If you happen to be a Minnesota sports fan, you know playoff losses are hard. You know that the inevitable playoff collapse is just that. You know that something will bounce against your favor, someone will get injured, or some other intangible will suddenly tilt the playing field in your opponent’s favor.
The most difficult type of playoff heartbreak happens when you do not see it coming. That is exactly what happened to the men’s hockey team Feb. 25 at St. Thomas. After winning a play-in game two nights prior to earn a spot in the semifinals, the Cobbers came in with high hopes for a matchup with the Tommies. They had every right to believe that they belonged after splitting the season series on the road
in Mendota Heights earlier in the year. Chris Howe and his Cobbers knew they could hang with St. Thomas.
In fact, it was Coach Howe who said before the playoffs that he believed his team matched up better with St. Thomas than almost any other team in the MIAC. At the time, the nine-year Concordia coach was referencing the side of the bracket the Cobbers found themselves on with the No. 5 seed in the MIAC tournament. On the other side of that bracket was nationally ranked Augsburg, a squad that thoroughly controlled the Cobbers in their regular season series and St. Thomas narrowly edged out for the regular season title.
Going into that Saturday matchup — and for about the first 50 minutes of the semifinal game — Concordia was right there with St. Thomas. Either team could have won the game. Shots were in the Tommies favor at 40-30, but freshman Sam Nelson was a wall in the Cobber net, stopping 38 shots to continue his run of dominance over conference foes in his freshman season. Each team had scoring chances, and there was a tense air in the arena as the teams went to the first intermission knotted at zero.
Anyways, back to the game.
St. Thomas earned a spot on the board first in the second period on a power play goal. However, Concordia answered right back just 23 seconds into the third when senior Jeremy Johnson dug out a puck from behind the net and wrapped around the back of the goal to stuff the puck past the outstretched leg of St. Thomas goaltender Benjamin Myers.
St. Thomas Ice Arena was rocking when Johnson finally stuffed home the Cobber goal. With parents and students at the game over spring break and the baseball team busing over from their game at U.S. Bank Stadium earlier in the day, the building was loud. It was a virtual home ice advantage for Concordia as the baseball players stood and chanted for most of the game. It’s this kind of atmosphere that makes sport great, and the effect is only amplified come playoff time.
Play settled down for awhile after the score leveled, but the Cobber faithful got loud about 10 minutes later, when a Tommie player demolished a Concordia player along the boards. The crowd, who clearly thought the hit was from behind and should have resulted in a UST penalty, was incensed and yelled at the refs.
Wouldn’t you know, a few seconds later St. Thomas got a second — and ultimately game winning — goal on the powerplay to take a 2-1 lead.
The game ended with this 2-1 scoreline as the Cobbers were unable to get an equalizer. The Cobber players and fans were visibly upset after the game, yelling at the refs and making no effort to hide their ire with the calls made during the game. Senior forward Jordy Christianson received a game misconduct after the game ended for “abuse of the officials” after he aired his grievances a little too fervently by getting
in their faces and yelling things that one could assume must have been not very friendly.
The ending of this game sucked if you were a Concordia fan. Plain and simple. But after a week of reflection, the losing result has taken on a whole new meaning.
Is losing fun? No.
Does it suck that the seniors had to go out like this? Absolutely.
Regardless of that, this hockey game is a perfect example of why people love sports. The connection between a person and his or her sports team of choice is second only to the connection between family and, maybe, close friends. With this connection comes pain when your team does not get the job done.
Whether it is because of a perceived bad call or just a poorly played game, losses inevitably lead to pain. This pain can be used two ways. The first way to deal with the pain is to make excuses and reminisce about the past. The second way is to call back the pain in a way that drives players to get better and whets the appetite of fans looking ahead to the next season. You do not have to look far for an example; just check out Moorhead High’s hockey team.
The Spuds have been to eight state championship games in the last three decades and have won none of them. The most recent loss to Grand Rapids last Saturday was another body blow for the fans who traveled to St. Paul, only to watch the Spuds go down 4-0 to start the game and lose 6-3 to the Thunderhawks.
So, back to the Cobber hockey team, what did this loss teach us?
For athletes and their fans, loss is an inherent reality of the job. Whining and complaining about the referees or other circumstances that resulted in a loss will get you nowhere, but taking pride in how far you have come and putting in the work to accomplish more next season will always make you better not only on the playing field, but also as a person in everyday life.