By Brad Salmen
ST. PAUL – As I was watching the NCAA Division I championship game at the XCel Energy Center Saturday, my mind floated back to the days I spent as a member of the Michigan Tech Huskies, a team that lost in overtime to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament this season.
Oh, you didn’t know I spent time with a Division I hockey team?
Allow me to regale you with this tale.
So first off, did I say “days?” Sorry, I meant day, singular.
Back in January 2006, I was living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, covering sports for the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette.
My biggest beat was the MTU Huskies, as they were the only name in town when it came to NCAA Division I sports.
Throughout the 2005-06 season, I’d jokingly asked MTU head coach Jamie Russell to let me don the pads so I could do a “gonzo” piece (in which the writer immerses themself physically into the story).
I didn’t expect it would ever happen. At the time, I was a young pup (26, in much better shape than I am now), but nevertheless it was just banter.
Until that day in January, when I approached Russell before practice.
“Need an extra goaltender?” I asked.
“Sure. You think you can do this?” said Russell.
Twenty minutes later, there I was having MTU starting goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak help me strap on his pads to prepare for practice. (Tes got the day off).
Tes was a good sport about it, and in fact ended up strapping most of the straps himself. Mostly because I wasn’t flexible enough to bend all the way over, but also because there are approximately 256 straps on those pads, and you need a PHD to put them on.
Also, Tes had a specific sequence of buckle holes he used, and I didn’t want to mess with his karma. It was bad enough having an out-of-shape sportswriter sweat profusely in your gear.
That gear, by the way, is extremely bulky and heavy. Even at that time, when I was in much better shape than I am now, I could only waddle onto the ice.
Assistant coach Pat Mikesch suggested I stretch first, which, in hindsight, was great advice.
Instead, I said, nah bro, let’s do this.
First shot, I blocked with good position.
Second shot, made a good glove save.
I was feeling pretty good – I’d never played organized hockey, but I grew up a rink rat here so I can skate a little bit and know what a hard slap shot looks like. And though I had never played goalie before, I thought I was in decent skating shape from playing rental hockey once a week.
Third shot, futile sprawling kick attempt, about a second after the puck was in the net.
Frustrated, I tried getting back up, but stumbled and fell awkwardly. I finally managed to get back up … and began hyperventilating.
The next 20 minutes were a blur.
I was so exhausted I couldn’t think. Moving quickly with what feels like 150 pounds strapped to your body drains all your energy, and the players were coming at me so quickly I couldn’t recover.
I know I stopped a handful of shots, and even made a couple of decent glove saves, but I could barely follow the puck, much less keep track of who was shooting. I kept waving for backup goaltender Kevin Hachey to replace me, so I could go stand in the corner and reinflate my lungs.
Somehow I survived … that light pre-practice shootaround.
Practice itself wasn’t as bad, mostly because I didn’t take part in conditioning, a right I fully reserved as a wheezing scrub.
I could actually enjoy the experience.
I took a hard shot from defenseman Jake Wilkens that I was pleased to see bruised my midsection.
I stoned Brandon Schwartz, who missed his next two shots aiming at my melon in retaliation, before he decided to stop messing around and roof one already.
I made a miraculous kick save on Mike Batovanja (who also roofed his next attempt).
And, like most goaltenders in the WCHA that season, I got beat five-hole by Chris Conner. Conner stood only 5-8, but was lightning quick, and parlayed that five-hole move into a solid NHL career .
I knew the move was coming and everything. Didn’t make a difference.
The players and coaching staff of that season’s Huskies team made the experience exteremely enjoyable. At the time, I was that reporter guy who stuck his tape recorder in front of their faces after games.
Yet, everyone of them was a cool, fun-loving bunch that day. I endured a fair bit of good-natured razzing, received a lot of encouragement, and was made to feel welcome.
I was especially honored after practice when they made me run the gauntlet as they whacked me with their sticks.
Up until I moved to the UP, I was a Minnesota Gophers hockey fan through and through.
To this day, I am a U of MN fan in every sport except one – hockey.
When it comes to hockey, I will forever bleed black and gold, sportswriter objectivity be danged.