August 2, 2006

The Miracle In North Dakota

July 31, 2006

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Tony Quesada '06 had his secret ingredients prepared to concoct a single oversized pancake, which he would not eat, but, instead, would carefully burn to a crisp. That ritual, he claims, wards off bad vibes. Quesada had abandoned his pre-game practice of sharing pancakes with teammates when he felt they were becoming sluggish.

Tyler McGregor '06 had his soccer ball pumped up for impromptu ceremonial juggling.

Coach Paul Pearl '89 had inspected the trim on his players' playoff beards, a hirsute male-bonding rite that he had allowed for the first time.

With superstitions satisfied and personal quirks aligned to please the hockey deities, the Don Quixotes of eastern hockey ventured forth to slay Minnesota, a Bunyanesque hockey power quaintly misnomered as the Golden Gophers.

The Crusaders, intrepidly invading a foreign territory known as the NCAA Western Regionals in Grand Forks, N.D., may as well have been traveling to Little Big Horn with General George Custer leading the charge.

For some perspective, consider these facts:

 

  • Minnesota, ranked No. 3, had reigned five times as NCAA hockey champs, including winning back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003. Herb Brooks, who coached the USA to its 1980 "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union, guided Minnesota to three NCAA crowns in the 1970s. Holy Cross, ranked No. 19 and representing the upstart Atlantic Hockey Association, had never won a single game in the 58-year history of the NCAA hockey tourney.
  • Minnesota had 14 players on its roster who had been drafted by the National Hockey League. Holy Cross had none.
  • There were 18 Gophers on full athletic scholarships while about half the Crusaders receive need-based grants to lighten their financial packages. Minnesota-Twin Cities is a supersized university, with an enrollment of 51,000; Holy Cross has about 2,700 undergrads.

In plain-speak, Holy Cross didn't have a prayer against Minnesota.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, a.k.a., The Ralph Engelstad Arena.

A perfect storm was brewing on the North Dakota horizon. A distant drumbeat could be heard throbbing in the Land of the Fighting Sioux. A tribal chant, "Kill the Gophers!" whispered like tumbleweed blowing across the desolate flatlands outside Grand Forks on the Minnesota border.

Magically, the Crusaders walked into a "home game" a half-continent away from Worcester. A record crowd of 11,151 partisans may have not known Bob Cousy from Bob Wright. But the Fighting Sioux fanatics understood they hated their archrivals from bordering Minnesota with a purple passion. They wore "Go HC" t-shirts, held signs urging the extermination of gophers, cheered every Crusader stride and lustily booed every Minnesotan move.

"I couldn't believe it. Here I was, in front of a sellout crowd of cheering North Dakota fans, on national TV (ESPN-U) playing goalie against the one team I've always dreamed of playing,'' remarks Tony Quesada, whose mother, Strandy, and her family are Minnesota natives.

Even Quesada's 22 relatives ("huge Gopher fans") found themselves rooting for Tony and his teammates.

What unfolded was "surreal," the one-word summary provided by Tyler McGregor.

"Once we got in that arena, we absorbed the atmosphere," says McGregor. "Right off, we heard no heckling, just cheering. On paper we were no match. Minnesota recruits the elite of the elite. But we had a genuine belief that we belonged."

The momentum built. A scoreless first period demonstrated the Crusaders were no pushovers, definitely more seasoned than the College team that lost 3-0 to North Dakota in the 2004 NCAA first round.

Dale Reinhardt '08 beat Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs at 8:49 of the second period, spiking the team's confidence as the Crusaders took a 1-0 lead.

Nearly five minutes later, on a power play that followed a Minnesota goal, McGregor fired a shot into the left corner of the net to put Holy Cross back on top, 2-1.

"That one proved to us the first one wasn't a fluke," recalls McGregor. "They were running and gunning, and we were keeping up with them. We had a little hop in our step, and we weren't going away."

The fans, sensing they may be witnessing perhaps the greatest upset in college hockey history, were going bonkers. Pierre Napert-Frenette '06 alertly poked in the rebound after a shot by Sean Nappo '07 hit the post, tying the game at 3-3 with 12:07 left in the third period.

The Crusader team, its trademark hustle bristling, wouldn't budge.

"Our strength is goaltending, defense, counter-attacking," explains Paul Pearl, a former hockey team captain completing his 11th season as head coach.

Twice in period three Holy Cross shut down Minnesota's power play, ranked No. 1 in the country. Indeed, the Crusaders shut out the Gophers for more than 13 minutes during Minnesota's seven power-play opportunities as Quesada chalked up 15 of his 37 saves during those sieges.

Sudden-death overtime arrived, and 11,000 screaming fans energized the Crusaders.

"Getting the first goal wasn't unrealistic," says McGregor. "We had done that in the first period. Tony was playing great, and we knew our defense would trigger our offense. The only surprise is how fast it happened."

Just 53 seconds into overtime, McGregor would send shock waves through the world of hockey. In a nanosecond, the Man from Ajax (Ontario) would be dubbed a SportsCenter hero.

The fuse would be lit by a determined Matt Burke '08, who poke-checked the puck away from Gopher superstar Ryan Potulny, now the property of the Philadelphia Flyers. Burke scrambled for the loose puck and slipped it to McGregor, who flew up the left side.

"That's the fastest I've ever skated from blue line to blue line," McGregor recollects.

Spotting Blair Bartlett '06 roaring up the middle, McGregor tried centering a sly pass to Bartlett. That maneuver drew Gopher goalie Briggs towards the center of the net. Fortuitously, the puck caromed off the left skate of Minnesota's defenseman P.J. Atherton and skittered back toward McGregor.

McGregor, from a near impossible angle, rocketed a right-handed wrister through the narrow opening between the right post and Briggs.

Lightning had struck. McGregor found himself buried by teammates. "Pierre was on top of me, and if we weren't wearing cages, we would have been kissing," comments McGregor. "I was just trying not to get killed.''

Down the other end, Quesada raised his stick in victory while staring at the mayhem in disbelief.

"Tyler shot, and it seemed to take forever for the goal light to blink on," he says. "I think I blacked out until I hit the lockers."

Coach Pearl maintained perfect composure, looking like UCLA's John Wooden winning another hoops championship. He casually approached Gopher coach Don Lucai for a courteous handshake.

"You try to look like you've been there before," reasons Pearl. "I had to restrain the natural urge to go nuts. I knew we had another game against North Dakota the next night, and these same fans would not be cheering for us. I knew we had a shot at the Frozen Four."

Others were not so reserved. Bill Bellerose '77, Holy Cross Hall of Famer, former College hockey coach and now associate athletics director, was sitting beside Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi when McGregor scored. "Joel almost fell out of the suite," says Bellerose, himself jumping for joy.

Back on campus, bedlam broke out at the Crossroads pub, jammed with students watching the stunner on ESPN-U. At Worcester's downtown DCU Center, where Boston College was battling Boston University, the message board flashed: Holy Cross 4, Minnesota 3. Terrier and Eagle fans roared with delight. Sports fans everywhere had to blink, disbelieving the cable TV crawl lines that delivered the shocking news.

Celebrity sashayed into the scene. ESPN invaded, wanting to find out more about McGregor, Quesada and their mates. Everyone danced in the lockers and partied in the lobby. Cell phones rang. The media blitz began.

"ESPN wanted to borrow an inside-look documentary I did on the team as a sophomore," Quesada says with a grin.

The team slept a bit but arose for breakfast at dawn to see themselves on SportsCenter. They had to calm down, to rest, for somehow they needed to repeat the miracle at 8:05 against North Dakota who had defeated Michigan in Grand Forks on that Friday night, March 24.

Holy Cross would play well as a Bartlett goal tightened the game to 3-2 at 5:21 of the third period. But The Fighting Sioux, seven-time national champs, prevailed, scoring twice more against the emotionally spent 'Saders. North Dakota lost to Boston College in the Frozen Four before Wisconsin beat the Eagles for the title.

How does one explain this epic upset?

The truth is, under Pearl, Holy Cross has developed a solid program after moving up from Division 3 to Division 1. Upperclassmen, including seven strong seniors, had experienced the playoffs in 2004. The Crusaders counted 11 Canadians on this year's 29-man roster along with excellent talent from the Northeast.

Pearl, a stellar defenseman and Bellerose's first captain, has expanded recruiting, combing the continent for talent. For men's hockey, Holy Cross budgets nearly $700,000, mostly for need-based aid to icemen and to cover the costs of recruiting and staff salaries.

To his scholar-athletes, Pearl preaches hard work, defense and hustle. The team finished with a flossy 27-10-2 record and ranked 14th among the 60 Division 1 colleges playing hockey. The season included beating the likes of UMass-Amherst, Dartmouth (ECAC champs), Mercyhurst and Rensselaer twice.

Players, many from mid-level junior leagues and prep schools, say they were lured to Holy Cross by its academic reputation and because they had a good chance to play a lot.

Quesada and McGregor, the Crusaders' co-MVPs, are prime examples of the College's hockey talent.

Quesada, a psychology major, walked around campus for four years wearing a tattered Minnesota hockey shirt and lugging a dream to play pro hockey. Back home in Maine, the 6-2, 185 lb., net-minder engaged in a rigorous summer training program, returning with a team-best 4.6 body-fat score. This season, he set five school records and ranked second in the nation in winning percentage (.786) with a flossy 2.18 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.

McGregor, a premed psychology scholar, blossomed into a canny wingman who had 26 goals and 28 assists to earn All-American honors along with the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year honors. In April, he played for the AHL Cleveland Barons (as an unpaid intern for the final five games) while preparing for his final exams. He is looking forward to a postgrad shot at pro hockey.

Together with their teammates, McGregor and Quesada captured a slice of college hockey immortality. They pulled off an upset for the ages, proving Holy Cross belongs. And they ensured that the Paul Bunyans of hockey will never overlook the Crusaders again.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.