Their passes weren’t as sharp and their shots weren’t as precise, but one thing remained crystal clear after 10 years: They were still champions.
On Friday night, during the annual Michigan Summer Hockey Showcase, the 1996 NCAA Champions were honored in the under-35 alumni game by being grouped together as a team to play against the rest of the under-35s. It was the first time Wolverine fans saw the team play as a group since that magical year, and soon after the opening face-off it was apparent what 10 years did to a team that was once the nation’s best.
“We were all sucking wind after about the second shift,” said Mike Legg, who scored the most famous goal in Wolverine history against Minnesota during the semi-finals in ’96. “The lungs were burning.”
And so was the back of the net . the ’96 alumni’s net. The rest of the Under-35 group (the Blue team in this game) trumped the former champions 10-1. A 10-year break from playing together will do that to a team. It’ll make it that much harder to do the things that were, at one time, so simple.
Ten years ago, the same 18 guys skating at Yost on Friday night could’ve probably finished each other’s sentences. They not only knew where everyone was on the ice at one time, they knew where everyone on the ice would be. During that season, the team scored a combined 242 goals. To put that in perspective, last season’s squad scored just 147. But 10 years is a long time, long enough for everyone to go their separate ways – even if they won a national championship together.
“It was a blood, sweat and tears thing,” said Legg of the ’96 season. “(But) you grow apart and it’s sort of disappointing in that way. You’re used to living with these guys. It’s sad. We’d all like to live together again, but I guess with life and marriage and family, everybody grows apart, and you have to continue on your own path.”
That path may continue to be dominated by sticks, skates and pucks (1996 Hobey Baker Award winner Brendan Morrison is still a forward for the Vancouver Cunucks), but for most, life after college hockey is just life after hockey (Legg is a fireman; Chris Fox, a neurosurgeon).
Think about it: In 1996, you’re kings of college hockey, enjoying college life to the fullest without a care in the world. Now you’re just another civilian, working 9-5 and coming home to a wife and kids. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just different
If there was one thing apparent at the Michigan Summer Hockey Showcase, it’s that elite athleticism doesn’t last forever, but the passion for the game will always burn. The ’96 team may not have looked like the same team that won a national championship (for one, I’m sure Marty Turco didn’t have his children waiting for him after he lifted up the national championship trophy), but you could tell these guys still enjoyed the game.
As I waited to speak with Legg, I noticed he remained on the ice until everyone left, even Turco, who was playing with his children. During his interview, I found out that it was a practice of his to always be the last man off the ice after every game at Yost.
Even after 10 years, some things never change.
Especially the title of 1996 NCAA Champions.
– Bosch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org