The district hockey final between St. Edward and St. Ignatius Saturday night was the most intense game I have personally witnessed since the U.S. Olympic team beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980.
Back in 1980 the Soviets were lopsided favorites to win the gold medal in hockey. The Americans, mostly college kids, were not considered a factor. But the U.S. held on for a 4-3 victory while a nation held its breath. The tension wasn’t merely thick. It was impenetrable. The Soviet officials, wearing bearskin overcoats and bearskin caps, were located about half a dozen rows in front of me and to the right. I could see their profiles and their grim, unchanging expressions. Everyone was grim, not just the Soviets. The American fans couldn’t believe we had the lead. They couldn’t believe we could hold onto it. There was no laughing, joking, backslapping. Everyone’s emotions were bottled up until the last second ticked off the clock. Then, of course, pandemonium erupted.
For me, the victory was a thrill on a superficial level. On a deeper level, I was able to tell the story to a million readers of The Plain Dealer. Not many people share that kind of memory. There were less than 50 American sportswriters in the crowd of 6,000 crammed into the Lake Placid High School rink that Friday night.
Beating the Soviets, however, did not win the gold medal. The U.S. still had to win one more game on Sunday morning before they claimed the gold medal, which they did. The Americans beat Finland, 4-2, and the celebration has lasted for more than three decades.
I’m probably going to get overly melodramatic for many of you if I compare the St. Ed’s-St. Ignatius game to that Olympic game of yesteryear, but that old feeling came back. Ignatius was a great team, unbeaten with 39 straight wins, ranked first in the state, prohibitive favorites to win the state championship. The Wildcats had defeated St. Ed’s three times this season. The games had been getting closer, but the Wildcats always pulled them out at the end.
And so it seemed the scenario would be repeated when Ignatius tied the score, 2-2, with 6:15 left in the third period. The crowd of 2,000 crammed into the Brooklyn rink expected no less.
But a kid named Connor King scored with 5:29 remaining to put the Eagles back on top, 3-2. Joe Smith, an old friend who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said, “The next five minutes are going to be agony.”
Joe was prophetic, regardless of whose side you were on. For Ignatius fans, the agony was the specter of losing an unprecedented perfect season and, for all practical purposes, the state championship. For St. Ed fans, the agony was waiting for Ignatius to seize the momentum and score the tying and winning goals in the final five minutes. The Wildcats had done that to St. Ed’s just two months ago. The agony and the ecstasy. How would it turn out?
These two teams fought for their lives for 45 minutes. You don’t see this at the Q. You don’t even see this kind of effort in Madison Square Garden. These two teams changed lines every 60 seconds. Players were veritably flying over the boards. Ignatius attacked and St. Ed’s turned them back for the last five and a half minutes.
The players must have been exhausted, almost as tired as the fans who staggered out of the Brooklyn rink.
Believe me, you do not see that kind of drama anywhere. Keep in mind, it cost only seven bucks and the parking was free. However, they sold the last ticket and closed the box office an hour before game time.