Niko Porikos grew up in an NTDP billet home. Cool story.
It was loud. It was dramatic. It was legendary. It was historic.
It was the weekend Jed Ortmeyer achieved greatness. It was the weekend a mascot was ejected. It was the weekend Ron Mason coached his last game, and Ryan Miller played his last game. It was the weekend the CCHA Humanitarian of the Year almost murdered a dog. It was the weekend Denver stole Michigan’s locker room. It was the weekend the NCAA reconsidered its regional hosting policy.
It was one of the greatest sports experiences of my life. And incredibly, it was ten years ago this Friday.
You wouldn’t have expected this if you watched the first game. Ron Mason’s Spartan squad played so lifelessly against Colorado College that they forgot to even pull the goaltender (Michigan arch-nemesis Ryan Miller) until it was too late. I was preparing for a standard, slightly-louder-than normal playoff game against St. Cloud when I heard it: the chant that irrevocably signaled that the weekend would be among the most memorable in Michigan history.
“WE WANT MOLLY!”
“WE WANT MOLLY!”
“WE WANT MOLLY!”
On March 22 and 23, 2002, the six-team NCAA Hockey West Regional came to Yost Ice Arena. The teams were Denver, Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan, Saint Cloud State, and Colorado College. The two days of hockey that those teams produced comprised the greatest weekend in the history of Yost. You can find the results in a database, and the results will tell you that Minnesota beat Colorado College and that Michigan beat Denver to advance to the Frozen Four. Those were the results.
This is the story.
The Molly Game: Yost at its Craziest
Michigan was a four seed drawn to play St. Cloud State as a 5 seed, a rematch of the West Regional final from the year before in Grand Rapids. Early pregame talk about the game surrounded St. Cloud’s inability to win in the NCAA tournament (the program didn’t win a game until 2010) and Michigan’s presumed home-ice advantage.
The conversation changed when the Michigan Daily picked up a quote from SCSU on-ice cheerleader Molly McGannon, who told the St. Cloud Times that she was treated poorly by Michigan fans in Grand Rapids. Her quotes spread all over town. “They’re horrible people,” she said. She further predicted that, on Michigan’s home ice, “They’ll be worse.”
She was right.
The initial team warmups were a normal affair, but as soon as the Michigan team left the ice and the band had concluded its pregame rendition of “The Victors,” the two sections reserved for Michigan students erupted in loud “WE WANT MOLLY!” chants. When Saint Cloud cheerleaders and the Husky mascot, Blizzard, emerged from the entrance behind the north goal, the noise became a roar.
As the cheerleaders performed their standard pregame routine of skating around in circles and waving pom-poms, the students showered them with catcalls and insults. It was loud, menacing, and for the husky mascot, infuriating. The routine ended as the Saint Cloud players took the ice from the north endzone; the students began waving and howling “Ooooooooooohhhhhhhhhh” expecting them to depart promptly. They did not understand that the cheer team procedure involved remaining on the ice almost until faceoff; following their exit, cheerleaders traditionally entered the grandstands for the hockey action during the period.
The cheerleaders would not be entering the stands at Yost.
Michigan took the ice and began its customary counter-clockwise warmup skate. Star defenseman Mike Komisarek noticed that two cheerleaders were standing in formation on Michigan’s half of center-ice, and as he skated around he very deliberately lowered his stick and tapped the back of the girl’s skates, nearly causing her to fall. After “The Victors” concluded students resumed taunting the cheer team, whose members were now so psychologically shattered that they could only exchange terrified glances at each other.
During player introductions the cheerleaders continued to be jeered on the ice, occasionally interrupted by the introduction of players. When each Michigan player was introduced, the mascot would skate up to them and take fake-swings at their heads with his hockey stick while spewing taunts. He was not being ironic.
Following introductions, the cheerleaders finally left the ice to a muffled C-YA chant as the teams huddled around their respective goals. The Husky, however, refused to leave, and a linesman eventually had to corral him and physically escort him to the north exit, behind the goal Michigan was huddled around.
That’s when the mascot speared defenseman Brandon Rogers.
And that was when backup goaltender Kevin O’Malley, who was named CCHA Humanitarian of the Year just the week before, launched himself toward the exit. He went fully airborne, blasted straight through the linesman, and attacked the mascot just inside the door. It was total chaos.
Then the actual game started.
It was a good one; Michigan charged to a 3-1 lead in an electric first period, chasing Husky goalie Dean Weasler. Enigmatic freshman winger Milan Gajic scored the goal of his life, a behind-the-back spin-pass to himself behind the goal followed by a gliding skate out front and a roofed shot. But the moment everyone remembers was this one, perhaps the best hit in Michigan history, served by the peerless Jed Ortmeyer.
St. Cloud crept back into the game, trailing only 3-2 in the third, but star forward Mark Hartigan missed a wide-open net after deking past Josh Blackburn. St. Cloud could not recover, and Michigan won 4-2.
It was time for Michigan to play #1 seed Denver.
The Denver Game: Yost at its Loudest.
Michigan’s new locker room, still a sparkling part of the facility, was much nicer than the other three locker rooms available for regional competitors. In the week leading up to Regionals, Denver made a stink about this and Michigan was ordered to vacate its locker room and allow top seed Denver to use it.
After the game, Red Berenson said, “Maybe they shouldn’t have taken our locker room away.”
This game doesn’t get the legendary treatment of the game the day before, but it was my favorite part of the weekend and one of the best sporting events I have ever witnessed. Many fans who were there say that it was the loudest they’ve ever heard Yost Arena; the only game that comes close was the ’98 regional game against North Dakota.
It was a wonderful game. That ’02 Denver team was terrific, and they played a defensive, checking style very similar to the MSU teams of the era. Goalie Wade Dubielewicz was a dominant player, and after their WCHA title many favored them to win the national title.
After a scoreless first period the teams traded five goals in the second. Michigan seemed to be in good shape up 2-1 until Mike Komisarek attempted to kill a penalty by grabbing the puck and throwing it 150 feet down the ice; the resulting 5-on-3 allowed Denver to tie the game, and they took a 3-2 lead a short time later.
Denver never gave away third period leads--they were 28-1 when leading after two. The crowd was nervous, or at least subdued; I was terrified. This was it, the season on the line, needing a goal against an impenetrable team.
Eric Werner tied the game 4:47 into the period. The crowd was back. Raucous “Go! Blue!” chants traded sides. Every hit was cheered, every shot exhorted. Michigan took control of play, but as the clock ticked down overtime seemed certain.
Jed Ortmeyer did not come to Michigan as an exceptional offensive talent, and NHL scouts never drooled over his physical attributes. He had the face of a teddy bear. There were always players on Michigan who were more imposing, players who were better skilled. But Ortmeyer was a remarkable leader and a tireless worker. And he lived for these moments.
With less than two minutes left, Mike Cammalleri fed him the puck in the neutral zone...
(Look closely for the Michigan player who pulls the net off its moorings to allow the rest of the team to pile on top of Ortmeyer. Red trains smart players.)
Ortmeyer’s goal blew the place up. I’ve attended UM-OSU football games at both venues; I’ve been to games at Texas A&M and LSU; I’ve been to Red Wing playoff games; but I’ve never been in a place like that. The audio on the recording simply does not convey how ear-bleedingly loud Yost was. The Denver players couldn’t look away from the crowd--they were beaten, it was over, and they knew it.
Often forgotten, the officials stopped the game for ten minutes to deal with a timekeeping problem. The crowd roared unceasingly throughout the stoppage. When retiring rink announcer Glenn Williams gave his celebratory “You’re Welcome!” to the students, they went nuts. When Eric Nystrom flipped a puck from center ice into the open net, the place went bonkers again.
At the conclusion of the game, after the handshakes, Ortmeyer organized an improptu fan salute, before it was a regular procedure. The players gathered in the center circle and faced outward, grins on their faces, and raised their sticks in the air. The crowd gave one last, deafening cheer. Triumph.
What a weekend.