ST. PAUL, Minn. — Even with 24 players and reporters lingering in the Michigan hockey team’s locker room, the place remained silent.
In the corner of the room, senior forward Ben Winnett sat with his face in his hands, tears streaming down his face. Senior goalie Shawn Hunwick walked over and rubbed Winnett’s head to console him. It didn’t work. Winnett’s sobs reverberated through the locker room.
“All I can think about is the game-winning goal,” Winnett said moments earlier.
The season came down to the senior and member of the All-Tournament team losing his man during overtime of the national title game.
This team, the one that tied Mercyhurst in its first game, couldn’t be put down in regulation by the best team in the country. For most of the year, it couldn’t win on Friday night and got swept by Miami, one of the two legitimate national-title contenders it played in the regular season.
Yet, Michigan coach Red Berenson was the only one on the bench who could move after the goal that ended the Wolverines’ season. As players sat with their heads bowed, Berenson came out to greet the players on the ice — the only time he had done it this year. He clapped and tried comforting senior goalie Shawn Hunwick. Hunwick skated expressionless to the bench.
Hunwick had trouble keeping it together during the press conference. Senior forward Carl Hagelin had glossy eyes before he took the podium, and senior forward Louie Caporusso was robotic.
It was the pain of being so close.
But the fact they got this far, the extraordinary circumstances that allowed Michigan to experience this agony, was lost in the shuffle of bleach-blonde-haired men hugging and crying.
When exactly did you believe this team was going to win the National Championship?
When Hagelin’s shot with a minute left on senior night bounced off a defenseman and slid between Jerry Kuhn’s legs, it was lucky. When he put it off the post and in during the final seconds of overtime, something special was going on. When the refs upheld sophomore Kevin Lynch’s goal against Nebraska-Omaha, it was justification.
When Boston College lost in the first round of the West Regional it was divine intervention. And when Hunwick performed two miracles against North Dakota, officially qualifying him for sainthood, God was officially on Michigan’s side.
Nowhere along the way was there a sense that this was the best team in the country. But they were going to win it.
“If you look when we were sitting in Miami, I don’t think anybody thought we were going to go play for the National Championship,” Hunwick said.
They caught the magic that all teams need to go deep in the tournament. And two hours before game time, a throng of Michigan fans lined the players’ entrance, going four rows deep on either side. On the outskirts was senior forward Scooter Vaughan’s mom.
“We have to sit in the same order,” she told those around her. “We can’t mess with the mojo.”
The year had become one long series of superstitions. The underachievers all of the sudden overachieved. Don’t mess with what’s working. You stick with the same lineup for every NCAA Tournament game, even if that means sitting a second-round NHL draft pick. You sit in the same order. You dance to “Can’t Turn You Loose” during the second intermission.
You don’t tempt fate.
This was a talented group of players who bought into the team aspect and rode the mojo to the finals. It wasn’t the best team in the tournament, but, as Berenson said after the North Dakota game:
“The best team doesn’t always win.”
Saturday, the lineup was set, the seating arrangement was the same, the dancing had finished. It was a tied game, but Michigan was going to win. The rituals had been performed.
Then a scrum along the boards turned into a man streaking down the middle, uncovered. One-timer. Game Over. Emptiness.
And more than an hour later, after the seven seniors had peeled off their jersey for the last time, the emptiness was still there. The team filed out to its bus, carrying nothing — there is no consolation trophy. Eventually they’ll see the season for what it is: one that saw a team inexplicably find a way to go further than it technically should have.
But not now. Not when literally 20 feet to their left, members of Minnesota-Duluth posed with the National Championship trophy in the hallway.
So close after coming so far.