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Remembering The Last Great CCHA Tournament

The year was 2012. The Winter had been quite mild, gas prices were climbing to $3.83 per gallon, and the CCHA was in the midst of a wild season that brought out a lot of the tensions from the previous Spring's announcement that the Big Ten was forming their own hockey conference. What happened that March was nothing short of incredible.

WMU Media File/GS Photo

I still remember it like it was yesterday.  The final buzzer going off, the celebration, the pandemonium.  It's easy to remember anytime your school wins a major Championship.  For the Western Michigan Broncos, it was their first CCHA title in my lifetime, and the school's first in nearly 30 years.

However, I can remember that entire tournament.  Not every game - I attended a grand total of 7 games out of the 20 that were played and no TV deal to show the ones I had missed - but I still remember how the tournament played out.  I still remember the weekend leading up to the tournament.  Western Michigan stunning then #1 Ferris State, taking 5 of 6 points from the eventual regular season champs including a 7-round shootout, the cluster of teams fighting for the bye to the quarterfinals and the home ice it'd ensue, Miami just destroying teams.

In the end, the three MAC schools each had their own tale to tell, but would each get their chance in the CCHA Finals.  Here, on the anniversary of that great weekend, we remember that tournament.

First Round

Heading into the tournament, SEVEN of the conference's eleven teams finished the season ranked, making it one of the more highly competitive tournaments top-to-bottom (for comparison's sake, only four were ranked in the years preceding and following 2012).  Notre Dame, the pre-season overall #1 team in the country, was an 8th-seed in their brand new Compton Family Ice Arena against Ohio State.

Our own Bowling Green Falcons had just finished their 3rd straight season finishing in 11th, with their 3rd last place finish in four seasons as well.  However, they drew Northern Michigan in an identical 6-vs-11-seed match-up from 2011, one that saw the Falcons stun the Wildcats in double OT to win the first round series.  However, the Wildcats were much improved under their behemoth goaltender Jared Coreau, and were ranked #19 in the polls.

Meanwhile, the final match-up featured two teams with decent talent, but were not often discussed in Lake Superior State hosting the Alaska Nanooks.  Not much was talked about in this one (mainly due to the fact that the Alaskan travel either way was a hindrance against most teams), as the Lakers downed Alaska 4-3, 3-0 to advance to the quarters.

Notre Dame dispatched the Buckeyes in two games (2-0, 4-2), but the first game saw two odd penalties with players getting called for "playing with a broken stick" and "shooting the puck after the whistle".  In all, the chippy series was decided and the Irish's stacked squad moved on.

However, Bowling Green provided the story of the round by dropping their first game against NMU, in which they entered the 3rd period tied at 2-2.  That team featured players like Andrew Hammond in net and had a young unknown player by the name of Dan DeSalvo.  DeSalvo netted the first goal of the series in the 4-2 defeat, but would just be getting started.  He would net another two goals the next night to push the series to a game three (including the first goal just seconds into the game and the game-winner in the midst of a 4-0 run after the Wildcats had apparently taken control of the game at 3-1 early in the 2nd).

The final game would see the Wildcats strike first, but DeSalvo again netted a pair of goals (the tying and winning goals) as the Falcons stunned NMU for a second straight year to advance to play #1 Ferris State, a team that hadn't lost but once in 2012, and had only lost to one opponent at home all season long (Western Michigan, now do you see why I wish the CCHA had remained?  That was a BIG rivalry!  Now it's dead).

CCHA Quarter-finals

With the loss of Nebraska-Omaha following the 2009-10 season, the CCHA was forced to adapt and play the 11-team format with the 4/5 seeds getting a bye, but the 5-seed still having to play on the road.  The year before, Ferris State and Western Michigan dueled to a 3-game series that saw the Bulldogs come back from down 3-0 and 4-1 in the 3rd game to force overtime, only to lose on a crazy defensive blunder.

In 2012, the 4/5 was much better as a red-hot Miami team, behind goaltending duo Connor Knapp - a 6 foot, 6 inch brick wall with a sub 2.00 GAA in 2012 thus far - and Cody Reichard - the former CCHA Player of the Year and netminder behind the near miss at the NCAA Championships two years prior - hosted the series following a very slow start to the season as the pre-season #2 team.. On the other side, former CCHA  commissioner Tom Anastos - having taken over for the legendary Ron Mason following his retirement (and the timely news that the Big Ten Hockey Conference would be formed in 2013-14) - and eventual CCHA Player of the Year in 2012 Torrey Krug awaited in Michigan State.  Both teams needed wins to make the NCAA Tournament for sure, with a sweep likely resulting in their exemption from the post-season.

I'll spare you more on that match-up.  Just know that Miami absolutely obliterated the Spartans 6-0, 4-1 to advance to Detroit.

Meanwhile, the team that had won last year's 4/5 series was playing host to the top seeded team to advance from the first round, Lake Superior State.  The Broncos, under former NHL head coach Andy Murray in his first year, were led by a freshman sensation in Frank Slubowski in net and featured an absolutely stacked defensive corps that featured 4 future NHL players.  Captain Ian Slater hit two goals in the first game (4-2 win) before the Broncos exploded for the first five goals in game two (including Luke Witkowski's 2nd goal of the season) for a 5-2 win and a rather easy advancement to Detroit as well.

In the 2/8 match-up, Michigan probably hated to have drawn the Irish, who were still lethal with their talent.  With BG's upset, the Wolverines avoided Lake Superior State (the intended opponent) and got the Irish, who would've traveled to Ferris State to take on the Bulldogs.  Both games were incredible duels.  But in the end, Michigan held the Irish to a combined two goals in the series, a 2-1 (OT), 3-1 advancement for a team that was on the verge for their record 22nd straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

And then there was the 1/11 match-up between Ferris State and Bowling Green.  Again, this was a team that did not lose at home in the Bulldogs.  They had just thumped the Falcons at home two weeks before the tournament started.  But yet, here the Falcons were set to face the #1 seed for a second straight year, hoping to become the first team to finish last place in the regular season and go to Detroit for the Championship weekend.

The first game set the tone for the series, as no team was able to get an insurance goal, with Cam Wojtala scoring twice (including once with three minutes left to tie the game up at 2) before getting the game-winner late in the first overtime.  Hammond saved 54 of 56 shots, and I'll give you a minute to pick-up your jaw before we continue.

The Bulldogs would come out sluggish in the second game, to trail 1-0 after the first period.  However, they would not go quietly, exploding 3 goals in the 2nd period and 4 in the 3rd to win 7-4 and force Game 3.  DeSalvo netted two goals in the 3rd, the first tying the game at 3-3 just seconds into the period's start, to push his total tally to 7, but his greatest game was yet to come.

With the other three series being locked up now, the eyes of the CCHA were on Big Rapids, MI to see who would lock up the final spot in Championship Weekend.  Michigan, hoping for an easy road to the Championship game, had significant rooting interests in the Falcons, whom they would draw as the 2/11 match-up due to re-seeding.  The RedHawks hoped for the Falcons as well, to draw a noticeably weaker team in Western Michigan (a team they had thumped in January).  The Broncos were stuck, having to draw either the red-hot Miami team, or face Michigan at a place where they were heavily favored whenever they entered:  Joe Louis Arena.

To start the game, the Falcons and Hammond struggled to contain the Bulldogs, who erupted for a 3-0 lead at the end of the first.  By then, it appeared Bowling Green was done for as Ferris had scored 10 goals over their last three periods, and still were playing at home in their dog house.  Ryan Carpenter netted a goal in the second to help make things interesting, but after two periods, it was still 3-1, and Taylor Nelson was looking unstoppable in net.

Then, Dan DeSalvo happened.

In, arguably, his career's "golden moment", DeSalvo turned into Gordie Howe.  He scored an unassisted goal early in the 3rd to close the gap to 3-2 before netting his 9th of the playoffs and his 12th point after netting an assist the night before and on Carpenter's goal earlier in the game (he had another in Game 3 of the NMU series).  The game would go to overtime, where just 158 seconds later, DaSalvo finished the hat-trick (the first of his career) to send the 11-seeded Falcons to Detroit.

Semi-Final #1:  #3 Western Michigan (#14 in USCHO) vs #4 Miami (#7 in USCHO)

The year before's finals which saw the RedHawks, led by eventual Hober Baker winner Andy Miele, defeat the Broncos 5-2 was the setting for the two teams to open play in Detroit while the now top-seeded Michigan Wolverines held the night game thanks to their overwhelming home crowd.

While not the most boring game of the weekend, the Broncos blitzed the RedHawks from the start, jumping out to a huge 4-1 lead midway through the 2nd period.  Reilly Smith, a Hobey Baker finalist himself, netted both Miami goals to push his season total up to 29, but two more late goals for the Broncos made it 6-2 and pushed them to their second straight CCHA Championship Game in as many years, the first time they had done that in program history.

Semi-Final #2:  #2 Michigan (#3 in USCHO) vs #11 Bowling Green (NR)

Michigan was somewhat torn about attendance.  Keep in mind, this is the same night that the Wolverines opened up NCAA basketball play against Ohio (yes, that same Ohio team that went to the Sweet 16).  Still, the hockey fans showed up in droves to turn roughly half of the Joe into a yellow ocean of Wolverine fans.

For those who want my emotions as the night went on, I live commented (before I had access to the twitter account) the game here.  For those who didn't, Hammond absolutely stood on his head.  The Falcons followed suit by jumping out to an early 2-0 lead, stunning an already quiet crowd (by now, the Ohio game news had trickled in).  It seemed like the Falcons were headed to another stunning upset with the seconds flying by in the second period.

Then, tragedy struck.

With the Wolverines trying to mount a comeback of any sorts before the final intermission, Jon Merrill chunked an attempted shot on Hammond.  The junior netminder reacted as any goaltender would, but the bounce of the puck got it past Hammond to make it 2-1.  After going back-and-forth all of the 3rd period, the Wolverines again scored with 2:45 to go to force overtime (BG barely missed on some chances).

Overtime was about as incredible as one could imagine.  Back-and-forth play, both teams getting chances, BG hitting the post twice.  The game went to double overtime, but the Wolverines just had too much as Hammond was screened and never saw the game-winner from Luke Moffatt.

Championship Night (St. Patty's Day, 2012)

The third place game was about as boring as one could imagine.  BG, just 14 hours removed from losing their semi-final game, ultimately ending their season, looked overpowered and outmatched against a Miami team fighting to stay in the top ten of the Pairwise rankings for seeding purposes.  It was somewhat closer than the 4-1 score indicated, but after 7 other games against solid competition, the 8th just was too much to ask for the Falcons when it meant so little.

The Championship game had the drama, though.  After meeting in the semi-finals the year before, Michigan and Western Michigan met in the finals.  The two teams had met in early November, when they were ranked 3rd and 4th respectively, and saw the series split at Yost Ice Arena.  Before that, the semi-final game had ended in a blowout.

Slater gave the Broncos an early 1-0 lead, and had his offensive line of Dane Walters, Chase Balisy, and Shane Berschbach net another two later in the 2nd period to give Western Michigan an early 3-0 lead.

However, the big yellow machine woke up.  First, they got a short-handed goal to bring the crowd back into the game midway through the 3rd period.  Then, Slater was called for boarding and was shown the gate when it was deemed that the hit was malicious.  The Wolverines netted a huge power-play goal with 6 minutes to go to bring tension to a peak.

But Slubowski stood on his head with his defense holding firm in front of him.  Multiple Broncos blocked shots, including Danny DeKeyser - who would end up signing with the Detroit Red Wings and playing his professional hockey on the same ice that he won the CCHA Championship - and Western Michigan finished the game 3-2.

The Fallout

By now, every CCHA team had known where they were going to end up after the year, but what made this season in particular so special is the pure emotions from the smaller schools against the Big Ten schools and Notre Dame.  (After the initial announcement, Notre Dame had announced their displeasure in staying in the CCHA, ultimately sending the realignment storm into full-force).  This waned massively in the next season, and the 2013 CCHA Finals featured Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Miami, four of the first five schools to leave the conference (Miami joined up with five WCHA schools to create the NCHC's original members).

In the end, we start with the rest of the conference.  Ferris State, with the added rest, advanced all the way to the National Title Game, only to lose to #1 Boston College 4-0.  The performance also meant that WMU was then (and still is) the only school from Michigan currently active without a National Title Game appearance (the two schools also remain the only ones without a National Title).

Michigan State did make the tournament, thanks in large part to Bowling Green not stealing a spot.  They lost to Union (3rd overall seed nationally) 3-1 in the first round.  Union lost in the Frozen Four to Ferris State.

Michigan made the tournament as well, with the loss largely unaffecting their fortunes.  They were the 2nd national seed behind Boston College, and lost to Cornell in overtime.  Cornell lost to Ferris State in the regional final.  The Wolverines would struggle the next season and despite a red-hot February and March, they missed the NCAAs for the first time in 23 years, a record to this day.  They now are fighting for the Big Ten Title, which is a conference in the midst of a downswing season this year.

Bowling Green, as noted above, did not make the tournament.  Still, they used the season to help spark a solid run in 2012-13, finishing a strong 9th (hard to say, but true).  They, again, pulled a 1st round upset, netting 13 goals in the final two games against LSSU, but could not beat Notre Dame in the second round, losing 1-0 (OT), 4-3.  Notre Dame won that CCHA Tournament from the 2-seed. The Falcons are now set to play in this year's NCAA Tournament, barring a disaster.

Miami has kept chugging along.  While the RedHawks were upset 4-3 in overtime by a then relatively unknown UMass-Lowell team, the RedHawks responded nicely in the following season.  They won the final CCHA Regular Season title behind a solid defense.  They had a rough year after that, losing again in the NCAAs before the Frozen Four then finishing last in the NCHC despite lofty expectations.  However, they have responded nicely.  They played for the NCHC Championship last year and are in the running for a 1-seed in the NCAAs this year.

Meanwhile, the Broncos have collapsed since the tournament.  In 2013, they appeared poised to take the Regular Season crown from Miami, but collapsed in February before getting swept by a red-hot, albeit 7th seeded Michigan team in the CCHA Quarterfinals.  They would miss the tournament by one slot and watch the team that finished right above them (Yale) win the NCAA Championship that year.  The following year, they struggled to a 5th place NCHC Finish, and made it to Minnesota for the Finals, but lost to Denver in the Semi's.  This year, they were the 7th seed in a highly powerful NCHC, needing a tournament championship to make the NCAAs.  They lost to Miami in three games to end their season.

I did attend the semi-finals for the final CCHA Championship.  However, it was a disaster.  You could sense so little excitement from the crowd and the disorganization and "meh" emotions from the organizers of the event (I was credentialed, but had trouble getting in and was not given a seat at a massive press row).  Worst of all was the funeral perception felt by all.  The 2013 CCHA Championship was not about "now", it was about "before", and it really took away from a great weekend that could've been had.

But in the end, the 2013 CCHA Championship knew what was coming:  That after the final buzzer sounded and the banners were raised one final time, that was it.  There was nothing else after that.  With the 2012 CCHA, there was another season, another chance to show what you had, and one last go around with everyone.  There was only excitement while people filed away those upsetting overtones that would set in the very next year.

The freshmen from that weekend are now seniors.  DeSalvo, the hero for BG is now their captain.  Hammond, Smith, and DeKeyser are now all professionals, and are doing pretty decent jobs.  Slubowski, the CCHA MOP that tournament, is now in a lesser role, splitting time (albeit less than his successor) with Lukas Hafner as a senior for WMU.  Austin Czarnik, a freshman for the RedHawks on the highly productive Smith line, is now a Hobey Baker candidate on his own.

Here, we pay homage to the CCHA, the old Big East of college hockey.