With just under five minutes left in Saturday’s NCAA Championship game, UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel called his team together at the bench.
The Minutemen were ahead 5-0. Everybody in PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh or watching on ESPN knew they were going to win. There was no reason to pretend it wasn’t inevitable. In a few minutes they’d be celebrating, but Carvel wanted to make sure they savored the final minutes competing together.
“You don’t get that opportunity very often in a championship situation. ... The game was obviously over. I wanted to say something to them before things got crazy,” Carvel said. “I wanted them to come in tight and look each other in the eyes and try to remember the moment because, honestly, it will be the best moment of their life. I just wanted them to hear that from me and hear my gratitude for all they’ve done.”
Saturday’s game will be remembered like an epilogue. Thursday’s come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over Minnesota Duluth had all the drama. UMass was missing players in COVID-19 protocols while trying to beat the two-time defending champions who had dominated the Minutemen in the 2019 finals.
Once the Minutemen had exorcized their Minnesota Duluth demons, beating St. Cloud State felt like a foregone conclusion. The 5-0 victory bore that out perfectly. Thursday night was the confrontation, Saturday was a coronation.
The title marked the completion, of not just a great year but of a painfully slow rise to prominence for the UMass program. When the school added Division I hockey for the 1993-94 season, 14 years after shuttering their Division II program, many in the sport believed UMass had all the resources in place to become a powerhouse quickly. But in the decades that followed, only a sprinkling of success backed up those predictions, while 18 seasons of finishing eighth or worse in Hockey East seemed to refute the idea altogether.
But under Carvel, they’ve uncovered the formula. UMass has become one of the best programs in the nation over the past three seasons. The Minutemen punctuated that rise with a thorough domination of St. Cloud State, which gave them that rare chance to savor a championship experience while it’s still going on.
There was a lot to see and reflect on as they looked around in those final minutes.
The Minutemen looked up and saw a heavily pro-UMass crowd of nearly 4,000 fans chanting and celebrating in the seats. It included many of their parents and siblings, who they hadn’t seen since August.
If they glanced a little higher they could look at the row of banners honoring all the previous champions and know that a new UMass 2021 edition will join the ranks at the 2022 Frozen Four at TD Garden in Boston and every year that followed.
The postgame trophy presentation was just the first of many moments to honor this team’s accomplishments. The state of the world isn’t ready for Amherst to hold a parade or for McGuirk Stadium to house an official celebration of the 2021 UMass hockey team yet.
But there will be a banner raising at some point next year, a ring presentation and maybe even a trip to the White House. It’s safe to presume there will be reunions celebrating this team at homecoming every 10 years for decades to come.