Best hockey game in 32 years

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.

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6 Responses to Best hockey game in 32 years

  1. Chris Andrikanich says:

    Sorry I missed it, thanks for the recap. Will I see you in Columbus on Saturday as St. Eds takes on University? My brother’s final season. It will be a great game, I am sure.

  2. Sean says:

    Dan,
    While it is great to see high school hockey in Greater Cleveland get the coverage it justly deserves, I have to disagree with the comparison made to the Miracle on Ice.
    You see, there was another game from 23 years ago, on the same date on a Saturday night, that more succinctly compares to the game that launched American hockey as we know it.
    In 1989, St. Ed’s was a powerhouse whose only competition was a Padua machine powered by future NHL and college players. Meeting them in the District Final was a Trinity High School team that had floundered around .500 all season until reaching the playoffs and winning it’s way into the District Final. This was a game that was expected to go much the same way the U.S.-Soviet game was back in 1980 – veritable no contest.
    But something magical happened that night at the Brooklyn Recreation Center. After surrendering a 3-1 lead to Ed’s, Trinity, led by an all-star goaltender who took on a Jim Craig-like presence all tournament long, scored two goals in the third period to tie the game. The game would then go to the most exciting thing you may find in all of sports – sudden death overtime playoff hockey. One overtime would pass, then two…and a third…in each the tension and exciting kept building and building as St. Ed’s tried to put the upstart Trojans away, but would be turned away time and time.
    Finally, in the fourth overtime, a ticket to the State Final Four was punched…not by the powerful Eagles…but the Trojans found the back of the net to touch off an explosion of emotion seen only once before. Like their powerhouse counterparts nine years earlier, the St. Ed’s Eagles that didn’t immediately leave the ice could only stare in wonder and the team in blue and white was a mass of bodies and shouting and climbing the board to high five fans. Th emotion in the building last night brought only one question, “Can you believe it?” For the members of the 1989 Trinity Hockey Team, it was like Al Michaels was there to deliver his “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
    So, while what you witnessed on Saturday night is a great testament to the game of hockey and what the players put on the line each night out, I have to respectfully disagree with your comparison. I may not have seen the game on this most recent March 3rd, but having been there for the one 23 years ago, there is only one game that earns the comparison to that February night in Lake Placid.

  3. Too bad this article didn’t appear on the front page of the PD…….where it belonged. Typical media bias, again to St. Ignatius. Had they won, not only would it have been front page of the sports, it would have been front page of the papaer as well. Ahhhhh, doesn’t really matter though. The young men on the Eagles know and so do the young men on the Cats. In the end, no one will ask “Who did you guys beat for 39 wins?” The only question will be “Who did you guys lose to?”

  4. Lynn Greenaker says:

    As a Senior parent for St. Edward, you can only hope that it doesn’t end here. The players and parents of both teams wanted the win badly. I wanted St. Edward to win and yet your heart ached for the St Ignatius players and their unscathed season. What a way to end it. It is hard not to cry for it is over let alone smile for what you have just accomplished. Either way, no matter who would have won, it was a game that will never ever be forgotten. This documentation was exactly how we all felt right to the edge of our seats (when we were sitting). I cannot wait for Columbus next weekend and to read the highlights to follow.

  5. Ray Mitchell says:

    I think the Plain Dealer missed a great game. If you were there, you will remember that game for a long long time.

  6. Ray Mitchell says:

    Our family shares your analysi of this classic game. We were sitting in the first two rows to the left of you. The St. Ed’s team did themselves proud.

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