ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Hockey is an emotional game, and college hockey is no exception to that rule. For 38 games, the Robert Morris men’s hockey team fought and battled through their schedule, sacrificing individual pain for the greater good.
There won’t be a 39th.
The Colonials lost in the championship game of the 2017 Atlantic Hockey tournament, 2-1, to a talented Air Force Academy squad that will represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament.
In college hockey, more than the other versions of the sport, the end is sudden.
The Colonials were on a late-season roll, having won six straight games without trailing for a single moment following Ben Robillard’s senior night overtime game-winner against Mercyhurst. Robillard again put the team on his back in Rochester, scoring the Colonials’ lone goal to even things up in the second period.
Air Force’s Jordan Himley scored the game-winner with just 30 seconds left in the second period, but the Colonials still believed that they would be able to come back, even as they pulled freshman goaltender Francis Marotte for an extra attacker with 2:30 to play.
“We had faith,” senior forward Daniel Leavens said. “We had faith until the very last second that we were a team that could come back tonight.”
As the clock went to zeroes, the cold reality struck. The words used by head coach Derek Schooley and the team afterwards easily point to the emotion of that moment.
“At a loss for words.”
For Robillard, Leavens, Rob Mann and Dalton Izyk, the end is more final, as they finish their Robert Morris careers with 89 wins, the most in program history. That may make for little solace on the night they sought number 90.
“It hurts. It stings,” Schooley said, trying to overcome the emotions of the moment. “We just witnessed the end of the career for four tremendously important players in the history of Robert Morris hockey. [Leavens] is a big point producer and a big offensive guy, but it’s the character, it’s the glue, it’s the people. I’m sad. This has been my most enjoyable year of coaching.”
As with any group of players that go through four years of battles together, this group of Robert Morris seniors has formed a special bond.
“It’s family. It’s that simple,” Leavens said. “From preseason to now, and moving forward, we wanted to build a family. The leadership group, we wanted to have good people in that dressing room. … It’s something that we wanted to instill in everyone so much, that even when we’re gone next year, it’s the same thing and it just builds and builds.”
That is the reason that after the emotion clears, this Robert Morris team should carry on with its head held high. Not only did they leave everything on the ice in Rochester, they willed a team with 10 freshmen and little to no expectations to the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament.
This was supposed to be a down year. The Colonials were picked to finish sixth in the conference. By taking this group of Robert Morris players as far as they did, this team established a new standard.
Now, there are no down years.
“That was a championship performance,” Schooley said.
He was talking about the game. He could have been referring to the season.
“These guys left Colonials hockey in a better position, and that was hard to do.”