Superstition is the Way

A dedicated Chowderhead, born Midwesterner with raised Seattle flair and surly Philadelphian are speeding down I-95 between Boston and Providence in a borrowed, burgundy Dodge in the mists of early April, making that highway run with such speed that the leaves on the trees would be whipped right off their branches — provided there were any, since Spring doesn’t arrive until late in Eastern New England, and provided we could be so easily distracted by something like weather with a matter life and death on the line.

Stevie Wonder is a musical genius, and though he once sang “if you believe in things that you don’t understand you suffer/superstition ain’t the way,” in 1974, here in the Year 2000, it didn’t mean much. Not to three kids on their way to crossing off one dream on their early sports bucket list: covering a Division-I national championship.

Au contraire, Steveland. We believed in the power of doing things in the exact right manner, in the exact place, at the exact time and repeating as often as necessary. We understood the risks, shunned the implications, knew what was at stake, planned accordingly and executed with precision. The fate of Boston College depended on it and we wanted to do our part so the fates could deliver.

Pink Floyd did their part to aid in the quest, too.

BC’s hockey team rose to national prominence over my four years in Chestnut Hill, and while all three of us were too young and inexperienced from a radio standpoint to partake in the festivities on site as undergrads when the NCAA’s came to Boston in 1998, two years later we were two seniors and a junior in charge of the sports department, so covering the Frozen Four was an inevitable perk of our advanced standing.

In the aforementioned Dodge, we agreed upon the following: the driver was Ryan Welch, I was awarded shotgun and Ricky Doyle was slotted into the back with our equipment in the trunk. The Division Bell was on the tape deck. We pulled out from the Beacon Street side of campus, just behind the stoplight at Hammond Street, the opening strains of Cluster One to send us on our way.

The Dunkin Donuts Center looks much better than it did 13 years ago. I was there for the American Hockey League All-Star Game back in January, and was impressed with how they changed what I remember as a little arena tucked away on the edge of freeway overpasses, drenched in history but covered with horrible green upholstery. They’ve got new seats, better sight lines and an extensive press area just off-center from the goal down one end of the ice.

As a fan, I didn’t dare try to sneak up to the press area and catch a better look of how the other half worked. Back in 2000, I didn’t either. That’s because since student radio was roughly 34th on the list of accomodations for the NCAA, all three of us had to broadcast amongst the people. We were wedged into the last three seats in a random row of non-partisan fans, stuck between trying not to disturb the flow of traffic down the aisle and the largesse of the beat guy for the Providence Cowl.

We all got the short end of the stick on that one — Ryan for constantly having to crane his neck above the crowd or lean around it, me for having to be stuck in the middle operating the equipment on this poor excuse of a card table the whole row evidently shared, and Ricky for being the odd man out in the first and third periods having to contort his lanky frame around the corpulent Friar Tuck. Space was precious, Breath was precious. Blood rushing to everything below our hip joints was precious. This was truly roughing it.

As Side One gave way to Side Two on the Floyd’s last offering, there was no flipping of the tape. It just ran continuously forward and then backward in place, gaining heat and friction. Nobody dared touch it for fear of ruining the mojo. By the time we completed the drive to Rhode Island and pulled into the garage, the car was shut off, snipping David Gilmour right in the middle of “Now I have seen the warnings…screeeeaming from all siiides…”

After BC advanced to the national final with a 4-2 comeback victory against the upstart Saints, the blood began rushing back into our extremities pumping fresh Maroon and Gold just about the time the Dodge was cranked back to life. Gilmour completed his impassioned sentence: “It’s eeeasy to ignore them and God knows I’ve triiiied…”
and we dreamed out loud of how each of us would cover the biggest game of our lives.

On the way back to campus, the shifting in tone from song to song, from lyrics and vocals to instrumentals, drove the mood. Pensive, excited, distant, expectant, hopeful. I know I was boring a hole into this album in a way that most “lay on the couch in a cloud of smoke and figure out the meaning of ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ experiences” could never reach. Being part of the ritual, it began to shift from background to forethought.

North Dakota was a different animal from St. Lawrence. National champs in 1997, the Fighting Sioux were loaded up and out for revenge after BC toppled them in the Western Regional the year before, knocking off UND as the #1 team in the country. The 2000 model was back and better than ever, having totally dismantled defensive-minded and surprise tournament-entry Maine in the semifinals.

Did any of that matter? Hell no. On Saturday, April 8, three guys who had a bird’s eye view of a team that picked itself off the floor more than once and battled to the top continuously were going to give us all one last trip on the roller coaster.

Still, a funny thing happened as we loaded up the Burgundy Beast on Beacon Street as the sky changed between a beautiful blue and chilly grey and we commenced the Floyd listening towards the end of the Grammy-winning instrumental “Marooned.” There was silence. As if frozen into our designated places. Paralysis by analysis. A classic case.

This was a game that neither Ryan nor I wanted to screw up since it was potentially a path to a starter job in broadcasting. We’d all seen the team rise from nowhere to stardom, had classes with the guys competing to finish their college careers with some additional hardware. They’d come this far, why not a little further.

I know I blasted through a hundred different scenarios at once: what it would be like to win, what it would be like to lose. Overtime. A fluke bounce. Bad penalty. Nothing but the wind whistling through my ears and Rick Wright’s keyboards and the persistence of memory. It could have been fields of boiling oil outside with wasp-sting winds, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Once again in Providence, the superheated clear plastic tape still belted out its chosen melodies, and again it was nullified mid-stream “There was a ragged band that followed in our foot—-” We had a job to do.

The Sioux came out as if skating through brick walls were no obstacle. Up, down, back, seemingly with the extra man at all times in all zones. The bigger, stronger, faster track of the WCHA made the matchup look like the star-studded Oilers against the scrappy Flyers from the Stanley Cup Finals more than a decade before. Those of us old enough remember how that turned out. It would prove to be prophetic.

But Ryan and I were into it. On our game, swaying and leaning in time with the crowd, never missing a beat, culmination of six months learning on the go. There were no distractions, only the game and focusing on our call.

Despite being badly outplayed, BC was somehow ahead after two periods, clinging to a 2-1 lead. The go-ahead score was netted by Marty Hughes, a defenseman converted to wing by the late-season absence of Tony Hutchins. Hughes had spent the entire postseason snakebitten, hitting posts and missing open chances the likes of which nobody had seen unless they were a fan of any team Daymond Langkow played for.

The sense of existential dread began to creep in as I recited the between-period stats. Throughout the playoffs, the Eagles came from behind and won. Down to UNH in the Hockey East semifinals, won 2-1. Down 1-0 in the last minute of regulation of the final to Maine, tied and then lost. Trailing 5-2 entering the third period against Michigan State in the first round and won in overtime. Behind 2-1 to St. Lawrence and scored three times in the third to advance.

I recalled that 1987 Cup Final. After giving up the first goal in each of the first six games against Edmonton, and then four of the last five to Montreal in the semis, the Flyers scored during a 5-on-3 with 1:41 elapsed in the first period of Game 7. And then watched the Oilers pour on 43 shots and three goals to win the title.

True to suspicion and horribly on cue, North Dakota came roaring back in the third period and stole the championship away. Goals by Lee Goren, Bryan Ulmer, then Goren again sealed the 4-2 decision — the last of which was an empty-netter that produced an iconic image of Hobey Baker winner Mike Mottau on his knee, sliding in the crease after a futile attempt to track down the shot.

The chain broken, our hopes dashed. No reason to continue the charade — pronounced just as Roger Waters does in “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” We obviously failed them somehow.

On the long road back to Newton, I stretched out on the back seat and tried to forget. There was no more need for Pink Floyd, so the sentence remained incomplete. I said nothing and felt even less, while Ryan and Ricky conversed over the Red Sox broadcast. As I pause to put this all down, I can’t recall anything about those three days without mentally slipping into a chorus of “Take It Back” that serves as background music.

In the present, whenever a colleague or person higher up in the chain says they have a set routine before a game, it’s left alone. Getting an interview nailed down with Jim Jackson and Tim Saunders brought me face-to-face with that reality. Both guys only want it done over the phone, and both times when I’ve asked them to block out time well ahead of a home game when I’ve been credentialed, they’ve declined and cited a need to keep their various preparations intact. I fully understand and have to adapt. They’ve earned that respect.

If you’re wondering if superstition has any practical implications, remember the day of the Phillies’ World Series parade. We only get a few cracks at it in a lifetime, and October 31, 2008 worked better than could have been expected. Every rally cap and ritual for 30 years was cashed in on that Friday.

When the Flyers get their chance after that third game is won, for my part, I’ll be warming up the Floyd once again and staking out my place in the Dodge.