The night the streak ended, they rolled out a red carpet.
It was March 24, 2013, at Joe Louis Arena, and that carpet, extending from the rink’s entrance, became the only thing separating Notre Dame from its CCHA Championship trophy.
Its purpose was to celebrate the Fighting Irish, but as the carpet unrolled, bit by bit, it also served to taunt Michigan, which saw its streak of 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances reset to zero that night.
Still in his net several minutes after the final horn stood Steve Racine, embraced by his senior captain A.J. Treais, watching a strip of red cross out his team’s sparkling record.
For the ensuing three years, the broken streak has been all anyone cared about. Racine’s senior class, and those that came after it, were burdened with a historic legacy as a measuring stick. Making the tournament was the expectation that came with signing a letter of intent for Red Berenson.
In 2000, when Mike Komisarek signed his own letter, that standard was apparent.
Even then, Michigan had already appeared in the NCAA Tournament for a decade straight, and he added to that total during his two-year career.
When Komisarek returned to Ann Arbor as an undergraduate assistant coach in 2015, the winning standard neither changed around him nor within him. To him, the goal for the Wolverines’ current squad was simple.
“It’s about getting back to where we were, where we’re supposed to be,” Komisarek said in October.
Saturday, with a 5-3 win against Minnesota, Michigan made damn sure it would be back this year — earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with its victory.
And in a season that has come full circle from 2013, the fact that the Wolverines will face Notre Dame for the first time since that March night seems like a symbol of fate.
The road back to this point has been a long and painful one, to be sure. It only recently became a straight path — one on which Michigan exorcised the demons that have followed it since Racine and his senior classmates were left on the wrong end of the red carpet.
In 2013, they were tasked with starting over when, in reality, a fresh start was impossible. Twenty-two years on the national stage erase that option.
For three years, that pressure continued to mount on their shoulders, and consistently, it proved too daunting to overcome.
Each of those years, the Wolverines entered the conference tournament needing one extra win in order for their season to live on. And every time, their season died there — first against Notre Dame, then in the opening round against Penn State in 2014 and finally in the championship against Minnesota in 2015.
Recollections of mid-season stumbles and late-season collapses began to simultaneously push the 22-year run farther from people’s memories and further cement it as the measure of success.
The team’s legacy was being written, and they didn’t have any way to edit it.
Michigan entered this season having felt the pain that comes in place of a postseason too often. Its players had fielded questions at a final press conference with bloodshot, teary eyes too many times. And while they never said it, it sure seemed like they had heard enough of the 22-year streak they had yet to rekindle.
That’s why, to begin their campaign, the Wolverines didn’t want to leave anything to chance. They didn’t want to scrape into the NCAA Tournament. They wanted to earn their bid in February. They didn’t want to just beat teams. They wanted to bury them.
And while Michigan wasn’t perfect, it started to turn heads, and quickly.
The Wolverines won the Great Lakes Invitational and lost just three games through Jan. 27. They swept Penn State on the season, outscoring the Nittany Lions, 33-11. Freshman forward Kyle Connor and junior forwards JT Compher and Tyler Motte emerged as a first line that could be the engine behind Michigan’s postseason push.
Then it all culminated in a rematch of the 2015 Big Ten Tournament championship — only this time, the script had been flipped.
The Wolverines had their NCAA Tournament bid in hand before the puck dropped Saturday. Minnesota was on the wrong side of the bubble, and Michigan was playing for reparation. The Golden Gophers were playing for survival.
And just like the season before, the team in desperate need of a win had a nail hammered firmly into its coffin.
“I wouldn’t say it was a chip (on our shoulder),” Compher said. “But I think that we had teams — we called it, ‘We owed these teams’ — Penn State being one of them, Minnesota (was another).
“We came here to play in big games. That’s why you come to Michigan, that’s why you want to be a part of this tradition.”
Compher was right; the Wolverines “owed them.” But that would be an understatement.
Minnesota and Penn State weren’t just teams Michigan had lost to. They were two teams that had begun to write the Wolverines’ legacy for them. They were two teams responsible for piling the pressure onto Michigan’s shoulders. They were two teams that continued the wrong streak.
But this past weekend, the Wolverines made a statement. They dominated Penn State. Then they finally won the close game they had lost for the previous three years. For the first time in what felt like forever, Michigan sent another team to a press conference with bloodshot eyes and buried its demons somewhere deep in Xcel Energy Center. It ended another team’s season, and now the Wolverines are back where they were, where they’re supposed to be. And not even that provides enough satisfaction.
“We know the group we have in that room, though, that this isn’t enough,” Racine said Sunday. “We need to go further, so we’re just trying to stay in the moment, be humble and keep working hard and try to get past this (round).”
It’s only fitting that Racine is the man to push the boundaries of what this team defines as success.
After all, he was the man in net when Notre Dame ended the old streak — the same one he’s been measured by his entire career.
Now, he’ll be between the pipes against the Fighting Irish in Cincinnati.
There will be no red carpet waiting that night.
If the Wolverines are really back, they’ll make sure Notre Dame has no chance to see one.