By Dave Diamond
The first visible light in the hotel room was the clock radio. The team arrived at 4:00 AM Saturday morning, thirteen hours before the puck dropped for their first of two extremely important games.
"I'll take the floor," proclaimed a groggy Ian Clugston, the first-year head coach. "I'll be out in a minute, anyway."
A bus trip that should have taken five hours instead took about seven, and the players joked about how long and, frankly, terrifying the journey was. The driver had trouble staying in one lane, and veered off-road a couple of times somewhere between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It didn't stop him from doing about 70 miles per hour, either. Did the players really need to be worried about a bus accident on top of the battles ahead of them? It didn't matter, apparently, because the game seemed to be the furthest thought from their mind.
This was just a bunch of college kids headed to the middle of nowhere, and they had a blast with it. You can guess the goings-on: arguments about movie selections, the Goldman brothers playing football on a portable Playstation. And a personal favorite...the suggestion box.
The concept of the suggestion box is to both loosen-up and motivate the players. Each player gets a piece of paper and writes a thought that will be read aloud by the coaches. A few consisted of typical "play hard, never say die" chants, but most were ribs on each other. One even suggested that yours truly play defense instead of the Goldman's.
It was obviously a joke received with great laughter, but the premise was scary. With the team's potential first ever trip to nationals on the line in the College Hockey East vs Metropolitan Collegiate Hockey Conference Showdown, the last thing they needed on the ice was myself, the most valuable spectator. Prideful in being a hard-working team with loads of heart, Hofstra was on the verge of going where their predecessors that once wore the blue and gold could not. All it would take was a two-game stretch in a nowhere town in a time-period of only hours, against two teams that had lost once, combined.
All this to think about, and yet the team was focused on one common coal when the bus arrived just before the sun did. The goal was to go to bed.
10:00 AM Saturday- 7.5 Hours to Game 1
"What was the reason we were getting up so early again?" Ian asked half joking.
It was not all tha tearly, but after arriving so late, any time before noon felt like dawn. Meanwhile, strength and conditioning coach Phil Wolff was awake and dressed quicker than a possessed shopper on Black Friday. The grinding of Phil's blender making an all-important protein drink that he devoured in less than two minutes awoke Ian for good. Their day needed to start long before the players'. Decisions needed to be made.
Breakfast was at Hoss's Steak and Sea House by process of elimination. Nothing else was near the hotel. Not a word was mentioned about the game from either coach, but an heir of confidence surrounded them when the topic was brought up.
"I know we're going to play a good game as long as our hurt guys can make it through," Ian said, and that was a big if.
The pre-game meeting took place back in the coaches' hotel room as they called in captain Steve Wagner and assistant Tyler Kevorkian. The two walked in as proof of Ian's worries. Wagner had a blue cast covering his hand and forearm protecting a broken wrist he suffered only two weeks ago. Kevorkian, praised by coaches and teammates for being such a poised freshman, arrived weak and dizzy. Still, he was amazingly coherent for someone who spent a night last week in the hospital with a sprained neck and concussion after going headfirst into the boards. The questioning from Ian on both players' ability was rigorous:
Ian- "Can you guys give me a whole game?"
Wagner- "I can give you a whole game."
Ian- "Are you sure? How about you can you take a hit?"
Kevorkian- "I hope so (laughs). I'm good to go, whole game."
That was it.
They juggled the lines searching for the perfect line-up. Forward Corey Green was written into the line-up in ink, despite a separated shoulder.
"He's not OK," Phil said. "But he's not hurt enough to where he can't play."
Indeed. Twenty-five players made the trip, but only twenty can play. After an eight-hour bus trip, it is a lot to ask of a player to sit in the stands. But that's part of being a team. Sacrifices: both physical and emotional.
3:30 PM Saturday - 2 Hours to Game 1
With a game in progress and no training facilities in the arena, the team had to be creative to warm-up.
"We're going outside, get dressed," Phil announced with a booming yell into the locker room.
For those who don't know, it is cold in Altoona this time of year. In forty-degree weather, the Pride trudged out to a vacant car garage adjacent to the arena for warm-ups. No lights, no heat, only an echo and cold concrete...a lot like a hockey rink, quite frankly. Some forgot to pack their jump suits, so they stretched and ran in a shirt and tie with khaki pants.
"Watch where you spit!" somebody yelled after hearing the gentile sound of a teammate hocking back and letting phlegm fly.
They couldn't see each other; they used instincts to know where everyone was in that garage. The same instincts that are used on the ice. A certain trust that a player has making a no-look pass in front of his net to a player he feels is there to clear the puck safely out of the zone.
Despite the blindness, these were hockey players equipped with keen senses. I assure you nobody was spit on.
Only ten minutes of a warm-up skate and Ryan Drudy has an ice pack on his right wrist and a worried look on his face. His wrist is badly sprained, which is sometimes worse than a broken bone because it can only be helped with rest, something far from a hockey player's vocabulary. I asked Wagner how his wrist was holding up.
"I played for years with a broken bone in my other wrist so it's nothing new," he nonchalantly said as if I asked him how is day was going. Silly me.
With a bunch of focused faces popping out of a sea of Hofstra blue jerseys, the coach addressed the team with a quote he found online:
"Somewhere behind the athlete you've become, the hours of practice, the coaches who've pushed you, the teammates who believed in you and the fans who cheered you, there's a little boy who picked up a hockey stick, fell in love with the game, and never looked back. Play for him."
Hofstra had a two-goal lead at one point over St. Vincent College and a 3-2 advantage heading into the third period. However, after the Pride allowed the tying goal early, the Polar Bearcats scored with just 1:58 remaining when a loose puck barely trickled by goaltender George Lorenz's outstretched pad. Hofstra lost 4-3.
The team entered the locker room disappointed with the result, but pleased with their effort, as well they should have been. Maybe it was the safety blanket of another game looming only eleven hours from the bus ride back to the hotel. Or perhaps they realized that on Pennsylvania ice, with Pennsylvania referees, they nearly outplayed a Pennsylvania team that was supposed to be better than them. Still, a loss is a loss.
At about 9:30 everyone parted ways to find dinner and, supposedly, get to bed. But after exerting so much energy, it was time for the boys to blow off some steam. They stayed out and enjoyed themselves, exhausted but alive. Most of the players stayed out until midnight before returning to the hotel. Ian's night was spent jumping in and out of bed calming the ruckus that the players were causing, playing practical jokes on teammates by putting a tilted bucket of ice water on the door and then knocking. The bus was leaving for the next game at 6 a.m.
"I take a group of college kids to Pennsylvania for the weekend," he said rushing in and out of the room. "What else can you expect?"
6:15 AM Sunday- 2 hours before Game 2
Everybody is mad. About one-third of the team is angry about the obscene, but necessary, wake-up call at 5:30. Another faction seems restless trying to figure out how to get pumped up for what was certainly a huge game with so little time to prepare. And the third party was fuming. Those were the ones angered by the shenanigans in the hotel as they attempted to rest. Fists flew at one point, screaming and name-calling ensued. Boys will be boys.
They transformed almost immediately when they hit that locker room. They were teammates, brothers, and feuds only last so long in a close family. Everything went the same as the day before. It may as well have been mid-afternoon. At Ian's pre-game speech, it was about 8:30 a.m.: "These guys (California University of Penn.) are the best team we've seen so far. You guys need to take it to them hard. You've got nothing left to lose, nothing at all...let's get fired up now."
The Pride dealt with lousy officiating the entire game, but still battled back from 2-0 down to tie the game at two in the third period. Two more power play goals for Cal, four in total, and the Pride dropped a 4-2 heartbreaker to go 0-2 on the road trip. After the game, commissioner of the CHE told Ian that Hofstra was the best MET team he had seen in the past few seasons.
The bus headed for Hofstra immediately after the game. Everybody was ecstatic to go home. No wins and no sleep is no way to spend a weekend. Plus, the team had their hopes of a trip to nationals shattered in less than 24 hours, and though they knew it, nobody talked about it from Altoona to the George Washington Bridge. Maybe next year for these warriors; tough luck for the seniors.
At that point, Ian talked feverishly on his cell phone, and when he lost service for a moment, he awoke the sleeping team to tell them of the news. A team dropped out of a Philadelphia tournament in early December, and Hofstra had been invited to play. At this event, they will get their shot at ACHA powerhouses like major rival SUNY Albany. A victory over them, on neutral ice, and the Pride would be right back in the nationals picture.
After three days of maximum effort, playing hurt, relying on adrenaline with minimal sleep and missed opportunity, the Pride returned home in the exact same frame of mind that they arrived with in Altoona. A sense of determination, excitement, and most of all, unity, knowing they were again alive. Hockey is not for quitters; it takes a special breed to be a hockey player. Not many can handle the ups and downs of a season the way these guys can.