SCHENECTADY — The expansion and compression of time in the human mind can be fascinating.
Eight minutes seemed like 15.
Two shifts on the ice seemed like the blink of an eye.
The second of those shifts, viewed through a different lens, seemed like an eternity, since the goalie’s stick had been knocked out of his hands as live game action swirled around him, his teammates looking for an escape hatch.
Five hundred-plus days … well, that’s just a long time no matter how you look at it, when you haven’t played for your college hockey team since then for no other reason than a global pandemic.
For the first time since March 8, 2020, the Union men’s hockey team will play a real game on Friday, at New Hampshire.
As all teams do, the Dutchmen head into the 2021-22 season with eager optimism, and also plenty of question marks, since the last two incoming classes haven’t played yet, after Union canceled the 2020-21 season.
That also means there are two whole classes who didn’t experience the end of the 2019-20 season, when Union lost 2-1 in an ECAC Hockey quarterfinal-clinching Game 3 that was decided not only by the only goal Yale defenseman Graham Lillibridge scored all season, but by an officiating crew that had waved off a goal that would’ve given Union the victory just moments earlier.
In double overtime.
There are plenty of holdovers from that team still on the roster, of course, and it’s up to them to put the gut-wrenching conclusion to 2019-20 in its proper context. As much as there’s a desire to forget, maybe, to call it ancient history, memory doesn’t let you.
And anyway, a look back can be useful. For a long time, it held the title of The Last Live Sporting Event I Covered, and I thought it was worth revisiting as the Dutchmen head into a new year.
Seasons end in a variety of ways, and everyone had the rug pulled out by the pandemic — looking at you, RPI — but Union suffered a particularly galling one that even winning coach Keith Allain admitted was as wild and absurd an emotional upheaval as he’d ever seen.
Union’s 2-1 win turned into Yale’s 2-1 win at the Bulldogs’ Ingalls Rink, nicknamed “The Whale” because you feel like you’ve been swallowed by one when you’re in there, and the key players remember it in many of the same ways, but from different angles.
“I’ve been in numerous overtime games, and that one you go from jumping the boards to go celebrate with Nalds [Anthony Rinaldi], to the goal getting called off, to two shifts later … done for the year,” said Josh Kosack, now the Union captain. “Definitely a heartbreak.”
“I started celebrating, but then I looked back, and the guys were kind of gliding instead of skating. That’s when I realized …” said Gabriel Seger, now a junior alternate captain. He scored the goal that was disallowed, as a freshman.
“That actually is a memory from Union that I’ll never forget, him scoring that goal and coming down the ice,” Darion Hanson said. “The way that he celebrated, I think I was the first kid to get to him. I wasn’t freaking out, but I was in disbelief, like, ‘Oh, my god, we just won. Wow.'”
Hanson, who is using his post-grad year of NCAA eligibility at UConn this season, was in the net for Union, playing the game of his life as the underdog Dutchmen attempted to scratch out by far the biggest win of a mostly winless season.
You need to slow down time to pick apart everything that happened in the bang-bang moments of that double overtime period.
Neither team had scored since early in the second period, but early in the second OT, Rinaldi rocketed toward Yale goalie Corbin Kaczperski, passed back to Seger, and he one-timed a low shot for the win.
Hold on. Before the Union celebration was a second old, an official sprinted toward center ice waving his arms that the goal would have to be reviewed, since Union’s Vas Kolias had made some contact with Kaczperski’s left skate as he barreled past the crease and the puck went in.
“Tony put on the jets, dropped it to me, I one-timed it, got it in the net,” Seger said. “I thought it was a clear goal, but I think the ‘D’ actually pushed Vas into that [play]. They reviewed it for 15 minutes, something like that, and it was a close call. Most of the guys jumped the bench, then to have to wait for that, the energy kind of died out after that.”
It was eight minutes; I clocked it.
Kolias did make a bit of contact, but what Union could only wonder afterward was why the Yale defenseman’s role in the play didn’t make the penalty section of the game ledger.
The Dutchmen held back on the sour grapes afterward, and maintain a what-can-you-do shrug about the play when asked about it now, but it was a hot topic on the long bus ride home.
And Hanson recognized Kaczperski’s telling lack of reaction to Kolias clipping his skate for what it was.
“With hockey being such a fast game, it may look easy when you go and slow it down, and that’s what they did,” head coach Rick Bennett said. “But it was before that, too. I just think there was a little bit of a hold-up on our part, a hooking on them, too. So it could’ve gone that way, too.”
“I don’t think they should’ve called it, but it was almost a 50-50, too,” Seger said. “If we were on their side, you could understand it. But in the moment, on the bus, we were upset, to be honest. It was clear that their guy pushed Vas into the net, I remember. But … yeah.”
“I’ll make it easier for you,” Hanson said. “I’m actually good friends with the Yale goalie, Corbin, and he would have no problem with me saying this: As a goalie, if you get scored on and there’s a little bit of goalie interference and you don’t instantly turn to the ref, that usually tells you that there wasn’t anything that happened. And Corbin, when that went in, I think he knew it was a goal, too.
“If I’m a goalie — and I’m not a goalie that complains much — in a situation like that, if someone even sneezes on me, I’m looking at the ref. I think Corbin knew, just like we knew.”
Nevertheless, play continued, and Lillibridge scored two shifts later, a span of time that barely registers once you get into the grind of multiple overtimes.
When Hanson lost his stick, he made it clear to his teammates not to compromise their play by handing one to him.
Lillibridge wristed a shot from the point that Hanson said he saw, but it found its way to the back of the net on an afternoon when Hanson tied a career single-game high with 50 saves. Union was outshot 29-5 over the course of the third period and overtime.
“I was having a pretty good game at that point, and usually sometimes as a goalie, pucks go by you and you don’t necessarily touch it, and if you’re feeling good, you know it’s missing the net,” he said. “For some reason, that one just didn’t miss the net.
“Then they’re celebrating.”
“He stood on his head and was the heart and soul of our team all year,” Kosack said. “To go out like that, 2-1 game, double overtime, little did we know that would be our last hockey game together.”
A “devastating” loss on a Sunday afternoon, Seger called it, a bus ride back to Schenectady, then time to digest what had happened.
Except that the rush of pandemic-related events and news that was compressed over the next few days came in such a perpetual burst of lightning bolts that it was nearly impossible to keep up.
“That game was on a Sunday, and that Wednesday I was watching the NBA, and that was when Rudy Gobert was Patient Zero for the NBA and shut it down,” Hanson said. “That was one of the defining moments of COVID for me. I even remember RPI, they had home ice and were playing Harvard one day, then they’re not having fans, then Harvard dropped out and they’re playing Colgate. That’s happening by an hourly basis.”
If it was too much to digest in such a short period of time, it also seems like a long time ago.
Because it was.
The pandemic lingers, and so does memory of the loss to Yale.
But the Dutchmen have a fresh roster and a fresh calendar.
“It’s just unfortunate we got one called back in overtime,” Bennett said. “I think I’ve watched that one enough, and, you know, they called what they called. I have to say I like to think we won that game.
“We’ve moved on. There were many lessons throughout that year, and I think one of them was we started to get it, but it was just too late. It became important too late. That’s the message we’re trying to get across now.”
“It’s been 19, 20 months of a tough exit,” Kosack said. “For the guys returning, it adds fuel to the fire, and I guess that’s why we’re so hungry to start playing.”
Seger echoed that, while being reminded that he was deprived of what would’ve been to this point the greatest goal of his career, a brilliant flash extinguished after a seemingly endless video review by the officials.
“Yeah, I know,” he said with a chuckle. “Ah, we’ll get some new ones this year, for sure.”