(POV) Utica College Men’s Hockey: How to be on the right and wrong side of history in one night

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Photo courtesy of Joey Domizio

Matthew Breault, Assistant Sports Editor

Boom, he was checked so hard that I was almost certain the plexiglass boards were going to shatter and the color of his jersey would stain the glass. The adrenaline shared among these young men seeped throughout the entire Auditorium.

The intensity is something I never thought I’d feel stepping out of my gray Honda Civic on a windy, yet shiny Friday evening in early April. The pandemic struck just over a year ago, and now being able to attend a live sporting event just a short time later was a privilege.

As I made my way to the front of the Adirondack Bank Center, I noticed small groups of people wearing orange and blue. They rightfully claim their title as the best hockey fans in Division III. 

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For 14 consecutive seasons, the Utica College men’s hockey team led the average Division III hockey attendance. Before the pandemic hit last season, the Pioneers had 57,703 fans and averaged 3,394 during their 17 home games. Only 400 fans got to see the Pioneers during the 2020-2021 season.

If you were unaware of the pandemic, the entrance would look like an apocalypse to you. There were 15 men in tight-fit black suits, wearing face masks and face shields, one weapon away from getting prepared for a riot. Yet, their jobs were simple. They had no weapons, just an infrared thermometer to ensure the safety of everyone in attendance.

Scattered around the Auditorium were 400 people ready for playoff hockey. Each person in attendance was entirely unaware of what was about to go down, though it was bound for something historic. 

The people in front of me were laughing alongside their family members. A couple of people to my left smiled under their masks as they posed with the ice in the background, trying to post to Instagram and Snapchat before the puck drop. A few rows behind them sat a younger couple crunching on some nachos and sharing chicken tenders like they hadn’t eaten since before the pandemic started.

For around 20 minutes, the yellow and purple Elmira jerseys and the white Pioneer jerseys circled both of the team’s respective sides of the ice. Since the arena had fewer people in it than normal, the sounds being made on the ice were amplified. I shut my eyes for a brief moment to soak in the surrounding environment.

Ksssh-ksssh, the sound of the skate blades shedding through the fresh sheet of ice. Tap-tap-tap the sounds the sticks made as the players stickhandled their way to the net. These sounds were something euphoric for hockey fans to hear in person.

After both teams left the ice, only two players remained. Seniors Jamie Bucell and Adam Eby stared each other down from across the ice like a classic Western staredown. As the Zambonis were eager to clean the ice, Eby decided to leave first giving Bucell the crown of hockey’s most interesting superstition, “the last player to leave the ice.” In a comical manner, Eby circled back onto the ice after Bucell headed towards the locker room.

Soon after the puck was dropped, the eyes in the crowd were glued to the action like a lion ready to pounce on its prey. In the middle of a line change, the Pioneers tried to start a fast-break down the ice.  Fwww-cluck, the saucer pass missed the stick and slid down the ice into the boards for icing.

Photo: Joey Domizio

Early on, both teams were aggressive as expected. After a few turnovers on both sides, the hits started becoming more prominent.  When a Pioneer tried to cross the offensive blue line; whump right into the boards. The crowd wasn’t happy, but Jeffrey Zero, the backup goaltender on the Elmira bench who was banging on the boards sure was.

The Pioneers returned the favor a few moments later by turning a Soaring Eagles player into a screaming eagle. It was a sound heard around Central New York. The Pioneers looked to inflict as much physical and emotional pain on Elmira as possible, but the Soaring Eagles had other things in mind.

Elmira first-year forward Chance Gorman was one of those players, as he ripped a snapshot into the back of the net with 5:09 remaining in the first. The auditorium was in utter shock. The Pioneers needed to regroup quickly, as evident from Head Coach Gary Heenan’s expressions and conversations with his players on the bench. 

The crowd remained relatively quiet until there was 13:43 remaining in the second. The horn went off and Brett Everson, the senior from Mississauga, Ontario, spun and found the back of the net almost effortlessly, for what could be his last time in a Pioneer uniform. 

The lack of goal scoring would’ve put the average fan to sleep in the third period, but the period was filled with oddity moments including:

  1. The penalty box door wouldn’t shut.
  2. Elmira’s goalie crease needed to be watered down.
  3. Utica’s net was dislodged after a collision.

None of those moments led to a goal, so now, it was time for sudden death.

Everyone was on the edge of their seats. Hands were held up near chins. Legs were restlessly being tapped on the concrete floor. Everyone’s individual expressions of anxiety were on display for the first two overtime periods.

Both teams tried to set the tone early in overtime. Smash, a yellow jersey slams into the boards with enough force to shake the entire arena. Pop, two players collide at center ice as they’re both slow to get up.

Photo: Joey Domizio

After the multiple hits and shots that were taken by both teams, the fatigue began to settle in. When the crowd noticed, they tried to rally the Pioneers by organizing a chant.

“Let’s go UC,” the crowd shouted as they gradually got louder and louder, hoping for a Pioneer goal. Yells came from across the entire facility as the Pioneers came ever so close to dismantling the brick wall, otherwise known as Elmira Goaltender Chris Janzen, who finished the night with 62 saves and a .984 save percentage.

The closest chance for the Pioneers came midway through the second overtime. On a fastbreak, the Pioneers had a two-on-one advantage and as the Pioneer made a deke move on the defender, that same Pioneer hit the ice and lost the puck. As soon as the white uniform smacked the ice, the crowd became louder than a one-ton TNT bomb going off attached to an Amazon Echo Studio.

The arena filled with boos and general displeasure from those who were likely older than the players on the ice. Some were much louder than others.

“Are you even watching the fucking game?” an older gentleman yelled, as he stood directly across from me on the opposite side of the arena. “You fucking suck,” another older gentleman shrieked. 

Besides the Pioneers’ net becoming dislodged once again, due to an Elmira player colliding with Utica College Goaltender Sean Dickson, nothing worth noting happened towards the end of the second overtime. When the horn sounded, I wondered if this would be one of the longest games in NCAA ice hockey history.

On March 27, Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota played in a five-overtime classic that lasted 142 minutes and 13 seconds. Although this game between Utica and Elmira wasn’t the longest in NCAA hockey history, it was the longest in both Utica College history and UCHC history. Little did I know that this game would end up being the 4th longest game in NCAA Division III history (105 minutes and 46 seconds of elapsed game time).

Just after completing this thought, the Soaring Eagles pushed down ice just under six minutes into the third overtime. Elmira Forward Bailey Krawczyk collected a rebound off of Dickson’s pad and while falling to the ice, ripped a magnificent wrist shot into the back of the net. The once deafening crowd could be heard no more as the sound pressure level instantly dropped to zero decibels. 

Following the brief silence, the sounds of claps became ever-so prominent. As the Pioneers had their heads down, the fans made sure to applaud their success. The Pioneer season may not have ended the way anyone wanted it to end, but nonetheless, it was still remarkable. 

For these players, it was a gift to play the sport they love during a global pandemic. To the fans, April 2 will go down in New York state history as the first-day collegiate sports were allowed to have spectators at a limited capacity. This historic hockey game may have been the first, but it certainly won’t be the last.


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