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Hockey: 25 years later, the first Hockey national title is still fresh in players' minds

It's been 25 years since Ohio defeated Penn State to win its first American Collegiate Hockey League national title. Even though that was a quarter of a century ago, that season is still fresh in the 1994-1995 team's mind. 

The build-up

After being upset in the American Collegiate Hockey League national tournament a year prior, the 1994-1995 Bobcats found themselves facing the same team in the same spot. North Dakota State had beaten Ohio 4-1 in the round-robin portion of the tournament. 

The rematch lived up to the hype. Ohio trailed the Bison 4-2 before erasing the deficit in the third period. Though Ohio was able to complete the comeback, it was not able to get the win. The game ended in a 4-4 tie.

"That tie made things nervous," said Mike Lee, the goalie for the 1994-95 Bobcats. "We didn't control our destiny. The same time though we came from behind in that game to get the tie. I think there was momentum that came from that game that carried us forward."

The Bobcats did their part getting a win against the host school Arizona in the next game. The surprising part? North Dakota State suffered an upset from Michigan-Dearborn. That resulted in Ohio advancing to the championship game against Penn State the next day.

Going into the game, Ohio was confident in its ability to win the national championship. The team had just defeated Arizona 7-1, and coach Craig McCarthy felt like his team was playing its best hockey during this stretch. 

"I felt really good about a month out," McCarthy said. "Knowing that last month, we were going to tighten up a little bit on special teams and intricate parts."

Usually, it's just the coach of the team that gives a pregame speech to get the team excited and tells them how to play the game. That was not the case for the Bobcats, though. After the Arizona game, Arizona's head coach came into Ohio's locker room and gave a speech. 

The speech he gave consisted of how he thought they were better than Penn State. He didn't stop there. He told the team how he hated the Nittany Lions, and he wanted the Bobcats to use Arizona's locker room in the championship game.

"He was almost like an evangelist or something," Lee said. "The basic point was he was telling us that he hated Penn State. He wanted us to kick their ass. He hated their coach and wanted us to use their locker room."

Game time

Ohio didn't need a confidence boost heading into the championship game, though. The team knew this was a game they could win based off how they played in the tournament. It didn't need another team's coach busting in the locker room to tell them they could do it. 

"I'd say after that game we were very confident," said Dan Morris, a former player on that team and a national championship coach. "Talk about a team peaking at the right time. That's kind of what we were."

Once the championship game started, Ohio showed why it was so confident heading into the game. In the first period, Ohio capitalized on a power-play opportunity to get on the board first.

"(Ryan) Johnson passed the puck to me, and I chip shot it over to (Keith) Bilzco on the back post," said Leon Rozic, a defenseman on the team. "One of the key things in that game was our power-play, which had just started to come together. It really started to gel, and it was a big difference in that last game."

McCarthy described the goal as something the team could not have drawn up better on a chalkboard. From that goal on, he felt like his team got better and better as the game progressed. 

However, the then 28-year-old head coach still felt like his team had to make a few adjustments at the first intermission. Nothing major needed to be changed, just a little tweaking to make sure the Nittany Lions would not have a chance to get back into the game. 

"We made one small adjustment on what we were going to look at on the power-play," McCarthy said. "One was making sure in the defensive zone we were picking up their best player coming off the faceoff."

The adjustments worked. The Bobcats found themselves with a 4-0 lead late in the game. Once it got late into the game, the shifts got shorter. Even though it was late in the game and they had a four-goal lead, no player wanted to make a mistake. 

Giving up a goal in that situation could have led to Penn State trying to make a comeback. Lee had no concerns about letting a puck slide by him that game. For most goalies, the final minutes of the game seem to slowly tick away when there's a shutout chance, but not that night.

"Going into that game, I had a feeling that we were going to play well," Lee said. "As a goalie, you get one of those certain days where you feel like you can't get scored on, and that was one of those days."

Lee's feeling was spot on. Ohio shutout the Nittany Lions en route to a 4-0 win. This was the program's first national title and first of three consecutive championships that McCarthy would win during his tenure as coach. 

The celebration begins

Once the clock hit zero, a week-long celebration began for the Bobcats. There was the usual celebration on the ice and in the locker room. The trophies were presented, photos taken and families were met on the ice. 

The interesting parts of the celebration began once the team got back to Athens. The team arrived in town and was recognized at halftime of the basketball game. They also took the trophy to all of the bars on Court Street every night of the week. 

"I think it continued on for a week or so," captain John Grasso said. "A few of us might have gotten in trouble not being in class Monday morning. It was a very good spring quarter. We were a close group."

Among the celebration though, there was an issue with the championship trophy. The problem was that it was in two pieces the day before the team was recognized in The Convo. 

The night prior, the trophy was thrown around at the bars. Luckily, the team was able to take it to a local hardware store and have it fixed before the ceremonies. 

"The cup was in two pieces at one point," Lee said. "We were at a party, and for some reason, it felt like the right thing to do to start throwing it around. I took it to a hardware store Sunday morning because the base was separated from the cup."

Despite the week-long celebration, the memories of the championship season are still as fresh as they were the day after the game ended. The 1994-1995 team had a total of four Ohio Hockey Hall of Famers on it. The team left its mark on the program and will not soon be forgotten. 


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