At least there weren't any clock malfunctions at this NCAA tournament. But then Michigan State's hockey team probably would have just laughed off any such indignities last weekend in Providence. The Spartans are college hockey's Merry Pranksters, an irreverent, slightly out-of-step band that specializes in the unpredictable, so much so that it annually acknowledges its own No. I clown with a Goofus Award.
This year, the joke was on the rest of college hockey as Michigan State defeated Harvard 6-5 Saturday at the Providence Civic Center to become the surprise champion of NCAA Division I hockey. Senior Mike Donnelly, a walk-on from Livonia, Mich. who became the country's leading goal scorer this season with 59, broke a 5-5 tie at 17:09 of the third period. And this after the Spartans had been down by two goals three different times in the final.
Actually, it was last year's Michigan State team—one that featured current NHL players Craig Simpson, Kelly Miller and Lyle Phair and won an NCAA-record 38 games—that was supposed to win it all. But those Spartans were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Providence College and its terrific goalie, Chris Terreri. "There was so much pressure last year; anything short of a championship wasn't considered a success," said MSU goalie Norm Foster, who made 42 saves in the Spartans' 6-4 semifinal win over Minnesota Thursday. "This year we just played. No expectations, nothing."
Expecting nothing, the Spartans achieved everything, finishing 34-9-2 overall and winning their first national title since 1966. Good times? Hey, spring break is where you make it.
At the last practice before the biggest game of his collegiate life, MSU defenseman Tom Tilley took the ice wearing the gigantic Spartan mascot head and tottered around looking like a Steven Spielberg creation. Tilley, you might have guessed, is among the finalists for team Goofus, an honor so highly thought of that past winners are listed in the Spartans' media guide.
"These kids aren't smart enough to realize they can lose," coach Ron Mason said earlier this season. They never did wise up. In the final, Harvard performed gamely despite the loss of Scott Fusco, the Crimson's leading scorer and winner of the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player. He strained knee ligaments early in Harvard's 5-2 semifinal victory over Denver on Friday night.
Fusco wasn't the only casualty. Crimson coach Bill Cleary's 78-year-old mother, Helen, cut her leg on a railing on the way to her seat at the Civic Center Friday and required stitches. "It's supposed to be the other way around," said Cleary. "The mother comes and sees her son getting stitched up at the hospital."
Both Harvard and Mrs. Cleary hung tough in the final. Harvard used its speed to take leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 before the bigger, more physical Spartans took control late in the second period. "It might have been a different game had Harvard played their semi the same night as us," said Mason.
Western College Hockey Association champ Denver had been seeded No. 1 in the tournament on the basis of its 34-11-1 record. But the Pioneers, a former hockey power that had won five NCAA titles between 1958 and 1969, seemed uncomfortable being back in the limelight. "Just two, three years ago, there were rumors that the program would be dropped," said assistant coach Ron Grahame. Before this season the Pioneers had been picked in a coaches' preseason poll to finish seventh in the eight-team WCHA.
With attendance light at the tournament, there were plenty of choice seats for NHL scouts and coaches. The prime subjects of discussion were Denver junior free-agent Dwight Mathiasen, who was expected to sign a $1.2 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and MSU's Joe Murphy.
Murphy is only a freshman, but he had 24 goals and 37 assists in 35 games and is the top-rated prospect in the NHL's June draft. "He's a terrific player," said Minnesota North Stars general manager Lou Nanne. "He's not just a scorer or just a checker, but a well-rounded guy who doesn't mind playing it tough." The Detroit Red Wings figure to get the top choice, but the Vancouver Canucks have shown interest in dealing for Murphy; and he's from Vancouver. Murphy says a chance to play for Vancouver might persuade him to turn pro now.
Mason is philosophical about players who leave the nest early. Last year it was junior-to-be Craig Simpson, a first-round pick of the Penguins who is skating on the fourth line. "It's not too difficult seeing a player go to the NHL," Mason says. "If you flirt with excellence, you have to live with that." At Providence the Spartans did more than flirt. They swept the old girl off her feet.