In its first ever trip to the Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference’s annual tournament as a participant in good standing, the Vanderbilt Commodores ice hockey club finished the weekend with a 2-1 record and an impressive haul of medals and hardware that was highlighted by the tourney’s third-place cup. Even with a hard fought 4-2 loss on Saturday versus Alabama, the boys found the experience to be an overwhelmingly positive and gratifying one as the team played its best hockey of the season.
“We represented the Vanderbilt sweater well,” said senior captain Matt Kaminsky. “We wanted the big trophy badly but we can all walk away from the weekend with our heads held high. I can’t tell you how proud of am of our guys.”
Kicking Off The Tournament
Thanks to a dramatic come-from-WAY-behind OT win over Georgia two weeks prior, the VU hockey team entered the tournament as the SECHC East’s 2nd seed which afforded them the opportunity to play Auburn, a club just two years into its existence. Compared to the prospect of playing Ole Miss, a team that had beaten the ‘Dores twice in January, playing Auburn was at least on paper the more favorable draw.
“We worked hard for our seed,” said senior assistant captain Tom Trepanier, “but we weren’t looking past Friday night. We knew we had to take care of business in order to get into the semis on Saturday.”
Take care of business they did as the Commodores skated to a 7-3 victory over the Tigers. Highlighted by two goals from sophomore Brad Pesce (named the Player of the Game for Vanderbilt), a goal and three assists from Kaminsky, and a goal and one assist from sophomore Eliot Rosenfield, the win was resounding.
“We got the job done,” recalled senior Jack McCallum, “but at the same time we weren’t completely satisfied with the result. Regardless of who we play, we need to buckle down and always compete at a high level. We could have played better Friday night, and that feeling became a theme for the rest of the weekend.”
The win landed the Commodores in the tournament’s second of two semifinal games the next day versus the University of Alabama Frozen Tide, or as the boys called them …
Some Historical Perspective
The last time the Vanderbilt University ice hockey club faced off against Alabama was nearly two full seasons ago on Friday, October 1st, 2010. At the time, Vanderbilt was two games into a rebuilding effort following two straight years of disciplinary probation with the SECHC (due to spotty, unreliable participation). In that game (which you can read about here), Vandy fell 9-3 to a Tide team that was supremely disciplined and conditioned.
Fast forward to February 2012 and the story heading into the two teams’ semifinal match-up could not have been different. Following that thrashing in Pelham, Alabama, the Commodores had strung together an impressive 32-8-1 record over two seasons. Gone were the days of no shows and apathy for the boys in black and gold. Vanderbilt would arrive Saturday holding its head high as a force to be reckoned with, a “team” in the true sense of the word, bent on taking a good solid crack at dethroning the SECHC’s elite franchise.
“We were fired up,” said goalie and senior assistant captain Brenden Oliver. “Like Taylor Swift before a concert at the Ryman [Auditorium], we were ready to take on the big dogs.”
Other club members shook their heads disapprovingly at the analogy but echoed Oliver’s sentiments.
“We were ready to bring the ruckus,” barked a charged up sophomore forward Alan Leeser. “R-U-C-K-U-S. Boom.”
Some Recognition (And Hardware) Before The Puck Dropped
Saturday’s festivities kicked off with a series of special moments even before the game’s first face-off.
As the second of two semifinal games, the Commodores and Tide were able to watch their would-be Sunday opponents Florida and Georgia duke it out to the final buzzer of their contest. Down one goal with less than a minute left, Georgia scored to level the tilt and seemingly send the game into overtime with just under 40 seconds remaining.
“I remember coach telling us to cool our jets on getting ready,” said freshman Harry Londoff. “I was thinking, “Man, who knows when we’ll actually start our game?'”
Londoff’s question was answered just moments later when right off of the subsequent face-off a Florida winger picked the puck out of a scrum of humanity in the neutral zone, skated down the left side of the ice, and snapped home the eventual game winner with 0:20 on the clock.
“As quickly as coach told us to hang tight, he popped back in and told us to buckle up,” recalled Londoff. “And that type of energy pretty much carried the evening through to end of our game. It was unbelievable.”
Indeed it did with the next act in the evening’s script centering around a pre-game ceremony to honor the SECHC’s award recipients for the 2011/12 season as well as to recognize a very special honoree for the weekend.
First up was the all-SECHC team, and for the first time ever the Vanderbilt Commodores placed not one but two players on the roster. Sophomore defenseman and Minnesota native David Crowe was named a second team honoree while Oliver was named the league’s third team goalie. Also honored was coach Thomas Bernstein as the league’s coach of the year.
Shared Bernstein, “As I said to the boys following the game, the awards are a testament to the hard work put in by everyone in the program, particularly the seniors on the team who had been through some tough years at the start of their careers. They had always had the skills and will to build an amazing hockey experience for themselves but just needed a little help with organizing, and that is the legacy they are leaving as they head towards graduation in May. The awards are all collectively an acknowledgement of the strong work of the entire club – players, coaches, parents, and fans included – and that feels pretty awesome.”
“What a way to fire into the biggest game of the season, right?”
|Newly minted VU Hockey fans
Chief Warrant Officer James Joyner
and daughter Taylor
The ceremony concluded with the league honoring the tournament’s sponsor, the United States Army, and its guest of honor Chief Warrant Officer and wounded warrior James Joyner.
As reported by HockeyY’all.com, Chief Joyner’s story is a remarkable one. “A native of North Carolina, [Chief James] Joyner is a veteran of two tours in the Middle East, one during the first Gulf War and another in Afghanistan in 2011-12. It was during the latter that he suffered serious injuries that have required multiple surgeries, with more to follow. He continues to serve with the Guardâ€™s 20th Special Forces Group in Huntsville as he recovers from his wounds.”
Captains from each team presented Chief Joyner with a gift representing each school – Vanderbilt gave the Chief a commemorative 20th anniversary hockey jersey – and the Chief humbly accepted the gifts and cheers of appreciation on behalf of his follow servicemen and women.
Following the ceremony, Chief Joyner then carved out space in the bleachers directly next to the glass for a front row seat for the final contest of the evening – Vanderbilt versus Alabama. His allegiance slanted towards the Tide at the start, little did the Chief know that in 20 minutes he would be rabidly taking up the cause of the Black and Gold.
Let the drama begin.
Out of the gate, it was clear Vanderbilt was not facing an average ACHA hockey club. The Tide’s passes were crisper, cuts faster, and checks harder than virtually any team they had faced all season.
The elevated pace yielded the game’s first goal just 1:34 into the first period when Crowe, who is accustomed to imposing his will on average SECHC forecheckers, turned the puck over to an Alabama forward while attempting one of his trademark spin-o-ramas on the left side of the Vanderbilt defensive zone. The Tide forward quickly slid the puck back to a trailing forward in the high slot who fired home a laser just above Oliver’s blocker hand.
“They were a lot faster than what we’ve seen for most of the season,” recalled Crowe. “I was good with that though, it got me into the game and I settled into a nice groove after that.”
“No one panicked,” said Bernstein. “We pulled ourselves together and went to work.”
They certainly did as the game seemed to turn in favor of the ‘Dores, highlighted by a spectacular goal off of the stick of McCallum, a top-shelf wrister that the senior fired even as he was falling awkwardly.
“9 times out of 10 I miss that shot,” confessed McCallum. “But not this game. Not tonight.”
The first period concluded 1-1 and the Commodores left the ice as confident as ever that they could pull off a Miracle-esque win. In fact, that’s all the boys could talk about – how the weekend was playing out to the script of Miracle.
“We were seriously playing the Russians,” said junior forward Kyle McCann. “Even to the point where we were facing the tournament’s best team in the semifinal verus the final, it just seemed like the moons were aligning for us.”
Interesting fact – while they may not have been aligning specifically for Vanderbilt, Venus, Jupiter, and Earthâ€™s moon were literally aligned on the Saturday evening of the game. No joke.
So there the boys sat in their locker room, recharging between the first and second periods tied 1-1 with the Russians. Could the evening get any more dramatic?
Taking a moment to leave the locker room and talk strategy with Assistant Coach Jonathan Holston, Bernstein was greeted by an enthusiastic Chief Joyner. (Paraphrasing) “Coach, I’m so fired up, you guys are playing your guts out. I came in rootin’ for ‘Bama but man, I’m behind Vandy 100% now! You guys can do this!”
The Chief’s enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that Bernstein asked the Chief if he would do the team the honor of bringing the boys out for the second period. Graciously, the Chief obliged.
Donning his army fatigues and a presence that is impossible to give sufficient credit to in words, the Chief fired into the locker room with a message for the ‘Dores. (Again, paraphrasing) “Boys, if you give everything you’ve got for 40 minutes, you can win this thing!” Referencing the black and gold of West Point, he rallied the Commodore troops saying, “You’re wearing the right colors and you have the heart to win this thing. Go make it happen!”
Unbelievable. The script of Miracle had just combined with the narrative of Rocky 4 (i.e., “If you can change … and I can change … we all … can change!”) to create one of the most dramatic nights any of the coaches or players had experienced in their combined 275 years of playing hockey. Particularly because of who the Chief represented – our United States servicemen and women overseas who are risking their lives to protect our country – the next 40 minutes took on a greater meaning for the players, something they’ll never forget.
“What a special moment,” said awestruck sophomore Joey Grisko. “Totally indescribable.”
The second period ended as the first had, with a 1-1 tie, and so all eyes and attention turned to a frantic third period.
Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the task proved increasingly daunting as Alabama scored two goals at the 12:25 and 8:44 marks to seemingly put the game out of reach.
Said Coach Holston, “We were playing well, they just made two great plays. Good teams are going to make good plays and score good goals. We needed to respond accordingly, and we did exactly that.”
With 3:46 left in the game and Vanderbilt pouring on every ounce of pressure it could muster, Tide forward Clay Link was tagged with a tripping penalty (only the second for Alabama and third between the two teams all night) that breathed life into the desperate ‘Dores players. Kyle McCann capitalized, not only scoring his first goal of the weekend to make it 3-2 but also drawing a penalty in the act of shooting to keep the Commodores on the power play.
2:35 left. Down 3-2. Goalie pulled for a 6-4 advantage over the Tide.
Shot … wide. Shot … save. Puck flipped out into the neutral zone – regroup – face-off.
Corner scrum … shot, shot, chip, cover up. Face-off.
As the seconds ticked down, these were coach Bernstein’s mental notes which in their brevity speak volumes about the high drama of the moment. It was a breathless push that ultimately concluded when a Tide player chipped the puck to neutral ice and a fellow teammate fired home the deciding dagger, an empty-net tally at 0:35.
Needless to say, the Vanderbilt club was incredibly disappointed to lose on Saturday, but the players and coaches knew they had little to hang their heads about. They had given everything they had to win the game but in the end simply lost to a better team.
“I’ll never forget a few moments following Saturday’s loss” said a contemplative Bernstein. “I had each of the referees actually thank me for a great game. Fans of Alabama … they were shaking my hand congratulating our boys on a tremendous effort. For [the Vanderbilt players] to have that kind of impression on the folks in that rink on Saturday, it says a lot about the type of game they played. Hell of an effort.”
It certainly was, but the team’s work was not done for the weekend. They had traveled to Huntsville to play 180 minutes of hockey, and 60 more minutes remained. Next up? The Georgia Bulldogs, a club the ‘Dores knew well having just played them two weeks prior.
|Chief Joyner, Senior captain Matt Kaminsky,
Senior assistant captain Brenden Oliver, and
SECHC Commissioner Sarge Day
There was no letdown on Sunday morning. Vanderbilt controlled play for 3 periods, and although sophomore sensation and SECHC league MVP Peter Kacer scored his obligatory goals, the Commodores skated to a convincing 5-2 win powered by two goals from Ben Ross and a goal apiece from sophomores Jack Delehey, Jordan Zauderer, and Pesce.
The win landed the ‘Dores in third place for the tournament, a fact that the boys celebrated with the zeal of a first-place champion. “The way those guys celebrated third place,” recalled assistant coach and media guru Ben Gatlin, “if and when we actually win the championship, I’m almost afraid to see how crazy they’ll be.”
The win and bronze trophy sets up a perfect situation for the Commodores as they aim to lock in win number 21 on the year in the season’s final contest, the I-40 Face-off versus the University of Tennessee Ice Vols. Technically an exhibition game, the boys have no intention of taking the March 31st tilt against their in-state rivals lightly.
“We are on a roll, and we intend to keep that momentum going,” said McCallum, who along with Kaminsky, Trepanier, Oliver, and graduate student Ryan Weekes will be playing their last games in the black and gold for Vanderbilt. “It’ll mean a lot to go out as winners, and with just a little bit more focus and hard work, we can make that happen.”
Looking Ahead To Bridgestone
Mark your calendars folks. On Saturday, March 31st, 2012, at 1pm at Bridgestone Arena, the Vanderbilt Commodores ice hockey club will take on the Tennessee Ice Vols in the second annual I-40 Face-off. Admission will be free, VU hockey merchandise will be available, and some awesome hockey action will be on display so please join us for the excitement!