When people think of the “Ides of March”, there thoughts go to the assassination of Julius Caesar and of reading William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar as the title character is warned “beware the Ides of March”.
For me, the “Ides of March” represents the day of the final game of the Iona College Hockey Team. On March 15, 2003, my alma mater’s hockey program came to an end in a heart-wrenching loss to Mercyhurst in the MAAC Quarterfinals.
The termination of the hockey program is the reason why the 2004-2005 NHL Lockout, and our current brush with Lockout #2, did not bother me as it did the majority of New York Rangers fans. I knew that eventually the Rangers, and the NHL, would be back. The same could not be said of the Ice Gaels.
On that night in Erie, Pennsylvania I witnessed an incredible scene – one that occurred after the game. As I made my way through the Iona locker room, it was the Iona players consoling me rather than me consoling them. I know as a journalist one is supposed to remain neutral and remove themselves from a rooting interest – something I strove very hard to do as part of my duties as the Iona College game recapper for US College Hockey Online.
However, on that fateful day my emotions as a fan won out I tried to talk to Coach Frank Bretti and his players that night. Instead of me helping them through their tough time, they were helping me. If you ever met those players you would understand why my feelings as a fan came through – while they were good hockey players, they were even better guys. That goes for pretty much every player I encountered while covering the Iona hockey team.
In tribute to the 10th anniversary of the final game of the Ice Gaels, I offer this reprinted article of that final game. It is not from the recap I did for USCHO. Instead, it is from the expanded recap I did for Ranger Ramblings – back in the days when the column was part of Allsports.com’s Ranger Fan Central.
While I do not miss the crazy bus rides with Coach USA – and there were some real doozies – I do miss the good times and great people associated with the Iona College Hockey program. As I sit and write this prologue, I can’t help but tear up and wonder what might have been had the Iona College program continued. Archrival Quinnipiac left the successor to the MAAC (Atlantic Hockey) for ECAC and this year become the #1 team in the country. I often wonder, if Quinnipiac, why not Iona?
What started as a club team in 1967 ended on March 15, 2003 as the Iona College hockey program came to an end with its 5-4 loss at Mercyhurst. With the victory, the Lakers advance to their fourth consecutive MAAC Semifinals in as many years. Mercyhurst (20-12-2) will play Bentley in the 5:00 p.m. game on March 21, 2003.
The end of an era came at 9:23 p.m. as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The hockey team embodied Iona’s motto of “fight the good fight”. It would have been easy for lesser athletes to fold at the prospect of overcoming a three-goal deficit with only 20 minutes left to play in their Iona careers. What the Iona Administration never realized, nor accounted for, was the heart and backbone of their players given the circumstances of the past week – especially given the fact the Administration told the players one of the reasons for dropping the hockey program was over a concern over how competitive the team could be.
One week ago Iona (11-22-2) visited Fairfield as the Stags played their final Division I hockey game. Little did the Gaels know seven days later they would be facing the same situation.
Iona coach Frank Bretti explained how he learned about the beginning of the end of the hockey program during the Friday afternoon press conference at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.
“I was basically called in. I was left a message that evening before [that] I had to meet with the president and our AD. I was called and told that they wanted to meet with the team at nine o’clock. When I got that message I had a feeling that they weren’t going to be wishing us good luck at Mercyhurst to be honest with you,” Bretti recounted. “It was pretty much told to me pretty quickly that there were some issues and some reallocations of money and we basically fell victim to it.”
Mind you, these events all took place just four days before the Gaels would play their MAAC playoff game.
Iona captain Mark Hallam described his teammates feelings as they headed into the Mercyhurst game.
“There are some people [in the Iona Administration] that we would like to prove wrong. We haven’t had much success here [at Mercyhurst] in the past and we were able to battle back that game and get an overtime win. I think that could be one of the big turning points in our season so far. From there we were able to develop some confidence and into the second half there I think we went on a little run here at the end, 7-4-1 or something like that,” the native of Medicine Hat, Alberta stated.
“We feel like we’re playing good hockey right now, we have a lot of confidence and outside of some bad news this week, we feel like we have a job to do this weekend and we just have to get it done.
In that press conference, Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin summed up the sentiments of the Iona faithful.
“It’s a sad day for Iona. It’s a sad day for the MAAC, and it’s a sad day for college hockey,” he said. “I thought we’d lose some teams. [But] if you told me it would be Iona, I wouldn’t believe it. Hearing the news about Iona is numbing to me. I think Iona is making a terrible mistake. I question the timing of the decision [and announcement].”
Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding the Iona program, Gotkin and his team realized there was still a job to get done.
“It’s clearly a distraction for us, but we’re preparing for a very good [Iona] team that beat us here. We’re going to have to be very good to be successful,” Gotkin said during the press conference.
Lakers captain Adam Rivers addressed what his team needed to do to survive and advance in the MAAC playoffs.
“It’ll come down to a game of little things,” the senior from Belleville, Ontario said. “We’ve got to stick to our game plan – control the neutral zone, no turnovers, tight defense, that sort of thing.”
Hallam agreed with his counterparts’ assessment when it came to following the game plan. “We have to bring our ‘A’ game in all three zones. We have to play strong defensively, can’t make mistakes in the neutral zone, and [we] have to finish in the offensive zone.”
While there was an obvious extra-added emotional level to the game, Bretti was quick to point out that his team could not run on emotion alone.
“I think it does on the mental side of it. The reality of it is, as I tell our guys through the course of the year, different coaches have different methods of motivating people. Whether it’s through quotes and this and that, the bottom line is that you have to be physically and mentally prepared,” Bretti explained.
“We’re definitely up against the most formidable opponent in the league and it’s going to take a lot more than emotion to win this game. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a little bit of extra energy in everybody in the lineup for us when it’s all said and done.
When the Gaels arrived at the rink, they were met with some unexpected well wishes from former Iona players and friends of the hockey program. Assistant coach Rob Haberbusch put out a call and the Gaels’ faithful responded – letting the hockey team know many people were still rooting for them. Haberbusch put up the notes of encouragement on the wall in the hallway leading to the Iona locker room.
The Lakers opened the scoring in the opening minutes of the game as Dave Borelli scored the first of his two goals at 2:26 with David Wrigley and Adam Rivers assisting on the freshman’s goal.
“I came out of the corner and the puck just came loose and I popped it into the empty net,” the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native explained.
The Gaels would take the lead midway through the first period as they cashed in on a pair of play chances just over two minutes apart.
With Jamie King in the penalty box for Hooking, Hallam evened the score at 8:54 on a set up from Jamie Carroll and Ryan Swanson as he slipped home his 11th goal of the season beating Andy Franck between the pads. The point was Hallam’s 100th of his career as he became the 32nd Gael (and fourth in their Division I history) to hit the century mark.
The Gaels took the lead a little more than two minutes later with Marty Rychley serving a Tripping penalty. Tim Krueckl put Iona ahead at 11:12 as he scored his 11th of the season, and fourth in three games against Mercyhurst, on assists from Hallam and Jamie Carroll.
The Gaels CHecK Line of Carroll, Hallam and Krueckl finished up with 21 goals and 31 assists in their last 13 games, serving notice they would have been one of the most potent lines in the MAAC next season – if there had been a next season for Iona.
The Gaels good fortunes did not last long as Borelli scored again just 24 seconds later as he beat Ian Vigier from the high slot for his seventh of the season and third against Iona in as many games.
In victory, Borelli was quick to praise the Gaels. “We have to give a lot of credit to Iona. They came out and played hard. It was an emotional game from the beginning,” the freshman center related. “Everybody on our team came out and played 60 minutes and that is what it takes to win in the playoffs.”
Mercyhurst took the lead for good with less than five minutes as they converted off a set play on a faceoff in the Iona zone as Wrigley tipped home Mike Muldoon’s centering pass at 15:04. Borelli received the secondary assist on Wrigley’s 14th of the season and third against Iona.
Franck made a pair of dazzling saves in the final minute to keep Iona from tying the game. He stopped Hallam, who had a defender on his back, on a partial breakaway with 50 seconds left in the first period, and Franck later made a sprawling save on Ryan Manitowich in the slot with 21 seconds remaining. Franck’s late period heroics were just a preview of what he would do in the third period.
“Franck has been outstanding for the last two months,” Borelli said explaining the workload the freshman has carried after junior Matt Cifelli left school in January.
“He’s had his down games, but the last month he’s been playing great for us. He’s been playing awesome for us and we need that just like we need everyone else to step up.”
The Lakers extended their lead to three, as their power play stepped up and converted on a pair of consecutive power play opportunities.
With Aaron Kakepetum whistled off the ice for a Delay of Game penalty, T.J. Kemp extended the lead to 4-2 as he slid down from his left point position to deflect home Rich Hansen’s cross-ice pass at 9:58. Adam Tackaberry, returning to the lineup after missing the last 10 games, also assisted on Kemp’s 10th goal.
Mercyhurst struck again on the power play as they scored six seconds after Brent Williams’ Holding penalty man. Peter Rynshoven one-timed Hansen’s pass into the net for his 10th goal at 12:02.
Down three and watching their season and Iona careers slipping away, the Gaels dug in deep and decided they would not go gently into that good night.
During the second intermission, Bretti tried to get his team to forget about the emotional events of the past few days and concentrate on the task at hand.
“I’ve always believed in these guys. At the end of the second period, we talked about needing to settle down a little bit. We felt we were going to continue to get [scoring] opportunities,” he explained. “It was just going to come down to being able to finish a few of them. We were able to give it a fight until the end.”
Actually, Iona thought they had cut the lead to two with 58 seconds left in the second period, but referee Jeff Fulton ruled the puck did not cross the goal line and while bothering to check with the goal judge – even though it appeared, from the press box, that the puck had skittered completely over the goal line. An ensuing 10-minute misconduct penalty costs the Gaels the services of Chad Van Diemen – the team’s second highest scoring defenseman.
At one point early in the third period, the Gaels had Van Diemen, Ryan Swanson (Holding minor) and Trevor McCall (Roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct) in the penalty box. Bretti was forced use freshman center Andrew McShea on defense with half his blueliners in the penalty box.
The Gaels finally cut the lead to two at 6:30 of the third period when Neil Clark tipped home Kakepetum’s shot from the point. Brent Williams drew the secondary assist on Clark’s third goal.
Five minutes later it was Williams firing home his 13th of the season and breathing life back into the Iona hockey program. Williams hustled off the Iona bench to keep the puck in at the right point. The sophomore skated into the high slot and beat Franck high to the glove side. Kelly Bararuk and Clark drew the assists on the goal as their forechecking paved the way for the goal.
Iona had the Lakers back on their heels as they threw everything at Mercyhurst – including the proverbial kitchen sink. The eighth-seeded Gaels had the number one seeded Lakers content just to ice the puck to relieve the pressure.
The Gaels nearly tied the game with two and a half minutes left, but Franck’s toe save of a Manitowich redirection in front proved to be the best, and most important, of Franck’s 43 saves.
“Andy Franck won us this hockey game. There is no question in my mind,” Gotkin said. “The games [is] 5-2 and we come out and have four or five chances. If one of them goes in, I think we win the game going away. They didn’t go in and I think there was some magic in Iona’s situation. The next thing we know, it’s 5-4 and we are hanging on by our thumbnails.”
Gotkin was quick to offer his support and praise of the Gaels in defeat.
“I’d like to tip my hat to Frank Bretti, his assistants, and most importantly, his players. They really played great and showed a lot of heart. I am proud to have had the chance to coach against them the last four or five years. I have no doubt all these people will land on their feet,” said Gotkin.
“We had to try and overcome everything in a three day period and had to play the most formidable opponent in the league on the road,” an emotionally drained Bretti said. “I am proud of my guys. They gave it everything they had. We took the game to the last few seconds. My guys showed a lot of class going it the third period.”
What part did the emotional level play in the game?
“It’s really so hard to pinpoint how emotion affected the shifts and certain instances in the game. The bottom line tonight is it has been a difficult four days for us,” Bretti said. “We were doing everything we could to keep our focus. What was difficult for us to deal with was coming into this playoff series. We felt very good about how we were playing and then somebody brings you in ….”
A week before, following the Gaels win in Fairfield University’s final hockey game, Haberbusch spoke about his alma mater’s decision to eliminate its hockey program. With a couple of minor adjustments, the words he used in relating the fate of the Stags fits the Gaels and bears repeating.
“I feel very bad for these  kids on the team and the coaches that were brought here under the guise there was a long-term commitment to them and their goals. It is very devastating to the alumni base as well,” Haberbusch said.
”There are  years of [hockey] tradition here. Countless people have been through here and put in a great deal of hard work, dedication and commitment into this program. To see it taken away with the snap of a finger is very hard to swallow [and] that something so many people worked so hard to build isn’t going to be there anymore.”
For two years I have tried to be as impartial and neutral as possible in covering Iona College for U.S. College Hockey Online and USA College Hockey Magazine – despite the fact that Iona College is my alma mater and full-time employer.
Given the circumstances of the past week, I feel the need to thank all of the players and coaches who I have covered the past two years and rooted for during the past five seasons. Listening to the players after the game and in taking to the parents of Jamie Carroll and Andrew McShea, it was apparent, that parents and players alike thought of Iona as much more than the next place to play hockey. It was a home to them.
Jaymie Harrington spoke of being a “nomad” when it came to playing in as many six cities before coming to Iona. He thought he finally had a chance to hang his hat in one place for four years.
Trevor Aubie spoke of working in a local mill back home in western Canada before being given a chance by Coach Bretti to play hockey and get an education.
The bottom line is there are similar stories for each of the 25 members of the hockey team. While the names, faces and hometowns might change, the moral of the story is still the same
Each of these players made Iona a better place because of their presence on campus. Their absence leaves a void that will not easily be replaced – if it can be replaced at all.
They all deserved a better fate.
In the 10 years that have gone by since that final game, the Iona College Hockey program saw, by my count, nine players go on to play professional hockey in various North American leagues (AHL, ECHL, CHL, UHL and IHL) as well as playing overseas in Europe.
In fact, as I write, two of those Gaels are still playing professional hockey – Nathan Lutz and Ian Vigier. The others who played professional hockey include Jamie Carroll, Ryan Carter, Neil Clark, Tim Krueckl, Ryan Manitowich, Chris Martini, and Dan McGuire.
In addition, Iona coaches have found their way behind benches of other teams. Former player and assistant coach Mike Warde is an assistant coach at Army. Rob Haberbusch, who suffered the cruel fate of watching both Fairfield and Iona shutter their hockey programs, is the head coach at Hamilton College. Frank Bretti is the coach of the NY Apple Core program in the EJHL as he now prepares players for collegiate aspirations. Pat Lyons would eventually go from player, to assistant coach to eventual former Athletic Director at Iona and current AD at Seton Hall.
Other former Gaels have gotten into the off-ice world of hockey. Adam Bouchard spent two seasons as an assistant coach with Framingham State College. Jayme Harrington is currently the head coach at Franklin Pierce College. Mike Fraser is a scout with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.
If I missed anyone in those honors, I apologize for the omission. This addendum was meat to celebrate the Iona College Hockey program and, as John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, wonder “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!’”