A title remembered

Walking into Young Arena on that May 20 night, the tension was noticeable. It’s a cliche, but you really could feel the energy in the building.

And that was before any people were inside.

The Ice skate the Clark Cup on May 20 in Waterloo. (Photo by Andrew Smith)

The Ice skate the Clark Cup on May 20 in Waterloo. (Photo by Andrew Smith)

We knew a few things – the Clark Cup was going to be presented that night, and either the Indiana Ice or Waterloo Black Hawks would skate it. Many Ice supporters, myself included, had come straight through on a long charter bus ride to witness it. We also knew it would be the last game for a while for a franchise we had worked for, enjoyed, and poured a lot of ourselves into. What better way to cap it than with a title?

With the lights off in the building, but natural light streaming through the windows, the Clark Cup was being placed on the ice, just inside the blueline, for a photo. A horde of cowbell-ringing fans were on hand to see what they hoped would be a celebration.

Throughout the year, the Indiana Ice and Waterloo Black Hawks were the two best teams in American junior hockey, and they’d proved it through four scintillating, well-played games, setting up a winner-take-all Game 5.

I’ve been around hockey, in some form, for three decades. I’ve watched hundreds of games — pee wee, junior, ACHA, NCAA, all levels of minor pro, NHL, international, you name it — in person. I’ve been a goal judge, broadcaster, statistician, journalist, fan, announcer. These five nights were some of the best hockey I’d seen in my life.

A few of those games stand out. None more vividly than this one.

I got the great fortune of hearing Jim Mirabello’s always-exquisite play-by-play first-hand – and as the analyst that night, hoped I didn’t do anything to detract from it. The energy in Young Arena was tense and electric, and that was before the doors opened. When they actually did, it was cacaphonic … especially when Waterloo scored on an early rebound. A part of me worried the Black Hawks were carrying out how they’d finished Game 4 three nights earlier, with an offensive onslaught that extended the series one more game.

But the Ice rose to the challenge. There are lots of moments pictured in my mind, vividly. The Ice players calmly going through their stretches on the balcony hanging over the end of the rink. The cold building becoming a loud one when the fans were let in. Waterloo’s Cal Petersen intentionally knocking the net off during an Ice rush, and getting a penalty that turned momentum in the period. While Indy didn’t score on the power play, Mitch Hults batted a rebound out of the air and into the net in the ensuing surge that tied the game. The turnover and beautiful slap pass-one-timer that put Waterloo up 2-1 going into the third. Patrick Newell getting – and getting stopped on – a breakaway moments after.The loud, clanging din of cowbells throughout the night. And, as we headed into the third period, saying on-air “I believe the team that scores the next goal is going to win the Clark Cup.” I really believed Waterloo would put a two-goal lead on ice, but if the Ice could get the equalizer, they’d ride the surge to get the game-winner.

And then it happened. Joe Sullivan – another playoff hero, like Hults, who had made big plays throughout, none bigger than his seeing-eye OT wraparound in Game 2 – made another play. He won a puck battle along the wall, and fired it to the net where Petersen made the first save. Alex Talcott was first to the rebound, and reached the puck around Petersen to score the equalizer.

2-2. Half a period to go.

Back-and-forth the teams went, and then it happened.

Jeff Brown called a timeout. Defensive zone draw won by the Ice. Puck comes to Ryan Mantha and he feeds an up-ice pass to Aidan Muir in the neutral zone skating up the right wing. Muir skates to the circle with Brian Pinho trailing. Muir drops the puck for his trailer. Pinho steps into it and fires toward the far post.

My “hockey” eyes are trained to look ahead to the next play. But the puck didn’t hit Petersen … so I wait for it to hit the back boards as it disappears past the goaltender’s leg pad. Nope … it just disappeared. In a split-second that seemed like 15 seconds from the time the puck vanished past Petersen’s pad, it came in “holy cow, that’s in.”

Now, note, I’m on the broadcast. My job is to stay silent, stay out of the way and let the play-by-play guy paint the picture. And I did. No visible emotion (yes, I did silently pump my fist under the table when Talcott scored), just stoic, thinking of the right thing to say to describe the play, and hope I could do it coherently. I’m not sure how it actually sounded, but probably a lot like that.

It seemed like an eternity before the red light actually went on, sticks went in the air. The video replays show quite the opposite – it was a fraction of a second. I’ll never forget that drop pass, that snipe, the puck disappearing, the “oh my, we’re five minutes away from winning a championship” feeling.

There’s more pictures – Jason Pawloski making save after save, a diving, sprawling play to clear the puck in the final 10 seconds (and noticing that Waterloo’s clock keeper stopped the clock well before the whistle blew) – and one final faceoff in the Waterloo end.

The horn blew as soon as the puck dropped, and the scene was sticks and the contents of water bottles flying from the Ice bench and players streaming to the dogpile in the corner, with a small handful of blue-clad fans wearing T-shirts saying “All In” celebrating behind the bench. Within moments, I was on the ice, watching Tyler Pham go to his knees to raise the Clark Cup, and having the good fortune to talk with players, coaches and ownership as they celebrated and skated the trophy.

Jeff Brown had the comment of the night – the best thing about this title is that it came largely with the group of players the Ice started the season with. Yes, a couple of pieces were added during the year – namely goalie Hayden Stewart and defenseman Ryan Mantha – but the core was largely the team that was built at the start of the year. Four solid, deep lines, six outstanding defensemen and two incredibly strong goaltenders, a group that mixed skill, speed and grit, and found the perfect combination to win a championship.

To a man, virtually every player and coach spoke of rising from last place – and even starting winless in the first several games – to being champions, spoke of cohesion, spoke of how special the feeling was (some a bit more, ahem, colorfully than others).

As a hockey fan, there’s nothing like seeing a team you’ve watched all season (or for several seasons) skate a championship cup. As a player, coach, worker, there’s nothing like skating it.

The Ice players celebrated in the locker room and retreated to the team bus, where the party undoubtedly carried on throughout the 7-hour drive back to Indianapolis. The staff, scouts, fans and game workers stayed outside in the Iowa heat for what seemed like hours, soaking in every moment of an incredible journey. There was a sense of finality to the evening – there is at the end of every season, but especially the end of one where we knew we would all, as a staff, be going our separate ways the next hockey season – but one overwhelmed by joy and celebration.

Checking Twitter after the game was loads of fun, seeing all of the well-wishes from throughout the hockey world (and the best was seeing Jeff Blashill specifically name longtime franchise fixtures Jason Burkman and Darren Flinchem in his congratulations) was pretty impressive. Former players – including Torey Krug, who dropped the puck for the previous game – teams from throughout North America, players from throughout hockey … for one night, we were the center of the United States hockey attention. (Here’s the blog post from that night).

It was just one day – one 24-hour trip in many years of hockey. But it was an evening those of us who were there will never forget.

Highlights from that night: