Better than Butler: RIT Hockey’s Miraculous Run

This week I was going to write the second half of my epic March Madness adventure, in which yours truly attended 11 NCAA tournament games in nine days in three upstate New York cities.

There was one slight problem though. Most of the games themselves were epic eyesores. It’s difficult to write about Kentucky’s dominant 62-45 romp over Cornell and West Virginia’s tiresome and boring 69-53 victory against Washington in the Sweet Sixteen. All you need to know about West Virginia’s 73-66 Elite Eight win over Kentucky is that the Wildcats shot 4-for-32 from the three-point line, and that right-hand man Bill Stoklosa and I thought there was a typo on the Carrier Dome scoreboard when that stat appeared.

In between those games, though, sophomore hockey savant Jaime Heilbron dragged me to Albany for the first round of the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament East Regionals. There is no denying that I am a diehard Colgate hockey fan, but I could care less about college hockey aside from the alma mater and its conference, the ECACHL. But Jaime offered a free ticket if I gave him a ride, so I couldn’t turn him down.

We arrived at the Times Union Center in Albany on the last Friday in March. At first glance, Times Union should be condemned. Only 20 years old, the building looks like it was constructed during the Original Six era. The cramped seats are too small, and the drab gray and blue interior is mildly depressing. Jaime and I have to leave a seat between us so we each have enough room. This is made possible because only a couple thousand people are at the first round matinee between the Rochester Institute of Technology and Denver, which figures to be a Denver beatdown before the main event between Cornell and New Hampshire later that night. Why?

Consider these facts:

A 61-year member of Division I hockey, Denver was the top-ranked team in the nation in early March before settling at No. 2 before the NCAA tournament, earning a one-seed in the East Regional. They have made 19 NCAA tournament appearances, reaching the national title game nine times and winning seven national championships. The Pioneers also have 26 current or former NHL alums, and 14 NHL draft picks on its roster. Lastly, Denver is a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the most prestigious and successful conference in college hockey.

RIT, on the other hand, was the second-lowest ranked team in the 16-team NCAA tournament going in and a four-seed in the East Regional. The Tigers have no NHL Draft picks or former players in the pros. They have been in Division I for just five years, and made their first NCAA tournament appearance this season. Most impressively, the school of 14,000 undergraduates does not offer scholarships. RIT is also in the Atlantic Hockey conference, which is the weakest in Division I.

Given this information and the lack of sound in my end of the arena, I try to sleep off my driving fatigue before and during the game. But there’s one problem. RIT won’t let me sleep.

In fact, what I saw at the Times Union Center in New York’s capitol was the beginning of what is now the greatest sports story never told, as the Tigers upset heavily favored Denver 2-1 en route to making the Frozen Four.

RIT forward Chris Tanev scored the first goal early in the game after creating a turnover and shooting a goal over Hobey Baker candidate Marc Cheverie’s shoulder, waking the entire arena and causing a sonic boom roar from the RIT Corner Crew, the Tigers’ orange-clad fan group. From there, RIT goalie Jared DeMichiel steals the show, playing spectacular hockey and making point-blank save after point-blank save. Denver looks demoralized after the goal though, and RIT skates harder and faster to loose pucks. Forward Cameron Burt scores a power play goal midway through the third period on the backdoor that is quickly answered by a Denver power play goal of its own. DeMichiel makes incredible saves down the stretch, and RIT wins 2-1 despite being outshot 40-25. If college hockey was in the national sports media sphere as much as football or basketball, ESPN would still talking about RIT’s run to the Frozen Four as much as CBS is reminding everyone that the Masters—a tradition like any other—is starting today. Thank God for that.

Everyone in the media salivated over making comparisons between the Butler men’s basketball team and the movie Hoosiers. Let me be the first to say that RIT’s recent exploits are somewhat akin to the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, which was lauded in Miracle. After beating Denver, RIT scored three goals in a 1:34 span in crushing Hockey East champion New Hampshire 6-2 to make the Frozen Four in Detroit, which is taking place today, April 8 and Saturday, April 10. By the time you read this, RIT will most likely have sealed its Final Four fate, either in a semifinal matchup against Wisconsin or in the finals against either Boston College or Miami of Ohio. Whether this run will end up as exhilarating and amazing as the Boys of Winter or as heartbreaking as Butler’s end in the men’s basketball finals Monday, every sports fan should look to the west to see if the impossible dream comes true again 30 years later.