For a lot of Easterners, it was an enlightening week in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the NCAA hockey Final Four. First, they learned the correct pronunciation of Sault Ste. Marie. It's not "salt stee Marie." but "soo saint Marie." Second, they learned that there are actually two cities named Sault Ste. Marie. One is in Michigan, the other across the St. Mary's River in Ontario.
The Michigan Sault Ste. Marie is home to 15,136 people, a paper mill, a penitentiary and Lake Superior State College, which beat St. Lawrence 4-3 on junior right wing Mark Vermette's sudden-death overtime goal in the championship game Saturday night.
Other discoveries of note:
•Similarities in nicknames notwithstanding, LSSC Lakers' hockey resembles L.A. Lakers' basketball about as much as the roller derby resembles the Bolshoi Ballet.
•It has cost Dr. Timothy Lappin, a G.P. from St. Charles, Ill., some $130,000 to provide his sons, Tim and Pete, with an education at St. Lawrence, which awards scholarships based on financial need, not athletic prowess. He got his money's worth in one weekend.
•It's definite. Bud Grant, the brilliant but snakebitten former Minnesota Vikings head coach who failed to win the Super Bowl in four tries, has an in-state spiritual successor in the form of Minnesota hockey coach Doug Woog, who now has nothing to show for his three trips to the Final Four.
But the most interesting discovery clearly was LSSC coach Frank Anzalone, a Brooklyn-born, Napoleon-complexed aficionado of X's and O's, who took what was probably the least talented team in the four-team field, 27 guys in whom other colleges had shown little interest, and wrung a national championship from them. Anzalone says that he recruits "character," which translates: If the deafening Boom! that reverberates through the arena when you ride an opponent into the boards fills your heart with song, and if you don't mind having a paper mill for a neighbor for four years, send Anzalone some video of yourself in action. Where you'll likely end up is the Sault.
Individually, Anzalone's players are ornery but ordinary talents: guys like goaltender Bruce Hoffort, who played a season of junior hockey in Saskatchewan before accepting a grant-in-aid and a chance for a degree from Lake Superior; or forward Pete Stauber, who simply didn't get any other college offers. Collectively, the Lakers are a tightly knit juggernaut. Anzalone makes sure his players lift weights or run together at least three times a week after practice. They also get to participate as a group in 6 a.m. anaerobic tortures. If Lake Superior State was the NCAA tourney's Cinderella, then Cinderella can squat-lift 500 pounds and has a tattoo.
"Every time there's a one-on-one confrontation, they end up with the puck," said exasperated Maine assistant coach Jay Leach as the Black Bears, who had been ranked No. 1 or 2 all season, were losing to the Lakers 6-3 in Thursday's semifinal. "That's just good coaching," said Shawn Walsh, Maine's coach.
The Lakers arrived at Lake Placid lightly regarded and with the reputation of being robots programmed mainly for grinding and meanness (they had racked up 1,095 penalty minutes during the 44-game regular season). Anzalone, the man who pushes the buttons, dictates how his charges spend each minute. It was considered a progressive leap for him to let the Lakers out of their hotel rooms in Lake Placid when they had some spare time.
"I wouldn't say he strangles us," says Vermette. "But he does keep a fairly firm hold." Does it work? Says Vermette, "Look at me—I scored one goal two seasons ago. This year I had 42 in the regular season [he would add three more in the NCAA tournament]. That's Coach Anzalone's doing."
Indeed, Vermette was a leading candidate for the Hobey Baker award, the Heisman of college hockey, even though he also served 150 minutes in the penalty box, the equivalent of 2½ games. Stauber won the Baker. Not Pete, but his brother Robb, the goaltender for the University of Minnesota who had maintained a 2.67 goals-against average as the Golden Gophers complied a 34-8 record. It proved to be the only highlight of Robb's week. In Friday's semifinal, Stauber was helpless before the onslaught of the St. Lawrence line featuring the brothers Lappin, particularly Pete, whose third goal, with 12 seconds to play, eliminated the Golden Gophers. In the consolation game on Saturday, Stauber yielded five more goals as Maine beat the Gophers 5-2.
So the championship game became a battle of schools that were also competing for the title of Most Isolated Home City: Sault Ste. Marie or Canton, N.Y.? "The only thing between Canton and Syracuse are cow pastures and John Deere outlets," said St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh. "You have those?" said Anzalone in mock envy. Marsh also had a heavy majority of fan support in 8,600-seat Olympic Arena as Canton is only about 60 miles from Lake Placid.
On Saturday night the Lakers took to the ice with the obvious intent of testing the outer limits of referee Frank Cole's tolerance. The Lake Superior-Maine and Minnesota-Maine games had been marred by cheap shots galore, and the Lakers would have been happy to use their usual tough tactics against the Saints. But Cole quickly made it clear that he was in Lake Placid to officiate a hockey game, not a riot. At eight minutes into the first period, the Lakers found themselves two men short and facing a highly productive St. Lawrence power play. Had it not been for Hoffort, who earned the MVP plaque by making 20 saves in the first period, LSSC could have found itself in deep trouble. As it was, St. Lawrence came back with three goals in the second period, and as regulation time was running out, the score stood at 3-3.
It was then that Hoffort got some help from a teammate who knows a little about goaltending himself—Stauber. With St. Lawrence players swarming around the Lake Superior goal late in the third period, Stauber caused a stoppage in play by skating in and lifting the net off its moorings. It was a flagrant violation of the rules, one that called for a two-minute delay-of-game penalty at best and possibly a penalty shot. But Cole simply signaled for a face-off.
St. Lawrence had played tired in the third period, obviously showing the effects of having their semifinal scheduled the night before while the Lakers rested, and they lacked zip in OT save for an intense but brief assault on Hoffort. Soon the puck was all over the St. Lawrence end, and suddenly there was Vermette, who had been held pretty much in check all night, collecting a loose puck and sliding it through a maze of arms and legs and lumber and into the net.
Before the puck had stopped rolling, the automatons of Lake Superior State flung their sticks, gloves and helmets heavenward and began an ecstatic hog wallow on the ice in celebration of the school's first championship. Back at the bench, Anzalone was hugging anything that moved, including Marsh, the rival coach, who came over to offer his congratulations.
"Yes, call us robots," said the Lakers freshman forward Jim Dowd. "National champion robots."