[West Regional vs NoDak, 1998/Kalmbach via Bentley Historical Library]
The story is almost too perfect. You expect the details of a hockey story to flow from odd angles, to be all jagged edges and shoulders and elbows and yet this story is writerly and neat and almost formulaic. It follows the kind of structure script writers teach in their intro film classes: the protagonist runs through the gauntlet and passes a test that changes them, then uses their newly girded spirit to pass the ultimate test and reap a reward barely fathomable at the start of the journey. From humble beginnings, etc.
The necessity of icing an unusually high number of freshmen dampened expectations at the start of Michigan’s 1997-98 season, but there were enough upperclassmen remaining—Marty Turco, Bill Muckalt, Matt Herr, and Bobby Hayes, to name a few—to keep them from falling off precipitously. Yes, skating four freshmen defensemen was different, but close games can be won with a Hobey Baker finalist, Muckalt, leading the offense and one of the best goaltenders in the country, Turco, as the last line of defense.
And close games—one-goal games, to be precise—soon became Michigan’s calling card. Entering the NCAA Tournament, sixteen of their 42 contests had been one-goal games, including two of the games that got them to the GLI final and two of the games that got them to the CCHA Tournament final. The GLI and CCHA finals against Michigan State and Ohio State, respectively, left their mark. Both were losses and both snapped long streaks for the Wolverines, who had won two straight CCHA tournaments and nine straight Great Lakes Invitationals.
Those losses, however, ended up helping Michigan in their NCAA Tournament seeding. Not only were they placed at the West Regional, which happened to be held at Yost this season, but they were seeded third. This put them on the opposite side of the bracket from Michigan State, the one-seed and no. 1 overall team in the nation, and Ohio State, the no. 6 team in the country yet somehow the four-seed. Two teams they’d had a problem with all year, their two in-conference archrivals, were on a collision course.
That didn’t mean that Michigan’s road to the Frozen Four would be easy, though. North Dakota, the defending national champion and no. 2 team in the USCHO poll, was waiting in the wings. Michigan would have to fight the temptation to look ahead to that game and first dispatch six-seed Princeton, which made the Tournament by winning the ECAC and was listed last in USCHO poll’s “others receiving votes” section.
Mel Pearson, assistant coach: Weird game. It just seemed like we were either looking ahead or...there was something going on in that game and we just didn’t have it and there was nothing going right for us. I think part of that was Princeton but I don’t think we respected them enough as a team. They worked hard and they didn’t give us anything and I think we just thought we were going to come in and throw down our sticks and they were going to fade away and we’d blow them out and go into the regional final but it didn’t work out that way.
Innocent play from the sidewall down near the zamboni. I can’t even remember who threw it at the net but somehow it hit a couple guys in front and went right between the goalie’s legs. We didn’t even have a player in front of the net. I think it went off of one of their players and went in the net. Once that goal went in it just seemed like, Okay, here we go. The crowd got into it a little bit. Princeton had played an absolute great road game. They didn’t let the crowd into it for the most part but once that goal went in we started to play better.
The thing I remember is it was just a weird goal, literally. One of our guys backhanded it towards the net, it hits one of their guys, a defenseman, goes off a skate between the goalie’s net and it’s in. It’s like, there’s nobody there. It’s one of the weirdest goals I’ve ever seen. Did we have anybody in front? I don’t think there was. It’s strange. It’s just like an act of the hockey gods.
[After THE JUMP: The hockey gods have a field day]
Bill Muckalt, forward (1994-98): Mark Kosick was in the corner and I was going to the net and he flipped the puck and it went on edge and it was like...I don’t know. It snuck between the goalie’s legs and probably didn’t have enough on it to get to the back of the net. It was a really fortuitous bounce to say the least. But that’s how we ended up winning that game. That’s what I remember specifically about that game.
Marty Turco, goaltender (1994-98): That was real close. In fact, you can look back at the Mark Kosick goal and, you know, he couldn’t shoot it that hard. He was just trying to chuck it in on net while his whole line was changing. Then Jeff Halpern, their superstar player, it just hit the top of his stick and it was a weird bounce and the goalie wasn’t expecting that bounce. It just was total fortune, the good fortune of Yost. That’s kind of what Yost did for us and what we needed and our students brought us home the next night. That’s what I remember.
They weren’t a great team. They certainly were scrappy and obviously deserved to be in the tournament. They were playing good hockey. I can’t say we ever really took too many people lightly, but you’re not expecting...didn’t know what to expect, really. They came out and just were scratching and clawing and we got one break and had to make a couple saves and boom. You just turn around and scratch your head and you’re like, Okay, well that one’s done and we didn’t have to put too much thought into it, because we had the no. 1 team in the country sitting there waiting for us the next night.
Red Berenson, head coach: It was unbelievable. The Princeton goal was a one-goal game. We scored on a lucky goal. It was a hard-fought game. We couldn’t get going. There’s no question that Princeton didn’t have the record that we had and they were the lowest seed and we were the higher seed and we had home ice so I know our players, they thought this would be an easy game or not as tough a game as if we were playing Minnesota or someone like that. I think our team wasn’t as sharp or as wired, and I’ve seen it before in regional games where nobody plays well the first game. They all play better the second game; it’s too late for one of the teams. I thought that’s where we were.
We were vulnerable in that game and our goalie had to play well and that was Turco and we couldn’t give him much and goals were hard to come by. It was just one of those games where we were lucky to win. I don’t think the shots were that dramatic. I don’t think we outplayed them by a big margin. It wasn’t like when we got upset by Air Force, you know, where we outshot them fifty-some to fifteen, but this was not that kind of game. Princeton was a good team and they didn’t give us much. But the next night…
[GOBLUE Magazine collection at the Bentley Historical Library]
The Next Night
As expected, Ohio State won and moved on to face Michigan State, which was the beneficiary of a first-round bye. Michigan State took a two-goal lead in the second period that they relinquished before the frame was over. From there, the teams traded goals and scoring opportunities through overtime. Ohio State defenseman Andre Signoretti smashed a rebound past Michigan State’s Hobey finalist Chad Alban to send OSU to the Frozen Four.
Bouncing Michigan State from the tournament has to be the best thing Ohio State’s hockey program has ever done for Michigan, and Michigan’s players undoubtedly appreciated OSU’s assistance in sidelining the nation’s top team. More important in the moment, though, was what the game had done logistically. MSU-OSU going to overtime pushed Michigan’s game against North Dakota back, leaving the players with lots of unexpected, and in some cases unwanted, time.
Berenson: Now, the next night, it seemed like everything--our whole team, our staff, our fans--there was a sense of urgency. North Dakota, they were the no. 1 seed and those were the days of the Regionals being awarded--like, we applied for a regional and we would play at home but we weren’t going to be the no. 1 seed the way our record worked out, but we had home ice.
Dr. Jamie L. Nix, hockey band director: We didn’t even win the CCHA that year, I believe. We were kind of underdogs even though we had a really good season and we’re playing North Dakota, the previous national champion. I remember there being a lot of energy going into the game but also, oh man...it was nervous more than it was excited. The game sort of bore that out.
Pearson: We just tried to make sure our players stayed focused. I think the important part is you need somebody in the locker room to keep you loose and focused. We probably had a couple guys in there that could do that pretty well. You want to be focused but at the same time you can’t be so uptight that you can’t go out and play or feel your legs. I think that was maybe the biggest thing for us.
Who could keep the room loose?
Oh boy, you’ve probably got Gassoff in there. Billy Muckalt would be one of the best. He was just a loosey guy, you know. He was that way, but when the puck dropped he was as intense as anybody.
Bobby Hayes, forward (1995-99): I knew it was going to be a tough game. I remember not being able to get the game started on time, which was awful for me because it was Ohio State and Michigan State prior to us and it went late, the game went into overtime. I remember putting on skates and taking off skates and not knowing what to do. I don’t know if that helped me or not, but I just remember knowing it was going to be a super difficult game. I think North Dakota was no. 1 that year coming in to the Regional. I had faith in my guys, Turco and Billy Muckalt. We had great leadership there.
Bubba Berenzweig, defenseman (1995-99): We didn’t have any TVs in the locker room, so I think we were just watching from outside. I think we were just peeking out. We did miss most of it. At some point I believe that we were all just in the locker room, sitting there, getting ready.
Bill Muckalt, forward (1994-98): They lost, Michigan State lost, and we’d had a hard time with Michigan State that year. I don’t know if you want to put that in there, but anyways, the crowd erupted before the game when we were in the locker room and the locker room was shaking.
Berenson: It was overtime, Michigan State and Ohio State. The rink was packed and it was emotional. Michigan fans weren’t sure who to cheer against but I think they ended up cheering against Michigan State. It was a heck of a game. Ohio State ended up going to the Frozen Four that year, as we did. It was quite a game and I was watching the game, but our players, they were watching it also and so they knew. The next game wouldn’t start for 45 minutes after the end of this game, that’s kind of the rule, and so there was no rush but our trainer was running around the rink finding bagels and snacks for our players because they had a pregame meal at probably one o’clock and here it is, it’s already nine o’clock and we haven’t even started the game so we had to get something in the players’ stomachs and so on. But he did a good job, Rick Bancroft. We had a similar problem in ‘96 in Cincinnati.
Turco: It was such a different feeling like nothing ever because we struggled against Michigan State that year; they had our number. We lost to Ohio State in the CCHA semifinals and we had two teams in our league that were playing before us: our rival and the team that had our number gets beaten. Our fans are going crazy. They don’t like them. I’m not saying they’re cheering for Ohio State but they knew what was at stake and it’s the NCAA Tournament, you can’t go ahead and predict anything. It just set the stage for us, and this team was good, man. North Dakota was unbelievable.
Berenson: Some of the Regional games here were unbelievable and our fans recognized it. It wasn’t just our fans, but it was mostly our fans, you know. The other team got to buy two or three hundred tickets and there would be three other teams so it wasn’t all our fans, but they got into it pretty good.
Then the game started. Our fans stayed. It was like a carryover of emotions. I think some of the Ohio State and Michigan State fans left and the Michigan fans filled up the building and away we went on a memorable game.
Megaphone Man, student season ticket holder: That wasn’t a traditional student section because they opened it up and we ended up sitting in the student section but I think we ended up sitting in the last row kind of in the freshmen area. It wasn’t all students around us.
Berenson: We got in a tough game. We had two goals called back. We had players get misconducts arguing with the linesmen. There were two brothers that were linesmen that just seemed to lose their poise or their professionalism and we ended up suffering for it. [Ed. A—It was Bill and John Jones.] It was one of those games where there was so much going on.
Jumping Out… Staying Out
Much of what was going on in the first period went against Michigan. The Wolverines finished the second period down 2-0, and there was only so much they could do to reset in the locker room. Matt Herr was called for slashing near the end of the first period, then Andrew Merrick was called for boarding; Michigan was facing a two-man deficit for the first 34 seconds of the second period, then another 4:47 down a man.
ESPN’s chyron to open the second period did little to stem Michigan fans’ esophageal erosion: it reminded viewers that North Dakota was 20-0-1 when leading after one period.
Pearson: Well, we just told them to stay with it. There was a lot of hockey left to be played. We didn’t have our best period but we couldn’t change what had happened [and] we had something to say about the future and what happened in the game. I just remember we got a five-minute penalty to start the second. Here we are, had a good talk, we go down on the ice and then the refereeing just didn’t seem...just didn’t go our way.
Muckalt: We were just like, ‘We’re okay, guys.’ It would have been Turcs, myself, Matty Herr who would have said something like, Okay, we’re okay here, guys. I do remember I think we were down 3-1 [Ed. A—It was 2-0] in that game and there was a 5-on-3 and Marty stood on his head, made three or four saves, we got the puck out to Matt Herr coming out of the penalty box and we went from the game would have been probably over if they scored there compared to Matt scoring. I think he scored five-hole [Ed. A— He did].
Pearson: Five-minute penalty and we had to kill that off at this critical juncture in the game. It was 3-1 [Ed. A—It was 2-0 but obviously felt like 3-1] at the time and we had to kill a five-minute major. And all of a sudden what do you know, we kill it and Matt Herr steps out of the penalty box, gets a breakaway, goes out and scores. The place goes crazy and from then on we had a hockey game. I just remember it’s another one of those weird things: just steps on the ice and the puck comes out and he gets a breakaway; he’s behind everybody from the red line out.
Turco: They came in and just...we were trying so hard and they pushed back so good and scored a couple goals. We take a penalty, Matt Herr goes to the box and just make a couple saves and then all of a sudden boom, right off the glass right on Matt’s tape and he walks in and just wires that thing, shot it from the breakaway and scores.
Now here we are. Now we’ve got a chance going into the third period.
Pearson: That, to me, was the turning point, killing the penalty and then that goal. Got some momentum, got the crowd into it. I remember that building was as loud as I’ve ever heard or been in or seen.
I think that goal when Herr came out of the penalty box, I think that was really...I mean, the fans are so upset with the referee and the score and it looks like everything’s going down in flames and they could score as many as they want on a five-minute major. That goal, to me, that was the goal that really, more so than Bobby Hayes’, [was loudest]. Some people will tell you different but to me, that was when I noticed the building really went crazy.
Dean Blais, North Dakota head coach, in The Michigan Daily (3/30/98): We had them, basically. If we would’ve went [up] 3-0, then game over.
Hayes and Blue
The euphoria of Herr’s goal had yet to wear off when Bobby Hayes appeared to score a shorthanded goal to tie the game. That goal, however, was disallowed due to a Michigan skater in the crease. About a minute later, North Dakota went up 3-1 on a shot from a bad angle that caught Turco in the process of standing up. Then Muckalt, Michigan’s Hobey finalist, found himself alone in the slot, wristing home a beautiful saucer pass from Mark Kosick. Muckalt’s 32nd (!) of the season kept Michigan within one; it looked as though Dale Rominski tied the game with a few minutes to go in the second period, but it was waved off for interference. Even so, the tide had turned on North Dakota going into the third period.
Muckalt: I think I got the next one on a power play. Kosick made a good pass to me. [Then] we tied it at 3 and then we just kind of took the game over.
Hayes: I remember the goal. I’ve watched it a ton, but I’ve always remembered the goal. I remember just being super opportunistic and seeing guys reach for pucks and knowing that my guy’s going to get the puck. I know Matty Herr picked up the puck and I remember just knowing that we had them where we wanted them on that particular play. I had been beaten defensively a couple of times, but I just knew we had them beat that moment where we had the puck inside the blueline. I knew something was going to happen. I didn’t know I’d score at that time, but I knew we were on some sort of fast break and we had them beat.
Turco: It seemed like it took forever even though it was a few minutes left then Bobby Hayes scored the fadeaway, I like to call it, goal. I don’t know at what time that was at its loudest but it was either after Matt Herr scored but probably have to go with when Bobby Hayes scored to take the lead after we tied it up, came back from two goals down. It was just like, There’s no way this is happening.
Hayes: Loudest ever. Loudest Yost has ever been. Loudest ever. Just erupted. It was incredible. The tickets were different for that game. My parents and family would always sit behind our bench but for that particular game my parents were sitting on the other side of the visitors’ bench, so they were down like third row next to the visitors bench, so after I scored we all sort of went toward the North Dakota bench and somehow glanced up in the stands and saw my mom and my dad and a friend of mine who came in from Chicago that I played junior hockey with, Billy Zuccaro, but I just...it was just complete chaos in there and the crowd was, at that moment, as I’ve ever heard it.
I was on the ice so the ice wasn’t shaking, but I bet you if you were in the bleachers, yeah, you probably would have felt something.
Muckalt: It just went absolutely crazy [when going up 4-3]. The seats, the stands were rattling. The rink was almost...it was shaking. It was crazy. Just to see the passion in the fans and student section. Yeah, it was electric.
Nix: It was so loud. It was so loud. I can remember everything was so loud, especially when it got to the third period and when Michigan started making that comeback. It got so intense.
Incredible, incredible. You could hear it in the student section too. They’re almost shouting they’re singing [‘The Victors’] so loud. It’s just pandemonium.
Hayes: Once the puck went in the net and I looked at the clock and there was over three minutes to go, I said, “Oh dear, that’s a lot of time. Wish I would have scored with thirty seconds left, not three minutes left.” I look back and I know we had Marty Turco in net, so there was no worry there. I know we had guys that knew how to play really good defensive hockey. We had great defensemen and great defensive-minded forwards, so I knew we would be able to make good plays and close out the game to advance to the next round.
Muckalt: The crowd that night for that game against North Dakota, I’ve never—I don’t know even in the National Hockey League if I experienced the energy and electricity that was in the building when we beat North Dakota.
Megaphone Man: That game was so crazy that we were so wild we ended up breaking the wooden bench we were on just from jumping up and down on it so much with the way that game went. From there, that spawned the “Break the bench” chant that we would do anytime even at Crisler or Michigan Stadium--anytime people would start jumping on the benches, we would start chanting “Break the bench, break the bench, break the bench” and that came from that game where we literally broke the wooden bench that we were on. That was amazing.
Turco: It might be the greatest game I ever played in. You know, it really could be just because it was Yost and it was so loud and to come from behind twice.
But I’ll tell ya what, it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t at Yost. I got no qualms saying that publicly. If it were somewhere else, I can’t see our fate being what it was. You never know. We played at Yost, Michigan State lost, we came from behind and Bobby Hayes scored the winner with two minutes left in the game. It was surreal.
Surreality Begets Reality
Michigan’s victory sent them to a familiar destination in a geographically unfamiliar—and inhospitable—location: the Frozen Four in Boston. Michigan made short work of New Hampshire, eliminating them with a 4-0 victory that set the stage for Michigan to get a taste of its own medicine (or at least a taste of the generic equivalent). The Wolverines would have to beat Boston College in Boston’s Fleet Center if they were going to finish the season as national champions; they did, with Josh Langfeld netting the deciding goal deep in overtime. Michigan may not have been able to hang as many banners as usual after the season, but they did make a strong “quality over quantity” argument.
This story, though, isn’t solely about the banner. It’s about the steel the banners hung from, the brick and the mortar, the Jason-style masks and block M sweaters and homemade signs, the music and the din and the deafening roar and the one weekend where all those things came together, pushed a team to a title, and defined a decade of excellence.
Hayes: Of all the Michigan hockey things that I continue to watch or see or [people] bring up, it’s that one goal. I think I have one goal on YouTube. Of all the goals I scored, which is probably less than forty or fifty goals, that one is actually on YouTube. People, if I tell them I played hockey at Michigan of course everybody wants to go to YouTube and see if there’s anything on me and they’re like, “Oh my god, I saw this video and it was from you.” That goal was phenomenal. It was just unbelievable. I love watching the video. I love watching the bench celebrate after I scored.
It was just an unbelievable accomplishment for our team. It wasn’t a great year for us. I can’t tell you how many losses we had, but I know it was probably doubled from the year before. When you double your losses, it feels like you’re losing a ton but other teams lose just as much as we did. But the year before I think we lost four times, so it’s like the earth is coming to an end for us. Standards were super, super high for us. Expectations were so high. It was a lot of fun to be a part of and for that much faith, for a lot of people to have that much interest in our program and to expect so much from us was fantastic. The recruiting, the players, the commitment, the dedication, the will: these guys were great, great Michigan guys.
If it weren’t for a couple players leaving Michigan early, I don’t think I would have been there. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play there. I got picked up late by Michigan. It was like a dream come true for me. I had no other offers on the table. Nobody else was entertaining me playing for them. For me, just to get the opportunity to play for Michigan was fantastic. To play at Yost was incredible. It was absolutely a dream for me. It was the best four years of my life, no doubt.
Berenzweig: If you talk about where that home-ice advantage really played a big role, there was no bigger game than that. We weren’t supposed to win that game and I think that’s really where it helped. Quite honestly, that’s kind of what set us in motion for the next two victories, even though they weren’t home. Although that environment at the Fleet Center that year was unbelievable. Playing Boston College in that arena was pretty spectacular too. That was just a fun year. That was a fantastic year.
I just remember the feeling more than anything. Nothing specific. The place was just going nuts. I do recall the North Dakota players didn’t even understand what happened to them. I think that afterwards there was probably plenty of bitching about having to play the game at Yost. We just caught them off-guard. It was an amazing experience. The energy was just incredible.
Muckalt: That was an unbelievable experience that night against North Dakota in that environment against a great team. Just to win that game and have that Regional at Yost was special.
Nix: Lord…I think I remember that being probably the most epic sort of game I was ever a part of, and that’s including the championship game. That was amazing to win the national championship, but that game was the one that got us there.
We weren’t feeling that great but we still stayed in there in terms of the energy and then when the tide turned, four or five minutes left in the game to go up 4-3, that moment was like one of those sports moments you never forget. There’s all this release of energy that had been building and building and building and “Can we really do this? I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do this.” You know how hockey goes, and we didn’t want it to go into overtime because we thought we’d lose there. That’s hockey. I think that was probably the greatest moment that we experienced in Yost, at least during my time.
Pearson: It was a great game just because of the back-and-forth. It just felt like the whole building was shaking. There’s a lot of talk now about bringing the NCAA Regionals back to college venues and that would be a case for why you’d want to do it; just the atmosphere and the craziness.
Now, obviously North Dakota was the higher seed so they probably wouldn’t want that, but anyway, it was a crazy game against a really good North Dakota team. It was a special night and obviously you have to find certain ways to win games and we found a different way to win two games to get to the Frozen Four.
Berenson: North Dakota was the no. 1 team. There were so many things that happened in that game, it was unbelievable. They were the better team; better team on paper, their season had been better, but when they got in Yost, I can’t tell you they were better. That was an upset but Yost was the difference. If we had been at North Dakota we wouldn’t even be talking about it.
And that building, I remember it just shook. Like when we tied the game, you could feel the building shake. The people up in the press box were hanging on; they thought it was coming down. You can’t manufacture electricity like that and excitement and that building had it. For the players that played in that game, they’ll remember that.
Pearson: Thank god Yost is built like it is with all that steel and brick. It wasn’t coming down, but it felt like it.