In the end, the only thing that could slow down the Union Dutchmen's convincing march to an NCAA hockey championship was the squall of confetti that burst from the rafters in Philadelphia as the final horn sounded on the title game.
Like spring-sized snowflakes in late March, the white confetti collected onto the ice and rendered any glide with the championship trophy futile. If the Minnesota Golden Gophers had only known, they may have stealthily strewn the neutral zone with the artificial precipitation in the first period of the bombastic national championship game.
The dizzying first period of the title game Saturday night was the best television of the night, capturing the attention of those watching a college hockey game probably for the first time this season. Yahoo! national columnist Dan Wetzel tweeted about the game, Peter King wrote about it in this week's Monday Morning Quarterback, and Bob McKenzie of TSN in Canada was watching and tweeting about the incredible action (Bob's son played college hockey at St. Lawrence).
Ratings for the game on ESPN were significantly up from last year's title game. As periods go, it will be difficult to top that first one, even in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. There were a combined 35 shots on goal with six goals. The attempted shots on goal were well over 60. This was fast, frenetic action that neither coach could stop. It was uncontrollably beautiful.
Much of sports is overcoached. Sometimes, however, the action (especially in hockey) is so wrought with adrenaline, so filled with energy and concentration and desire that the performance of the players is a collected zephyr. You can't stop it, you can't contain it and it is nonstop. The first period of Union and Minnesota in a sold-out arena in Philadelphia was hockey at its finest.
Rising above all others in that first period, and eventually in the entire game, was Union defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (GOSTIS-BEAR), a native of Florida. The future Philadelphia Flyer was fighting allergies all week, but if there was any doubt about his talent or passion it was clearly put to rest in that first 20 minutes.
Gostisbehere can skate, he can shoot and he has a fire in his belly. See you in the NHL sometime next season, kid. With the Flyers brass in the arena watching, Gostisbehere was a one-man wrecking crew. His final line was one goal, two assists and a plus-7. That's right, I said plus-7.
Let that sink in for a minute. In a championship game, Gostisbehere was a plus-7.
Back in January an assistant coach on an opposing team texted me about the man they call "Ghost." It read: "This guy might be the best player in the country. I've never quite seen this before on film from a college kid."
What I liked even more about Ghostisbehere is what I love about hockey players and the game as a whole. Even though he was the only drafted player on a team of late bloomers, Gostisbehere was an absolute equal. He didn't have to buy in, because he was in from the start. He played the title game like his last on Earth, not his last at Union.
During his postgame, on-ice interview Gostisbehere said he felt as though he was blacking out. His attitude reminded me of a portion of what I wrote this time last year before the Stanley Cup playoffs:
In hockey, we sacrifice together and we celebrate together. We seek out the passer immediately after a goal. It's the only sport where the team is truly more important than the individual. And the best part? The players crave inclusion. Wayne Gretzky demanded he be treated the same as any other player. Bobby Orr did not take compliments well because focusing on one player is so foreign -- almost nauseating -- to hockey players. Because they know nobody does it alone. Only a fool thinks anything is done alone.
Why are hockey players selfless? Because the best families are selfless. Many of these players had a parent who woke up at 6 a.m., tied stiff skates with numb hands and drove for hours and hours to hang out at a cold rink. Mom and Dad were all-in. And they loved it. And their kids saw that they loved it, which meant, naturally, that their parents loved them. And when someone is convinced they are loved, they can move icebergs.
Union, with no scholarships, with one star and with a team of unified, committed, late bloomers moved a pair of icebergs (Boston College and Minnesota over the span of three days) and won a national championship.
As I walked out of the arena about 20 minutes after the game, I glanced over and saw Gostisbehere, Mat Bodie and Daniel Carr walk off the ice with the national championship trophy. I had planned to just keep on walking. I've never liked to invade an athlete's celebratory space.
Then Bodie, the team captain, said, "C'mon, Bucci, I know you want to take a selfie!"
Announcers really don't care who wins the games they broadcast. I know I don't. I just work my butt off to have all the numbers memorized, so when someone like Justin Holl finds the puck on his stick with 1.5 seconds left I say his name before he shoots to make the best call that I can for the viewer, and for Justin Holl's son or daughter should he ever have one. I love all 59 Division I teams I cover equally.
So, with adrenaline flowing through them like a meteor shower, I stuck my giant size 7⅞ head between Bodie, a possessed Gotisbehere and an NCAA trophy, while a toothless Carr came in from the flank as he does on the power play. All had just played their final college hockey game and were making the transition into a new life with a paper trail of memories behind them.
Shoot. Score. Thanks again, college hockey.
It's a wonderful life. See you next fall.
On to the Stanley Cup playoffs.