It may not have been the perfect ending to the season, but there is no question the Miami University RedHawks’ 2009-10 hockey season was a success. When last year ended, we all hoped this year would result in the first national championship of Miami’s program. But, when 58 teams are vying for a national championship in a sport where the margin for error is as slim as a goaltender having the night of his life, to finish as a Frozen Four team must be celebrated.
Let’s put this in perspective. Miami’s hockey program reached varsity status in 1978-79. After spending much of the 1980s in the cellar of the CCHA, coach George Gwozdecky led the RedHawks to their first NCAA tournament in 1992-93 with a roster featuring captain Chris Bergeron and alternate captain Enrico Blasi. The ‘Hawks would make the tournament once more in the 1990s, as the 1996-97 squad would lose in the first round to Cornell. As a result, the first two decades of the program netted two non-consecutive NCAA appearances.
Then the alternate captain from the first RedHawk team to make the tournament returned to coach his alma mater and his captain joined his as an assistant. While the ‘Hawks did not make much noise in the first few years of this decade, as they appeared in the tournament in 2003-04, Miami began its rise to national prominence as it has now made the tournament every year since 2005-06. In that span, the Red and White have won more regular season games than any other team in the nation, celebrated two CCHA championships and as a result of facing Boston College (BC) in Detroit last weekend, the first two Frozen Fours in the history of Miami hockey.
I am not going to sugar coat the game against BC. The Eagles handed Miami their worst defeat in recent memory, beating Miami for the fourth time in the NCAA tournament, this time by a score of 7-1. The truth is that team is just as loaded going into next year and on paper should be NCAA championship contenders once again.
While there is always the risk of players leaving early, those donning the RedHawk jersey have a strong tendency to graduate. As a result, the only definite losses to this Miami team will be four seniors and one long-time assistant coach.
First, the seniors. Jarod Palmer is leaving a legacy at Miami. One of the most productive players to wear a RedHawk uniform, he set a record for games played in Red and White jersey with 169 appearances, is ninth in this history of the program with 90 assists, finishes his career with 137 total points and a plus-minus rating of an incredible +56. While he was never as big of a household name as an Andy Greene or a Ryan Jones, Palmer is certainly going to be missed next season.
Brandon Smith, Gary Steffes and Dane Hetland may not have lit up the Miami record books like Palmer, but each carved out a special role on the team. Smith, one of the hardest workers on the ice, cracked the lineup last season and never looked back. In 60 career games, Smith netted eight goals and nine assists, but most importantly, provide a spark each time his touched the ice. Steffes played in 136 games, registering 48 points and playing a vital role in the tournament last season. Hetland appeared in 32 career games amassing six assists and was a presence in the locker room. Each one of these seniors left their mark on the RedHawk program.
Finally, Chris Bergeron departs Miami after a decade as the assistant coach for the RedHawks. While he’ll be coaching for Bowling Green State University, Bergeron has been a giant part of Miami’s success in this decade, and his exit will leave big shoes to fill. He leaves as the most successful assistant coach of Miami hockey.
That means the rest of the team, in addition to Blasi and assistant coach Brent Brekke, will be back in Oxford vying for a second straight CCHA title and a third consecutive Frozen Four. Add a talented recruiting class and the ‘Hawks are poised to return to the apex of the college hockey world. So when we remember this season, let’s think of the successes — the domination of the CCHA, the double-overtime victory against Michigan and the Frozen Four appearance. And hopefully the celebration of the season that was will provide the excitement and dreams of what the 2010-11 season could be.