GRAND RAPIDS — Fourteen NHL draft picks, three first rounders, two 50-point scorers, a Hobey Baker finalist, a superstar goalie and the winningest coach in Michigan history. Oh yeah, and 10 seniors. That’s what made up this year’s Michigan hockey team. That’s what this team was — a team that had the tools to win it all but once again fell short in the NCAA Tournament.
After the team’s 4-3 loss to Colorado College on Saturday, Senior captain Eric Nystrom put it best: “With the talent we had in that locker room this year, anything short of a national championship was disappointing.”
And there it is — plain and simple. Nystrom knew it, and the rest of the team probably did, too. For students in my senior class, there has been one national championship in our time at Michigan: The field hockey team in the fall of our freshman year. We go to probably the best university in the country for sports, and we can’t win any championships.
And I have news for all of the juniors at this school: this year’s hockey team was your best shot to see a natty. The Wolverines were preseason No. 1 and, when the playoffs came around, were playing their best hockey of the year. They brought a 14-game unbeaten streak into the NCAA Tournament and dismantled Wisconsin on Friday night in the first round. They had the talent to do it. But they couldn’t.
With the talent we had in that locker room this year, anything short of a national championship was disappointing.
There’s a tendency after a game like this to say that Michigan just got beat by a better team. After all, Colorado College was the No. 3 team in the nation and the top seed in the region. The Tigers came from the terrifying WCHA — the conference that amazingly houses all four of the teams in the Frozen Four. The nation’s leading scorer, Marty Sertich, is on that team. And guess what, so is the second most prolific scorer in the country, Brett Sterling. So Michigan was “supposed” to lose that game, right?
But that’s taking the easy way out. The truth is that there is no excuse for losing a game like that. The Wolverines had a three-goal lead just minutes into the second period, and they blew it. They were winning when the third period started, and they couldn’t hang on. They were the better team for a lot of the game, but not when it counted. They didn’t get beat by a better team — they lost to a team that they should have beaten.
With the talent they had in that locker room this year, anything short of a national championship was disappointing.
If you’re looking for answers, stop now. The players don’t have them, the coaches don’t have them and I certainly don’t have them.
The loss left everyone in Van Andel Arena — except the 100 or so Colorado fans — speechless and left me searching for some sort of explanation to put in this column. I rode home to Ann Arbor in the backseat of our University-rented minivan about as speechless as the Michigan players must have been on their ride home. Here’s what I’ve come up with: There is no good explanation.
This Michigan hockey team’s inability to win the big game defines what athletics have been like in my four years at Michigan — the way the team lost this weekend defines Michigan athletics, as well. Every year, we have teams with potential that can’t quite make it happen. Every year we have a fluke loss, a bad call or a mistake that costs us an important game. Every year, my friends and I sit around on the couches in our house and talk about how this year is going to be the year — for football, for basketball and for hockey. This year we had 10 seniors. Last year we had come off two straight trips to the Frozen Four. It’s always something.
“Every year we say, ‘Learn from this experience.’ ” Nystrom said. “But when are we going to finally learn? We’ve blown leads, we’ve been there, we’ve been in the games and haven’t found a way to win. You have to take it. You don’t get back here every year.”
This weekend was just another missed opportunity. And the seniors on the hockey team will now graduate without a championship that they were more than capable of getting. The rest of us will leave with a field hockey championship.
With the talent that we’ve had in our locker rooms over the last four years, that is disappointing.
Ian Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.