“Isn’t that nice.”
That was the local media’s sentiment when the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers won the Atlantic Hockey Association tournament, earning their first NCAA bid. The tournament, which was held in Rochester, was pretty bare; a sea of blue seats and plenty of room to stretch in the press box. The now-famous “Corner Crew” chants and pep band echoed throughout the arena like a single basketball bouncing in a gym.
RIT’s 0-5 start to the 2009-10 season caused local news stations and the lone Rochester newspaper to tune out the Tigers. The blare of Syracuse Orangemen men’s basketball overtook the air waves. While the old boys gushed over Wesley Johnson’s jumper, the Tigers quietly dominated college hockey going 27-7-1 after the slow start and 15-2 in front of the Corner Crew.
But, who could blame the media for ignoring RIT? Head coach Wayne Wilson isn’t exactly Jim Beoheim. RIT has never had a Derek Coleman or Carmelo Anthony (zero NHL players). They don’t sell jerseys in department stores. And, the only households that knew the names of the RIT Tigers were dorm rooms. It was just four years ago that the Tigers won nine games and lost 24 in their inaugural season as a Division I men’s hockey team. Sure, the Tigers had won 20 games twice since becoming a Division I program, but the team had failed to win the AHA tournament and secure a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Even as the Tigers blew through 10 straight games without a loss, nobody was looking. The ‘Cuse volume had been turned up even louder as the Orangemen shot to No. 1 in the country. Rochester’s eyes were fixated Eastward. The Tigers won their final eight games allowing just 12 goals and still remained a fifth page story.
RIT finally got to stand in the shadow of the limelight when “in other news” they smashed Canisius and Sacred Heart 4-0, 6-1 in the AHA tournament. Isn’t that nice.
The Tigers then traveled a few hours down I-90 to Albany, NY, to play the Denver Pioneers. The Pioneers, who came into the NCAA tournament ranked No. 2, are coached by 500-plus game winner George Gwozdecky. Denver’s program produced Olympian Paul Stastny and 125 other NHL players in the program’s history, which dates back to before hockey players wore helmets. The history also includes seven NCAA titles and over 1,200 wins.
Five minutes into the first period, freshman defensemen Chris Tanev flung a wrist shot top shelf past Denver Pioneers goalie Marc Cheverie. RIT Tigers up 1-0. Cheverie, a contender for the Hobey Baker Award, had a save percentage of .932 for 2009-10 season and had already been drafted by the Florida Panthers.
Cool, they have a lead, that’s nice, but there’s no way RIT, who is not allowed to give scholarships, beats the No. 2 team in the country. RIT goalie Jared DeMichiel (a die-hard Hartford Whalers fan) became increasingly confident, stopping 39 shots as the Tigers found a way to grind out a 2-1 victory. The local media, still mourning from Syracuse’s Sweet 16 defeat, finally started to pay attention. They stammered and struggled with RIT players’ names. They yammered with ambiguous, non-specific sports bar talk, using more clichés than the coaches and players.
The Tigers weren’t done. They defeated the University of New Hampshire 6-2 and were headed to the Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit. All the sudden, Rochester was “Tiger crazy.” Front page news. The Rochester media spent the next 10 days looking for every angle from DeMichiel’s helmet (which features a Whalers logo) to center Cameron Burt’s homecoming in the Motor City. I was told by a local anchor “nobody saw it coming.” That happens when nobody’s watching.
The loyal Corner Crew made the trip to Detroit only to see the Tigers knocked off by the Wisconsin Badgers 8-1. They called RIT the George Mason or Butler of the hockey world. They threw around 1980 Olympic references. They called them bracket-busters. They were completely unable to put RIT’s victory in context due to pure ignorance about the sport and the team.
The reality is that RIT isn’t at all like Butler. Butler gives top recruits scholarships, RIT does not have that luxury. They had to lure players who were passed over by every major program. The team wasn’t just an underdog, each player was – in his own way – an underdog. Goalie DeMichiel played for the Junior Blues of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, the Boston Harbor Wolves in the EJHL, the Indianapolis Ice in the United States Hockey League and the Chicago Steel in the USHL. All in a two-year span. Nobody offered him a scholarship.
As the Tigers returned to Rochester after their 8-1 loss, they were greeted by hundreds of those who had been in the Corner all season. The TV crews were there, probably a newspaper guy, too. The homecoming brought an end to the RIT coverage. A local talk radio host interviewed coach Wilson concluding with “isn’t that nice.” It seems we’re still years away from the time that hockey is treated like a first class citizen in the sports media world.
Matthew Coller is host of The Blue Line Show on ESPN 950 Rochester and is an author of the Business of Sports Network.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.