If you should ever find yourself becoming disillusioned by the scandals and economics of professional sports, or the big business aspects of college football and basketball, you just might want to check out college hockey. If you do, I can suggest no better place to start than Cady Arena in the Goggin Ice Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. There, you will find not only a truly elite standard of hockey, but an immersive, emotional viewing experience that you will be hard-pressed to duplicate elsewhere. The exuberance of youth is fully on display, and channeled in a positive, albeit sometimes brutal, direction.
As I prepared to cover the Miami vs. Northern Michigan game on Saturday night, accompanied by my photographer (who also happens to be my wife), I had some specific goals in mind. First, I wanted to see how the team was rounding into shape as the CCHA season began. The Redhawks have been tantalizingly close to the national title in the past few years, and are looking to attain the summit in this campaign. Secondly, as my primary responsibility for THW involves covering the Columbus Blue Jackets, I wanted to monitor the progress of Columbus prospects Will Weber, a junior defenseman, and Trent Vogelhuber, a junior center. Finally, I wanted to document the electric viewing environment. Our son is a Miami senior, and a co-conspirator with his girlfriend and the other members of the Hockey Band to stir enthusiasm in the assembled fan base, and consternation in the opposition — particularly the visiting goaltender. As we settled into our posts in the Press Box, we had no idea that these goals would be met in most unexpected ways.
Let’s address the atmosphere first. Unlike Ohio State, approximately 125 miles
to the Northeast, where football tickets are scarce, and hockey tickets plentiful, hockey is king at Oxford. Notwithstanding the fact that Miami is the “Cradle of Coaches” in football, students will stand in line for hours — and sometimes days — to secure the precious seats in Cady Arena. Not that the seats are used, mind you, as all of the students — and the band — stand for the entire game.
Ah yes, the Hockey Band. It serves as the pacemaker for the hearbeat of the game — leading cheers, blasting the roof off with music and generally initiating orchestrated chaos. This is not a small ensemble, mind you, but a full throated subset of the marching band. So popular is the assignment that there are actually three bands, rotating playing duties in the hockey arena. They lead the time honored tradition of having the entire student body turn their backs as the opposing team is introduced, turning after each player’s name to chant “Who cares? ” When the goals start flowing . . . well, it can’ really be described, so it has to be viewed:
If you could not make out the words, the crowd starts by counting the number of goals, then yelling “We want MORE goals!”, followed by a chorus of “Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! . . .” and the phrase “It’s all your fault! ” directed at the opposing
netminder. For those particularly perceptive, you can see that the level of enthusiasm remains as fervent for the ninth goal as it does for the first. Suffice it to say, a constant level of noise , support and pure emotion is maintained from the opening faceoff until the final horn, with periodic surprises, such as the red and blue cousins of the Vancouver “green men.” It is an atmosphere only possible in the unrestrained college environment, and you can’t help but smile at the proceedings.
Now, in terms of hockey, you may have already been tipped off that this one was not close. A 9 – 1 shellacking that most would have expected, to one extent or another. Reilly Smith, a sophomore, cashed in a hat trick, and seniors Andy Miele and Carter Camper combined for 10 points (yes, 10). They each had 3 assists by the end of the first period. Vogelhuber also notched a pair of goals for the Redhawks. Goaltender Connor Knapp was solid the night after his junior teammate, Cody Reichard, had pitched a shutout. Miami was able to maintain possession for long stretches, seemingly at will, and whenever an error was made, a teammate was there to fill the hole. While Miami will face more challenging teams this season, the level of skill displayed by the Miami lines was evident and undeniable. As in past seasons, Miami’s primary goals will be to maintain consistency, avoid untimely penalties, and stay healthy. Which brings me to my next point . . .
Ultimately, this evening was not about the hockey, but about a single young man
— Miami defenseman Will Weber — and the hundreds of other young people in attendance last night. As the clock approached 3:00 remaining in the 1st period, a commotion arose just below us along the boards, well behind the play. Not a fight, but seemingly a collision, not far from the Miami bench. While the identities of those involved were masked by the boards, it seemed trivial, until the Miami participant — Weber — emerged grasping the left side of his neck and moving desperately toward the bench, leaving in his wake a trail of blood — a lot of blood. An EMT ran from his station to the Miami bench and locker room area, and all disappeared from view.
Sometimes, you only become aware of constant noise when it is no longer there, and such was the case in Cady Arena. The young woman next to me assumed a grayish cast, and was clearly stunned by the sight. Her eyes, and those of virtually all present, carried that “Did that just happen?” look of bewilderment and fear that is reserved for the innocent and the catastrophic. It is a look I had seen in 1989 at the World Series in San Francisco, when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, and even those of us who were native to the area could not quite grasp that what had been warned against had finally come to pass.
Due to the obviously severe nature of the injury and the need for significant ice cleanup, the 1st intermission began, and the teams retired to the locker rooms with 2:59 left in the first. As we awaited word, and I watched the students milling about, anxiety palpable in their faces, it occurred to me that the very qualities that make the exuberance of the Miami hockey experience possible also renders the occurrence of a event such as this even more incomprehensible. For the students, their youthful invulnerability was suddenly threatened once again. It was less than a year ago that the team’s student manager, Brendan Burke (son of Toronto GM Brian Burke), was tragically killed in an automobile accident on an icy Indiana highway. As eyes frantically scanned emails and Twitter accounts for word of Weber’s condition , it appeared that they were once again steeling themselves for a tragedy. Another member of “The Brotherhood”, as the team is referred to, was threatened.
Soon, but not soon enough for most, word came down that Weber was stable, comfortable and being transported to a hospital in Cincinnati for further treatment. He had sustained a major laceration from the NMU player’s skate, just below the jawline and extending from ear to chin, but was in no danger. As this article goes to press, Weber may be already home. Though he’ll miss some significant time on the ice, he should be back in uniform this season.
As quickly as the assembled crowd was hushed to silence, the energy and emotion returned as play resumed. The students were as loud, and perhaps louder than before, seemingly deriving energy from having their immortality preserved. For my part, I thought of a young man, just weeks older than my own son, coming closer to the unthinkable than any parent dare contemplate. I thought of his parents in Michigan, waiting and wondering. I also marveled at the resiliency and energy of the students and teammates, who did not miss a beat in celebrating each goal and congratulating each other on a job well done.
I’ll be back at Miami in a couple of months, covering another game, hopefully with Weber anchoring the blue line. I’ll also carry the reminder of the resiliency of the team, and their fans. Youth will be served.