Former Michigan hockey standout Bill Muckalt sat with his players, as their eyes were glued to ESPNU in their sleeper bus.
Muckalt — now the head coach of the inaugural New Mexico Mustangs in the North American Hockey League — was on his way home with his team Friday night following the Mustangs’ sweep of Corpus Christi.
And with the luxury of having a satellite connection, his players unexpectedly caught a highlight glimpse of what Muckalt called one of the two best moments in his entire hockey career: Michigan winning the 1996 NCAA National Title in dramatic fashion.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the program claiming its eighth championship, with Muckalt being fortunate enough to win not only one, but two national titles (the other coming in 1998) during his four-year career.
“It really got the monkey off our back,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said Monday. “We couldn’t seem to win. 1996 got that behind us. It was so good for our program because it had been a long time since a team won a national championship even though we had good teams. That was huge. That was not only for that team but for all the former players.”
Muckalt was an integral part of the Wolverines’ success that year as he paired up with a former Hobey Baker winner and current Calgary Flames forward Brendan Morrison, and Jason Botterill, the current Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager.
The trio combined for 88 goals and 99 assists during the season.
With the national title contest deadlocked at two in the first overtime period in Cincinnati, Ohio, Muckalt corralled the puck at the lower left face-off circle and threw a wrist shot on net, trying to go five-hole once more on Colorado College goaltender Ryan Bach.
But unlike earlier in the game when Muckalt scored, he was denied this time as Bach laid down his stick to negate any chance of Muckalt grabbing the game-winning tally. However, as the puck rebounded off Bach and lay a few feet to the left of him, Morrison was all alone as he deposited the puck into a wide-open net.
“Michigan was really back on the map in college hockey,” Morrison said last week.
Added assistant coach Billy Powers: “It was one of those plays that almost happened in slow motion. That puck lied there for a couple seconds before Brendan had jumped off the wall. I think you prematurely started to celebrate as he was ready to put the puck in. You saw the wide-open net, and Brendan. You figured this was over.”
The victory against the Tigers in 1996 was the one victory that had eluded the program for 32 seasons.
The year before, the Wolverines lost a heartbreaking 4-3 game to Maine in the NCAA semifinals — the third time in four years Michigan had lost in the semifinals. It had climbed the mountain year after year, so to speak, only to have its feet swiped out from under it before reaching the peak.
On March 30, 1996, the Wolverines were finally No. 1.
“Red turned the program around, and we were finally knocking on the door of winning a national title,” Muckalt said. “To win a national title and to be the best that particular year was a pretty special thing.”
And while the line of Muckalt-Morrison-Botterill played such a key component in the ’96 championship run, Muckalt realized the importance of having a deep supporting cast.
From then-sophomore netminder Marty Turco to defensemen like Mark Sakala and forwards like John Madden and Mike Legg, the Michigan hockey team was concerned about only one thing — winning.
“I think the biggest thing was camaraderie on that team,” Muckalt said. “We really believed, we were there together and nobody cared who got the credit as long as we won. Obviously, to win that for everybody and to win that for Red was special. I remember hugging him after the game, and how proud he was of us, and how proud we were to win it for him.”