Men's Club Hockey: After years of heartbreak, club hockey team captures championship
The Wildcats' men's hockey team came up just short of the Hockey East title this year, losing to UMass-Lowell in the championship game. However there is a lesser-known Wildcats team that calls the ice at the Whittemore Center its home.
Enter the ACHA champion UNH club hockey team. The squad defeated Florida Gulf Coast University in the Division II - which unlike NCAA standards, is the most elite of the three divisions - National Championship after four consecutive years in the tournament. The team came up one game short of the semi-finals last year, and went 0-3 in tournament play the year before. These boys weren't about to let that happen again.
"We came in basically knowing we had to win three games," senior defenseman Zach Brodarick said. "We won our first game, but our second one was against Grand Valley, who's known for how good they are, and they just pumped us. I think the score was 5-2. After that, we all kind of realized 'this is how we have to play if we're going to win at this level.' Ever since that game we had no idea if we were in or out, we just went out there banging bodies, coming out flying and playing hockey."
The 'Cats kept rolling into the championship game, defeating the number one seed and three-time national champion William and Paterson University, who they split decisions with during the regular season.
"The William and Paterson games are always really fun to play," freshman goalie Dylan Palmer said. "Everybody always gets up for them, gets real excited and plays unbelievable. Even when we lost, our entire team played great."
"Those games were the defining moments of our season," senior forward Blaine Cardali said. "We lost to them right at the end of our season, but we were able to power past that to beat them in the Super East Championship."
After going on to defeat UMBC in the next round, the Wildcats were set to take on FGCU in the national championship game. Knowing that it was his and some of his teammates' last game ever, win or lose, Leahy decided to take full advantage of the situation.
"I knew it was going to be the biggest game of my life, championship, senior year, captain, probably my last competitive game for a while," Leahy said. "We knew we had to play full 60 minutes."
Leahy scored two goals in the game, his first off of a pass from Zach Mourad behind the net and his second on a deflection in front of the net that Leahy claims went off someone's skate.
"We came out flying right off the bat and I think FGCU were a little surprised," Brodarick said. "The first 20-30 minutes of the game were just us, and they also gave us a goal, which was huge. They scored a goal and that was the first goal that had been scored on us in a long time, and the very next shift after they scored, Blaine gave me the puck and I beat one kid and then fed Sprague the puck for a goal, like, thirty seconds after."
The "Club Cats" saw this season come together right from the start.
"It seems kind of cheesy or corny, man, but since the first week of tryouts we knew we had a chance at making it back to nationals," Leahy said.
"In the first six games we were 2-4, and we knew we had a great team but we started off badly," Brodarick said. "We got a big winning streak and just kept getting stronger and stronger and that's when we thought we had what it takes."
Palmer agreed with his two senior captains.
"From day one everyone bought into the sysem and we became really close," he said. Even after the losses, those just made us even closer."
Though the 'Cats will graduate several key players, including Leahy, Cardali and Cody
Nizolek a forward from Saratoga Springs who was a key part of a line with freshman Austin Sprague and Cardali the team is overflowing with young talent, including Sprague and Palmer. Palmer split time with Neil Scancarella all season before having a standout tournament and taking home MVP honors. Sprague finished third on the team in scoring, finishing with 13 goals and 18 assists for a total of 31 points, and was already familiar with Palmer's ability as a goaltender before coming to UNH, as he grew up playing against him.
"It was unbelievable [winning the tournament MVP] but all the guys in front of me played unbelievable and I wouldn't have gotten that award if it weren't for them," Palmer said. "Honestly, it should have gone to the whole team."
There are numerous young players on the team who didn't get the chance to play in many of the games and that just means that their time in the spotlight has yet to come.
"I feel like a lot of players who didn't get a lot of playing time will get the chance to grow like Sean Leahy did," Cardali said.
"One of the reasons we did well was because we had that third line we could run out there," Leahy said. "Most other teams only had two lines."
"Any of our top three lines could be the first line at almost any other school," Brodarick said. "And even our fourth line was real solid and that leaves less playing time for the rest of the guys."
To the seniors, the victory served as the perfect capstone to a lifetime of organized hockey.
"It was nice to be able to finish my career right here in New England with my friends and family around," Cardali said. "Almost all the team's parents were there."
"This win wasn't just about the championship, it was all four years just added up in one game," Brodarick said. "My career's pretty much done, and that's pretty sad, but it was a great way to end it."
"I'll be working in Portsmouth next year," Leahy, who is a marketing major, said. "I'll be in the area so I'll definitely be following these guys next year and who knows, maybe I'll even get on the ice and skate with them, too."
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