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Yes We Do Believe In Miracles

by on February 04, 2010 7:00 AM

It's been 30 years since ABC’s Al Michaels uttered that now-famous saying.

Our 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, made up of college hockey players, shocked the world by upsetting arguably the best hockey team, pro or amateur, ever assembled, the Soviet Union, 4-3 in Lake Placid, NY. They went on to defeat Finland 4-2 in the Gold Medal game pulling off one of the greatest upsets of all time in any sport in any era.

The story has been dubbed the “Miracle of Lake Placid” and is entrenched in the minds of any American who lived during that downtrodden time in our country's history, even if they were not a hockey fan. Those kids pulled off a “miracle” that brought together an entire country and gave us hope.

We are getting ready for our annual “Icer Family Reunion” (a.k.a. alumni weekend for former Penn State Icers) and to celebrate our 70th anniversary as a program. It's also very special for me because it's also the 30th anniversary of the 1980 Mid Atlantic Conference championship team I played on as a sophomore defenseman and the 20th and 10th anniversaries respectively for our 1990 and 2000 ACHA National Championship teams that I was lucky enough to have coached.

What’s relevant about these anniversaries is they all have a bit of a “miracle” surrounding them as well.

Do we in the Icer family believe in miracles? Well, the fact that Penn State actually had a hockey program back in 1939-40 is a miracle in itself. Partly because we did not have artificial ice anywhere around campus, and the team had to practice on frozen tennis courts and play most of its games at the old Hershey Arena, the Duquesne Gardens, or on the road. It was a “miracle” if they had practice ice to skate on!

John Dufford and George Wolbert were members of those early teams and both will be recognized this weekend as pioneers who helped put hockey into the memory banks of Penn State Athletics 70 years ago.

Fast forward to the early '70s and a feisty freshman named Roy Scott (also being recognized as a pioneer) helped lead the charge of faculty, staff and students who wanted to resurrect the ice hockey team at PSU. Thanks to their efforts and an administration willing to give hockey a chance, the Icers made a miraculous return to campus. But it was almost short-lived.

In fall of 1978, the Ice Pavilion was turned into an indoor practice football field and things looked bleak for the Ice Hockey program. Thanks to another “miracle” of sorts, Herb Schmidt and Vance McCullough of PSU Athletics along with Team President Jerry Fry, among others, helped spearhead the movement to have a temporary ice outdoor rink built until funds for a new indoor facility. So for two years we practiced on an outdoor rink or in Johnstown and played “home” games at the Skatium in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

So in my sophomore year we finished the regular season in the MACHC in first place and therefore got to host games two and three of our league championship series (best two of three) against our rival of the day, Villanova.

So off we went to the old Radnor rink outside Philadelphia for game one against the ‘Cats. We got thumped, physically and on the scoreboard, 6-2. The game ended in a vintage '70s style "Broad Street Bullies" bench-clearing brawl.

In the process we lost our leading scorer Thom Horgos, forward Ramsey Barrett, and my regular defensive partner Dean Petracca to injury. I was already playing with a broken hand that limited my puck skills (which were limited to begin with).

We returned “home” to Mechanicsburg facing elimination down 3-1 before we battled back (including a goal I scored ... a rebound bounced off the shaft of my stick into an open net. Hey, they all count!) to send the game into overtime when we scored to force a third and decisive game.

We were up 4-2 on Villanova when they scored a late goal to pull within one. We held off a furious flurry with their sixth attacker on the ice to claim the League championship in “miraculous” fashion! We will celebrate the 30th anniversary of that title this weekend.

Fast forward to February 1990 and I am now coaching the Icers.

In one of our last regular season games, we tied SUNY-Buffalo 3-3. National Tournament host Ohio University defeated that same team 15-1 the following weekend. OU has been our arch rival for years but has a distinct recruiting advantage during that time as our rules allowed for graduate students to play and OU’s team was dominated by ex-Junior A players from Canada. We are seeded sixth and given little hope to advance.

In round one we found ourselves down 5-2 at the start of the 3rd period to another long-time rival Arizona. We scored four unanswered goals in regulation to win 6-5 and set up our own version of “David vs. Goliath” against tournament host Ohio. OU had beaten us the last time we faced them11-1.

One of the senior captains for the Bobcats gave us all the incentive we needed to pull off an upset when he was quoted in the school paper as saying “this is the best team we have ever had and we should meet North Dakota State in the finals.”

Although they had a powerful offense and a physically dominant defense, their goalie had not been tested much and their physical style of play also led to many penalties. Our staff decided we would roll the dice and start a freshman goalie named John Gray, and most of our fans and parents thought we had lost our minds.

In front of a raucous SRO crowd in Athens, Ohio, the Bobcats scored first early in the game but we answered quickly which took them by surprise. We traded several goals in a physical and penalty-filled first period and ended tied 3-3 despite being outshot more than 2-1. This was a moral victory for us and the crowd was stunned.

In the locker room area after the period the two teams got into a shouting match and one of the OU players jabbed his stick at our assistant coach, Ray Lombra. Our boys raced back to his aid and only quick action by security prevented the scene from getting ugly. But it gave us the psychological edge because we had them off their game. The longer the game stayed close, the better our chances for a huge upset.

Co-captain John Ioia scored power play goals in each of the last two periods and our freshman goalie made 49 saves as we knocked out the heavily favored home team 5-3 in a “miracle” win for our young team. The celebration with our players, fans, and parents was amazing!

However, we still had a big test in front of us. Iowa State, a team we had never beaten, was our opponent in the National Championship game. Once again we were heavy underdogs and once again freshman goalie John Gray stood his ground and key goals by State College native Gary “Midge” Hutchison, Senior Mike Cardonick and underclassman Chris Cervellero and Andy McGlaughlin led us to a 4-3 upset win over the Cyclones for our first National title since 1984. Goalie John Gray was tournament MVP. We celebrate the 20th anniversary of that 1990 National Title this weekend as well.

Finally, and just when you thought we were out of miracles, we saved the best for the 2000 National Tournament and what has become known in Icer lore as “The Magic City Miracle.” We went to Minot, ND (“The Magic City” with an average temperature of 10 degrees in late February) with an Icer team that had 13 freshman and a brand-new starter in goal in 5th year senior Mark Scally.

Clinging to a one goal lead in the first round against Illinois we scored two late goals to secure a 5-2 win and set the stage for what even a Hollywood writer would have a hard time dreaming up over the next three days.

A record-high approaching 70 degrees and a home crowd of more than 3,000 strong helped the host team Minot State Beavers to a 4-2 lead with just 8 minutes remaining in the game. The arena was hot and humid due to the incredible heat spell. MSU’s starting goalie suddenly collapsed from heat exhaustion and we quickly scored two goals on their back-up to send the game into OT.

Goalie Mark Scally kept us in the game withstanding a barrage of shots, and 18 minutes into sudden death, senior Todd Dakan scored off his own rebound to keep our season alive.

The next day an exhausted Icer team would get outshot 25-3 in the first period by 3rd ranked Michigan-Dearborn, but Scally would not yield. UMD would score late in the 3rd period but with our goalie pulled for an extra skater, Alon Eizenman scored with less than 30 seconds remaining, senior co-captain Ryan Wick scored five minutes into overtime, and we lived to play another day, this time for the national title against No. 1 Eastern Michigan.

Once again we found ourselves down 2-1 late in the game. With 1:07 left we called a timeout, pulled our goalie for the extra attacker and set up a face-off play which ended in a Dakan deflection between his legs, an EMU defenseman’s legs, and the EMU goalies legs (just like we drew it up…)! On to our third overtime game in three nights. The team was exhausted.

We could have used another miracle right about then, and we got it!

At about 16 minutes into OT, first line wing Paul Crooker asked to rest for a shift. I called for State High resident Kyle Jordan, playing with a broken lower stick hand, to fill in for just that shift. Off the face-off, our leading scorer, Toronto native Alon Eizenman, stole the puck and fed Jordan in the slot. The EMU defense slid out to block the shot, their goalie came way out to cut the angle, Jordan wound up for a big shot, and he partially whiffed. The puck slid innocently off to the side, just past their defense and right to Eizenman, who had circled the net.

With the goalie too far out anticipating a hard blast from Jordan, Eizenman found himself with the puck and an open net. He buried the puck and then got buried by his teammates who rushed the ice in one of the wildest celebrations you will ever see. It truly was the “Magic City Miracle” as that class of 13 freshmen would go on to win three more national titles in a row -- a feat that has never been repeated.

Eizenman and Scally shared the MVP trophy, and both went on to play professionally. Scally remains the only Icer to ever dress for an NHL team (The Pittsburgh Penguins).

The 2000 National title team will celebrate its 10th Anniversary this weekend at the Ice Rink as well.

So do we believe in miracles in the Penn State Icer Family? You bet we do!

Come out and see the current No. 2 Icers this Friday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against rival Rhode Island. On Saturday we will recognize the Pioneers and the championship teams,  and the alumni game will be played at 6 p.m.

So if you are looking for a good laugh and a chance to heckle old has-beens like me, here’s your chance! Our motto: “We’re all guts and no glory!”

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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