By the time the 1991 NCAA hockey championship trophy was placed in the arms of Northern Michigan captain Brad Werenka last Saturday night at the St. Paul Civic Center, it was a wonder that he had the strength to lift it. Certainly the players from Boston University, which lost 8-7 to the Wildcats 1:57 into the third overtime, were too emotionally drained to cry. "Not too many tears yet," said BU coach Jack Parker. "They're all numb."
It was a heartbreaking loss for the Terriers, who had rallied from a three-goal deficit with eight minutes left in regulation to tie the score on David Sacco's goal with 39 seconds remaining. On the other hand, had Northern Michigan goalie Bill Pye not gloved an excellent chance by BU's star winger, Tony Amonte, in the final second of regulation, or had BU gone on to win in OT, the Wildcats would have been the team haunted by memories of what had slipped away.
"Thirty-nine seconds to a national championship and they score," said Northern Michigan left wing Darryl Plandowski. "I was ill, sick to my stomach." Perhaps the best way to sum up the drama of the game is to point out that within an hour Plandowski went from one of the worst moments of his life to the absolute best. A checker whose primary assignment for the night was to hound the explosive Amonte, Plandowski scored the winning goal to end the 80-minute-plus marathon.
Not only did he score the goal, but he also made the play by putting a drop pass between his legs to center Mark Beaufait, fooling backchecking BU winger Ed Ronan. "As soon as I dropped it, I thought, I never should have done that," said Plandowski. "They could have picked it off and gotten a break the other way." Spoken like a true checker. But when Beaufait received the pass cleanly and gained a step wide on Terrier defenseman Kevin O'Sullivan, Plandowski reacted like a scorer. He went to the slot and took Beaufait's return pass, which had barely eluded Ronan's desperate dive. Meanwhile, BU goaltender Scott Cashman had turned and flopped in front of Beaufait, leaving a startling sight for Plandowski. "The net was wide open," he said. "I decided to shoot."
"Good decision," said Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley, who had made his own good decision after the Wildcats had blown their seemingly comfortable third-period lead. Though it challenged conventional motivational wisdom, he had shocked his Wildcats by using the C word. "I told them we choked, because that's what we did," said Comley. "Then I told them, 'If at the beginning of the season, somebody could have put you into an overtime of the national championship game, would you take your chances?'" The Wildcats obviously felt they would, because they maintained a territorial advantage through the extra sessions. There were close calls both ways in OT—each team got off shots that hit goalposts, in BU's case twice on one play—but last call went to Northern Michigan, along with the school's first title.
It was a game of great swings of momentum, and, actually, it was BU, not Northern Michigan, that first blew a three-goal lead. The Terriers jumped out to a 3-0 advantage behind a pair of goals by Ronan sandwiched around a tally by Sacco, and appeared about to fulfill the predictions of preseason polls that had picked them No. 1 in the country. BU, which started slowly and had been inconsistent for parts of the season, steam-rolled down the stretch. First, a good Michigan team was blown away 4-1 and 8-1 in the NCAA quarterfinals (which, unlike the single-game semis and finals, are best-of-three). Then, a scrappy Clarkson club that pulled off a stunning upset against Lake Superior State, the top team in the polls for much of the season, was dispatched 7-3 in the semifinals.
The Terriers' top line—wingers Amonte and Keith Tkachuk and center Shawn McEachern—is made up of excellent professional prospects and/or Olympians-to-be. And freshman defenseman Scott Lachance may go as high as second in the NHL's draft this June.
Northern Michigan, which ended the season with a 26-game unbeaten streak, has only one talent in that class. Werenka, a senior defenseman, was a second-round draft choice by Edmonton in '87, and will probably be signed by the Oilers and be in their lineup for the playoffs as early as this week. Comley, who has a 330-235-30 record in his 15 seasons with the Wildcats, doesn't usually attract blue-chip prospects to the remote Upper Peninsula school. Northern Michigan gets kids who fall through the recruiting cracks, the ones who are not outstanding professional prospects but who develop into fine college players over four seasons. Even Werenka decided on Northern Michigan largely because most of the high-profile schools made a mistake. Northern Michigan recruiter Walt Kyle was one of the few who knew that Werenka, an excellent student, was finishing high school in Fort Saskatchewan a year early.
And so on Saturday night it was fitting that 5'7", 164-pound center Scott Beattie, who is too small to be considered a legitimate NHL prospect but big enough to lead the NCAA in scoring this year, tallied three of his team's six straight goals to overcome BU's early dominance. After Plandowski scored the second of his three goals with 11:36 remaining in the third period, Northern Michigan led 7-4 until Amonte, a third-round 1988 draft choice of the New York Rangers who might turn pro this week, finally freed himself from Plandowski. First, McEachern fed Amonte for a goal; then Amonte returned the favor. Suddenly, it was a one-goal game with 5:09 remaining. Lachance, on one of the Terriers' last chances, made a perfect slot pass to Sacco to tie it.
Because of its stirring comeback, BU looked like the best bet in overtime. But the pace slowed considerably due to fatigue, tentative play and the choppy ice. And the Wildcats, who had outlasted Eastern top-seed Maine 5-3 in their semifinal game last Thursday, retained enough confidence and leg strength to finish as champions.
"Losing that [game] would have been with us the rest of our lives, and yet in overtime you don't think about how you might blow it," said Werenka. "All you think about is winning." Winning was all that Parker, who has coached the Terriers for 18 years, pondered, too, as he went into overtime seeking his first NCAA championship since 1978, when such miracle workers as Jim Craig, Dave Silk and Jack O'Callahan led the way.
"I was watching Connie Chung interview Marlon Brando," Parker said after the game, "and it was an hour of Brando spewing nonsense till Chung asked him his philosophy of life. He said, 'You take your last breath and you say to yourself, What was that all about?' "
Parker found himself asking a similar question about the emotion-churning game his team had just lost. "That wasn't a hockey game out there tonight," he said. "That was something different."