Blasi said once before, the sun will come up tomorrow, and the Brotherhood will realize what it has accomplished.