Starkey: Season's been a hockey miracle at Robert Morris
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
The Robert Morris hockey team has just such an opportunity this weekend, and on its way to Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., it will pass by a larger-than-life statue of the man who famously uttered those words: the late Herb Brooks.
The 16th team in a 16-team tournament, RMU will open the West Regional on Saturday against top-seeded Minnesota (5:30 p.m., ESPN2). Yet, coach Derek Schooley insists, with reason, that upsetting a team featuring 14 NHL draft picks would not constitute the college version of the Miracle on Ice.
Schooley points out RMU has beaten No. 1-ranked teams before and that Cinderellas such as RIT and Bemidji State have reached the Frozen Four.
“If we were to win the national championship,” Schooley said, “then it's a miracle.”
Fair enough. We'll just call the prospect of toppling a legendary program a major upset. And we'll acknowledge that the real miracle here is the rise of RMU hockey — from a 2-12-2 start this season and from an empty desk in an empty room 11 years ago.
That is what Schooley encountered at Sewall Center on Sept. 1, 2003.
“I walked into a room, and there was only a desk — no phone, no computer, nothing,” Schooley recalled Monday at RMU Island Sports Center. “And they said, ‘Build a hockey program.' ”
So he did. Within four years, RMU found itself a win away from the NCAA Tournament only to squander a 4-0 lead to Alabama-Huntsville and lose, 5-4, in overtime. It would fall a game short (in overtime) two years later, as well.
This past Saturday in Rochester, N.Y., the demons died. RMU killed them with a 7-4 victory over Canisius in the American Hockey Association championship. It was Canisius, fittingly, that had provided the opposition in the Colonials' first game 10 years ago.
As his red-white-and-blue clad players stormed the ice Miracle-style, Schooley took in the moment.
“It was like a dream,” he said.
A single tear escaped from Schooley's left eye as he recounted the story Monday. Having not seen his office since Wednesday, he was in a happy rush, organizing travel plans and ticket requests. Activity bustled around him.
An empty desk in an empty room? Schooley's office is a beautiful mess these days. You can barely see his desk. He says when the buzzer sounded in Rochester, he also thought of the pioneers — the guys who agreed to come to RMU sight unseen, trusting his vision.
“Our alumni is a very small group — we've had only six graduating classes — but a very prideful group,” Schooley said. “That showed with having 75 text messages and 100 emails within 20 minutes of the game.”
Encouraging messages from alumni flowed the week leading up to the tournament, as well, prompting Schooley to post them on the locker-room wall.
Among the ex-Colonials who'll be watching Saturday is the original Robert Morris hockey player: 5-foot-7 Joey Olson of Peoria, Ill.
Olson came all the way to Moon on a (left) wing and a prayer in 2003, then became the tour guide when prospective players would visit — such as his best friend, Logan Bittle, now an assistant with the RMU women's team. The Colonials' first roster featured 24 freshmen and only four players with college experience.
“I was going to play Division III, but I knew Derek, and he called and said, ‘I want you to be my first recruit,' ” said Olson, who works in radio advertising and coaches youth hockey in Peoria. “I didn't even visit, so it was a pretty big gamble. But I fell in love with the school and the city.”
The current roster is a melting pot, featuring players from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, and Temecula, Calif., and as nearby as seven miles up the Ohio River: Team captain Colin South, one of RMU's four Pittsburghers, played at Quaker Valley.
Schooley says he's had several midwestern players who dreamed of playing for Minnesota, where Brooks won three national titles.
“Not many people know about Robert Morris in Minnesota,” Schooley said. “We just have to be ready to face that storied history. They've played hockey for 93 years. We're in our 10th year.”
Wow. What an opportunity.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.