It was 1996. It was my fourth season as head hockey coach at Spooner, Wisconsin. We were completing our second straight season without a home game—a streak that would end at 49 games the next year.
It was playoff time!
We were 5-13. A young coach then, with the fixation of going to the state tournament, I was looking straight into the eyes of arguably the state’s premier program—the Superior Spartans as our opponent. This wasn’t your average Spartan team that even on a down year was better than most Wisconsin teams; this was an exceptional team sporting a 17-4 record with impressive wins over the likes of Warroad, Cloquet and Hermantown, MN. This was the number one team in the state and a team that had won 22 straight games against Wisconsin opponents.
We were 5-13.
This was old school, pre-seeding days, when playoff pairings were set before the season even started. We, with our five wins, had a bye while Superior blanked Rice Lake 5-0 in the regionals. It was even our home game, but our rink was under foreclosure, so we played at the neighboring Rice Lake Hockey Arena, the place where my humble hockey playing career began in 1972.
My assistant coach John Van Cleave and I had scouted the big blue machine and despite our obvious shortcomings, we were convinced victory was possible. We devised a solid game plan and delivered a pre-game sermon that would make Herb Brooks proud. Our optimism was higher than our collective IQ and our enthusiasm generated more electricity than the compressors cooling the ice.
Having witnessed “the Miracle of 1980” I was confident that the Spartans were headed for a similar fate. Prior to the game, this wide-eyed young coach was quoted as saying, “Nobody will give us a chance to win, but we will be there. We are excited about stepping onto the ice with them.” General George A. Custer was similarly optimistic at Little Big Horn.
Optimism and realism were about to go head-to-head.
With the first period better than half-way gone I looked at the scoreboard, 1-0 Superior. John and I exchanged confident glances. I was even more convinced that “Miracle II” was about to unfold. Our kids were scraping, diving and battling against an opponent that was demonstrating to us that they were not only better on paper, but on the ice too. My optimism didn’t fade.
The Spartans scored twice more in the period’s final few minutes to push their lead to 3-0. My optimistic tone didn’t change between periods, but realism was now creeping into my partisan thoughts. They scored six more in the second period and a hat trick in the third as we fell 12-0. When push came to shove, realism dominated optimism. I was devastated—as I was after nearly ever defeat in those early days.
Superior went on to win the state championship that year, allowing two goals against them in seven post-season games, including six shutouts.
Whether we had been optimistic or realistic heading into that game I believe the results would have been the same. If we had played Superior one hundred times, we would have lost every time. On their worst day and our absolute best day—we were still a frozen lake apart.
The attitude we took into that game was forged through the adversity of 43 consecutive road games and enduring outside practices in the elements of a typical Wisconsin winter. Optimism was our only lifeboat as we drove past our beautiful indoor arena every day to practice outdoors.
What I remember most from the Spartan massacre was our players giving every bit of effort they had right up to the last horn. Down 12-0 they were still diving in front of pucks and battling just to get an icing so we could change our line. I was equal parts crushed that we couldn’t pull off the upset and proud of the way we battled in the face of a truly “Superior” opponent.
Thirty plus years behind the bench has provided me an ocean of knowledge and a heavy dose of reality. That combination has given me the annoyingly accurate ability to read the probable outcome of every game. Something I was incapable of as a young coach. In spite of that knowledge and all those years of experience I find that my optimism cannot be subdued nor replaced by common sense and reality. Against all odds I still believe somehow, some way that the underdog can prevail.
I believe most coaches are wired this way.
When optimism is your only advantage against insurmountable odds, reality will send you to defeat. But the courage to battle, to lay everything on the line—knowing it still won’t be enough—is the stuff that makes the value of athletics priceless.