Just 20 miles off the banks of Lake Erie, a small, private school of 2,800 students was in a whirlwind of excitement and anticipation.
Erie city officials such as the mayor and the county executive joined the party. Fireworks blared as the whole town attempted to squeeze into the 1,500-seat hockey arena on Wednesday to bid farewell and good luck to its heroes the Mercyhurst Lakers, this year”s Cinderella team of the NCAA tournament.
“It reminds me of the movie “Hoosiers,” Mercyhurst President Dr. William Garvey said. “Some great kids, the right coach, and when you get that, anything can happen.”
Much like the scrappy, just-got-to-believe basketball team in “Hoosiers,” the Lakers are as unknown as they are unlikely which makes them dangerous.
Even more so is their motto: “Carpe diem seize the day.”
And Mercyhurst has its best chance to do just that, on the biggest stage it”s ever been a part of the Division I NCAA Tournament against a legendary Michigan program that is engulfed in tradition.
While Michigan holds the record for consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with 11 and national titles with nine, Mercyhurst is still an infant program, already a tournament team in only it”s second year of Division I competition.
“If you want to become a giant, you first have to compete with them,” Garvey said.
But this week, Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin got to know what it feels like to be big-time fielding his fair share of conference calls, interviews and pep rallies.
“The phone doesn”t stop ringing,” Gotkin said.
But it hasn”t gotten to Gotkin, as he knows what he”s been through to get here.
“I haven”t forgotten who I am or where I came from,” said Gotkin, who is the first college hockey coach to take a team from Divisions I, II, and III to the NCAA Tournament.
Now, although he”s a coach on the Division I level, his role hasn”t changed.
“The budgets haven”t taken quantum leaps,” Gotkin said. “I mean, I did the laundry this morning.”
Not having a manager or secretary, Gotkin and his assistants do everything from the laundry, to picking up stray pucks, to organizing team flights and road trips. It”s nothing new from the growing pains the program felt when Gotkin first started 13 years ago.
Gotkin fondly remembers holding practice at 5 a.m. at a public rink for the first four years of the program”s existence because Mercyhurst didn”t have a home rink. The Lakers had to make eight-plus hour bus trips to every road game because of their remote location compared to other teams in their division.
It wasn”t until this past year that the school decided to pay for the Lakers to fly to their required destinations, showing Mercyhurst”s commitment to both the hockey program and the student-athletes. Instead of having to miss Thursday and Friday classes, the players can leave later on a plane and not have to deal with the struggles of make-up work.
This will make it easier on the Lakers when they travel to Grand Rapids for their NCAA regional game against the Wolverines this weekend.
But the thought of competing with Michigan never crossed Mercyhurst”s mind until three years ago when Garvey had to make a decision which sport was he going to give Division I status?
“We could only supply one varsity team at the time,” Garvey said. “Erie had a huge hockey following and there were no college teams in the area and we”re right across the lake from Canada 20 miles away. It was natural for us to concentrate on hockey. We wanted to make a significant impact in hockey.”
Little did Garvey know how quick the impact would occur, as the program is a few years removed from nearly being knocked down to Division III once again as Division II was drying out.
That”s when the MAAC conference decided to expand into the college hockey world, and it didn”t take long for the Lakers to dive in headfirst winning the conference crown and tournament title in just it”s second year in the league.
“It”s obviously a great lift to our program and a great bunch of kids,” Gotkin said. “They work hard on and off the ice and they do a lot of community service.”
Many players have to hold outside jobs in order to make ends meet, as the Lakers only hold 10.5 scholarships. And it costs a pretty penny to attend Mercyhurst $24,000 a year.
But Mercyhurst”s bountiful location just 20 miles from the Ontario border gives the Lakers an advantage when recruiting some of the top players from Canada if they make the grade.
“The first thing we look for is character,” Gotkin said. “The big thing is having good, solid character. The second part is academic aspect, and the third thing is hockey ability.
“Believe it or not, it”s third on the list.”
The school-first attitude doesn”t mean that the Lakers don”t have talent on the ice, however, as they boast five players who tallied over 30 points this season giving them reason to be optimistic.
When asked for the prediction of Mercyhurst”s first-round contest with Michigan, Garvey merely replied, “Well I do believe in the David and Goliath story.”
Langfeld Update: Michigan senior Josh Langfeld injured his knee twice in the past month. He”s not at 100-percent and didn”t skate yesterday. Michigan coach Red Berenson has even considered sitting him for the first NCAA game against Mercyhurst tomorrow to prevent further damage that might hurt his chances of a quick return.
But Langfeld said he”s going to play regardless.
“I have to play,” Langfeld said. “There”s no way I can sit in the stands and watch my team lose. I would love to do it all over again.”