CINCINNATI — A walk from the ice to U.S. Bank Arena’s Dressing Room No. 7 is roughly 40 steps: through the bench, into the metal tunnel littered with duct tape, past the dividing curtain and around the corner to the left.
That lonely route was the exit JT Compher used Saturday night to leave the game one last time this season.
With just over eight minutes to play in the NCAA Midwest Regional final, an outmatched Michigan hockey team was hanging with the top seed, North Dakota — the score tied at two.
But in a span of just 74 seconds, there was one goal, and then another, before a late penalty and a long empty-net score sealed the 5-2 victory for the Fighting Hawks.
Compher watched from the ice as the final horn sounded and the North Dakota bench emptied. He skated to console his goaltender, taking his spot at the end of the handshake line.
Then he climbed onto the bench, walked through the tunnel and turned around the corner to the left. Those 40 steps were nearly all the time the Wolverines’ captain had to compose himself. The rest of his night was dedicated to everyone else.
Compher was whisked through the curved concrete underbelly of the arena to take a seat alongside Michigan coach Red Berenson at the press conference — two spokesmen for a team that had no games left to play.
“That’s a really, really good hockey team that we just played,” Compher said. “I’m really proud of this team. To get back to the tournament and to win the Big Ten Championship, it’s a big deal.
“But right now, it’s tough to talk.”
Compher, though, made time to talk anyway.
He made teary eye contact through the glare of the spotlights, answering with patient, deliberate speech when asked what Michigan could have done to win the game and whether his team was outmatched.
Afterward, Compher retraced his steps to the dressing room to join his teammates. He didn’t prepare a grand speech, saying he preferred to take the time to talk to the guys individually.
Roughly an hour after nearly willing his team to a Frozen Four berth with the best game of his career, Compher still wasn’t done.
North Dakota’s captain, Gage Ausmus — a former teammate and close friend from the duo’s days at the USNTDP program in Ann Arbor — met him in the hallway and the two embraced.
Compher flashed a wry smile as the pair chatted in the hallway, staffers whisking by as they hurriedly tore down the tournament decorations.
The conversation didn’t last more than a few minutes — both players had places to be. Ausmus was off to captain his team at the Frozen Four, while Compher was headed home.
“I just told him good luck with whatever he does next year — if he decides to come back or sign pro,” Ausmus said. “I’ll see him on the flip side.”
It must have stung to see his former teammate off to his third Frozen Four in three years, but Compher’s face didn’t betray a hint of jealousy.
“(Compher) was our captain in Ann Arbor,” Ausmus said. “He’s a guy that everyone looked up to — that I looked up to. Just the way he carries himself. He does the right thing every time, all the time.”
Even on nights like Saturday.
The composure was only more impressive to watch because Michigan’s junior captain isn’t usually much of a talker. He’s brash, supremely confident and competitive almost to a fault, but no one would call him long-winded.
Instead, Compher has been the type of leader that creates high expectations for the people around him with his own performance.
This weekend, he certainly did that.
Friday night against Notre Dame, after being frustrated all evening by the Irish’s physicality, Compher won the game in overtime with a perfect no-look pass to linemate and junior forward Tyler Motte.
With a trip to the Frozen Four on the line Saturday night, he netted both of the Wolverines’ goals — each of them tying the game.
In the end, though, Michigan didn’t have enough. Even with the sting of loss painfully fresh, Compher understood his new role.
The junior stepped out of the locker room as a team spokesman, determined — in Ausmus’ words — to do the right thing.
When Compher was named captain last summer, he took over a team lacking consistency and a program reeling from a deeply introspective identity crisis.
For one reason or another over the previous three seasons, the Wolverines’ leadership had failed to root out a culture of frustration and disappointment. Compher changed that.
“If you lead the team right and get everyone on board, you have the chance to be a good team,” Berenson said in the week before the NCAA Tournament. “I don’t think it happens from day one, but even in the fall, word was leaking out that the players have never gotten along better. We just seemed to think that this was the right group.
“You can’t just create that; you can’t draw it up or force it.”
The success this season — a Big Ten Tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament berth — is at least in part a testament to the stability Compher brought the Wolverines.
As Ausmus headed back to his own locker room, Compher swung his bag over his shoulder and headed down the stairs. He walked past the North Dakota fans lining the walls and disappeared into an expansive garage — his job complete.
Back inside U.S. Bank Arena, the ice was still shining under the overhead lights, but the flame of Michigan’s season had been snuffed out.
As the Wolverines boarded the bus and headed back to Ann Arbor, there were unanswered questions. What could’ve been different, and did they ever stand a chance?
But the real question — the one that Michigan has been trying to answer for three years — is to whom the team can turn in moments of desperation and doubt.
This weekend, and all season, JT Compher provided a resounding answer.