Maine center Jim Montgomery kept his eyes on the prize all season. Last Saturday night in Milwaukee's jam-packed Bradley Center, as the Black Bears, down two goals, were about to take the ice for the third period of the NCAA Division I final, Montgomery warned linemates Cal Ingraham and Paul Kariya that he was not about to let it all slip away.
Just a few spins around the ice later, rhetoric became reality. Montgomery, a senior, scored three Kariya-assisted goals in a five-minute span, and the Black Bears climbed out of a 4-2 hole to edge Lake Superior State 5-4 for the championship. It was the first national championship of any kind for Maine, and it ranked right up there with Joan Benoit's gold medal in the 1984 Olympic marathon on the very brief list of singular achievements by Pine Tree State athletes.
If you haven't heard of Montgomery, Ingraham and Kariya, you don't live in Maine, where the Black Bears have had 138 straight sellouts at the 5,200-seat Al-fond Arena in remote Orono, 243 miles north of Boston. "Ever see that movie Hoosiers, where the whole community gets behind the high school basketball team?" asks Black Bear junior defense-man Chris Imes. "Well, that's the way it is with hockey at Maine, except it's not just one town. It's the whole state."
Hundreds of Mainers made the trip to Milwaukee for the Final Four. Many of them could be recognized by their lobster hats, which were a slightly brighter shade of red than the apple cheeks of entertainer Tom Green, who took the night off from his regular job as an Elvis impersonator to sing the national anthem. After the ersatz Elvis belted out The Star-Spangled Banner and dodged the outstretched arms of old ladies straining to touch his jet-black mane, he left the building to make room for other would-be legends.
There was Montgomery, the son of a Canadian Olympic boxer, who scored 32 goals in the Bears' 45 games this season. There was Ingraham, a rumpled 5'4", 158-pound junior, who scored a school-record and NCAA-leading 46 times. And there was the uncommonly poised, uncommonly talented Kariya, who merely led the nation with 100 points on 25 goals and 75 assists and became the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award, given to the finest player in college hockey.
But the Black Bears, who finished their dream season 42-1-2, have many fine players beyond their first line. "It's got to go down as one of the greatest teams in college hockey history," says Lake State coach Jeff Jackson, whose Lakers had hoped to claim that designation for themselves. National champions in 1988 and '92, the Lakers were attempting to become the first team in 21 years to win back-to-back titles. And through two periods on Saturday, they appeared to be on their way. But just as the Lakers began to contemplate returning home to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to ring their victory bell, they were derailed by the Black Bear Express. Then they were forced to watch as a beaming Montgomery smooched the championship plaque at center ice.
The game-winning goal came with a little more than 11 minutes to play. Kariya, who comes from North Vancouver, B.C., and will most likely be among the top five NHL draft picks in June, beat two defensemen to the left side of the net, then slid the puck with a surgeon's precision across the crease to Montgomery, who batted it past goalie Blaine Lacher. Afterward, Jackson didn't blame his Laker defense or goalie. "When those guys come at you at about 100 miles an hour, there's not a lot you can do," he said.
Lake State, though, didn't quit. Freshman winger Sean Tallaire drew the air out of 17,704 sets of lungs when he hit the crossbar with a minute left. "I don't know how it stayed out," says Maine goalie Garth Snow, who was sprawled on the ice at the time. "I heard a ping. I was praying. We got lucky."
For most of the season, the Black Bears made their own good fortune. The only blemish on their record came at home on Feb. 19, when they squandered a 6-2 lead and lost to Boston University 7-6 in overtime. "We blew that one," says Ingraham. Nobody's perfect, which is something Ingraham, from Georgetown, Mass., knows only too well. A bowling ball with legs who spent an unhappy freshman year at the Air Force Academy in 1989-90, Ingraham had been looked down on by college coaches. Some things never change. "He ain't five feet, four inches," says Maine coach Shawn Walsh with a laugh. "My wife's five-four, and he's shorter."
Ingraham fails to see the humor. "I'm actually five-four," he says. "At Air Force you had to be five-four to be pilot-qualified, and I made the cut." Unfortunately he didn't always make his bed, press his uniform, shine his shoes or keep his hair regulation length. "I'm not that kind of kid," says Ingraham, who prefers the lived-in look. "A lot of little things got me in trouble. By the time I left, I had a boatload of demerits, or whatever they call them."
He transferred to Maine, where Walsh guaranteed him nothing but a chance. Now Ingraham has worked his way to an 87% scholarship, for which he returns 100% on the school's investment.
At the other end of the conga line, there's Snow, a 6'4", 195-pound senior from Wrentham, Mass. He may be a lot taller than Ingraham, but he was just as unwanted. Snow caught Walsh's attention with a letter he mailed to the coach as a high school senior in 1988. "It was a long letter, a couple of pages, and it really impressed me," Walsh says. "He took the time to go into detail. He really wanted to come to Maine."
"I hate to say this," says Snow, "but it was a form letter. I wrote the same thing to every coach."
But Walsh was the one who answered, and Snow responded, putting together a 66-10-3 record in his four years with the Bears. He never loomed larger than he did in the semifinal on Thursday, a 4-3 victory over Michigan in overtime. And when goalie Mike Dunham struggled through the first two periods on Saturday night, Walsh again turned to Snow. "We needed offense, and I knew he could help us get something going," says Walsh, lauding Snow's puck-handling and passing skills, which help the Bears get out of the defensive zone and make a quick transition to offense. "He's the best offensive goalie in college hockey."
Some would say that Walsh, 37, is the most offensive coach in the college game. A brash, flamboyant self-promoter and showman, he'll do or say anything to put fannies in the seats. He has hosted $50-a-plate fund-raisers at which his tuxedo-clad players have served dinner. He has auctioned off season tickets and even seats next to the players on the bench. At a recent auction, a chance to break bread with Walsh and his wife, Tracey, went for $950. "We'll probably have lobster," he says.
Like him or not, Walsh is doing for college hockey what Ron Fraser, the colorful former coach at the University of Miami, did for college baseball. Walsh's more genteel peers compare him with Al Davis, the win-by-any-means boss of the Los Angeles Raiders. "I've been successful, and with success comes an intrinsic jealousy," Walsh says. "Frankly, I don't care."
Ironically, Jackson is one of the few coaches whom Walsh considers a friend. They both apprenticed under Michigan State's Ron Mason, the winningest college hockey coach ever and Walsh's father-in-law. Walsh and Jackson were roommates once, as young coaches at Mason's hockey camp in East Lansing. And last summer they got together at another of Mason's camps, in Traverse City, Mich., and exchanged ideas.
"Basically," says Walsh, "I wound up adding a little of the Lake State blueprint to the Maine blueprint."
The end result was just enough to win, baby.
Montgomery had three goals and an assist in the Final Four.
Clayton Beddoes and the Lakers were iced after Snow (30) came on in the third period.
Maine's main men: Montgomery (left) and Kariya.