DETROIT — Far too often, clouds hover low over the sports world. Injury and scandal and defeat cast heavy shadows across our immaculately constructed tapestry. Then, finally, if even for just a day or two, the sun breaks through and splashes its rays across the blue backdrop.
A week ago, I wrote that Saturday deserved to be circled and then circled again in red ink. That it could be the day when the break finally came.
And it was the most wondrous weekend, wasn’t it?
The men’s basketball team, after making quick work of South Dakota State at the Palace of Auburn Hills two days earlier, inexplicably torched Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday. The win put Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1993-94, and it cemented the Wolverines once again as a major player in the remaining NCAA Tournament field.
The hockey team was fighting for its life on Saturday. Riding an eight-game winning streak into the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena, Michigan was looking for just two wins. They needed those two wins. First up: No. 2 Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks never had a chance — the boys kept right on rolling, 6-2.
But there was always that ominous, dark cloud looming in the distance. That cloud finally and painfully arrived on Sunday.
“Hell of a run, boys,” a voice called down from the second deck. “Hell of a run.”
It was all that and more. But it was a run that ended with the ice at Joe Louis Arena littered with sticks and gloves and golden helmets: Notre Dame 3, Michigan 1.
For the first time since 1989-90, there will be no NCAA Tournament for the Michigan hockey team. And for the first time since 1986-87, Michigan (18-19-3) didn’t break .500 to finish the season.
Jon Merrill, a junior, had the puck as the final seconds ticked off the clock. He sent it flying down the ice and then he slipped into the boards. He stayed down on the ice for a few moments. There was no reason to get up, nowhere to go.
Steve Racine bent over at the waist, staring at the blue crease. Sophomore forward Phil Di Giuseppe skated over to console the freshman goalie. They’ll have another chance, but that doesn’t ease the sting.
Lee Moffie won’t have another chance. The senior alternate captain, playing his final game with the block ‘M’ on his chest, veered away from his teammates and took a knee in the corner, refusing to look down toward the mob of Fighting Irish players on the other end of the ice.
Survive and advance. That was all they knew; that was their only option. After flailing for five months, this red-hot Michigan hockey team had somehow reached the brink of an impossible NCAA Tournament berth, if only it could beat No. 9 Notre Dame — something that hadn’t happened in four meetings during the regular season.
Michigan coach Red Berenson and the Wolverines had gotten this far. It was destiny, right? It had to be.
But a go-ahead Notre Dame goal just 30 seconds into the third period changed everything; Michigan hadn’t trailed once in the postseason to that point. The Joe was eerily silent. And then, with under two minutes remaining, the dagger plunged deep.
Racine, seeing Berenson wave him over for an extra attacker, started toward the bench. At that moment, Notre Dame’s Jeff Costello picked off a pass and skated toward the Michigan end. Racine hesitated for a split second, knowing that a goal would be the end — the end of the game, the end of the run, the end of the season.
He made his decision, sprinted across the ice from the left circle and dove just as Costello released his shot. The dive was just a moment too late. Game over.
Exhausted, Racine, his sweater covered in snow and loose ice, skated slowly back to the crease that only recently had become his permanent home. A few minutes later, he’d skate to the blue line, his stick slung over his right shoulder like a lumberjack’s ax. He’d be named the all-tournament team goalie. He’d be the last player off the ice, behind the seniors.
But he couldn’t quite save the Wolverines. Not this time.
Somewhere in the twists and turns of the tunnels that weave away from Joe Louis Arena and into the cement jungle of downtown Detroit, James Van Horn still wore the same smile he does every day.
If you’ve ever been to a sporting event in Detroit, you’ve seen Van Horn, standing on a corner, probably just off Woodward Avenue, with a green Hulk fist on his right hand and asking for just a penny or two.
“Hey, go blue!” Van Horn said, jingling his coins to the passersby. They slunk by silently. His tone changed once he realized the outcome.
“More than anything,” he started, moving back to his trademark phrase, “let’s eat ‘em up, Tigers, eat ‘em up.”
That brought back a few smiles.
Yes, it’s time to turn the page, time for the Michigan hockey team to start clean. But, man, wasn’t this a special year? For all the teams faults and failures, it showed more heart than anyone believed possible in its final 10 games.
It’ll be remembered as the team that broke the streak, but I’ll remember it, too, for its improbable run, for its unselfish play in the end, for its grace in defeat.
That ominous cloud did finally come, and it’ll linger, but it’ll be gone soon. There’s plenty to look forward to, and there’s plenty to remember.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.