It was a gray morning in Eau Claire with a threat of a wintry mix all day when Brandon Stephenson woke up on March 9, 2013.
He probably wouldn’t have noticed whether it was sleeting or sunny, hot or cold, wet or dry. There was a mission to complete that night.
In a few hours, the goalie for the UW-Eau Claire men’s hockey team would board a bus and travel across Highway 29 for a chance to advance to the Frozen Four, where a national champion would be crowned the next weekend.
But two-time defending champion St. Norbert, an archrival and opponent that had just skated around with the Peters Cup on the Blugolds home ice a week earlier, stood in the way.
Cornerstone Community Center in Ashwaubenon — home to one of the most raucous crowds in Division III — was the site for the NCAA quarterfinal that night.
The opportunity of a lifetime was there. And Stephenson woke up in the zone ready to take it.
“I just remember that I was so ready I had two pairs of contacts in my eyes that day,” he said. “I was hyped up that I kind of forgot of everything else going on.”
For 60 minutes of hockey that night, he never left his zone.
Stephenson stopped 39 of 40 shots as the Blugolds pulled off their biggest win in three decades. Chris Heineman scored a power-play goal with 44 seconds left in the second period to break a 1-all tie. Kurt Weston added an empty-net goal for the icing on the cake with 42 seconds left.
When the clock hit zero, most of the 1,816 people that filled Cornerstone were silent. The only sound was the Blugolds pouring onto the ice and screaming on their way to Stephenson.
“Winning there was better than anything,” captain Andrew McCabe said.
The next weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., UW-Eau Claire beat Utica 5-1 and Oswego State 5-3 to capture the NCAA title.
Last weekend, 23 of 28 players from that roster were in town for a five-year reunion outing. They came from Alaska, Canada, New York City and beyond to gather.
It hardly seems like it’s been that long.
But in a way, the team’s effect has never really left.
Hobbs Ice Center continues to pack ‘em in on Friday and Saturday nights for the team. The Blugolds, bottom dwellers for many years before the 2013 team, are annual contenders.
“You set the meter of winning a national championship and see where the program is at now, and everybody wants to be there,” said Niko Kapetanovic, a forward on that squad. “They all talk about this team.”
You don’t need two pairs of contacts to see just how much of an impact the squad made on the program, university and community.
■ ■ ■
Virtually the same roster was back from a team that went 13-12-3 in 2011-12. The Blugolds hadn’t experienced a whole lot of success yet on the national level, although coach Matt Loen was beginning to show signs of turning the program around.
A team that had just one win 10 seasons earlier and two in 2005-06 had only been four games above .500 in a season once since 1994-95.
For much of its existence, it wasn’t a program synonymous with winning.
Looking back at that 2011-12 season, though, the Blugolds had lost five one-goal games and had a couple of ties. The group made it a mission as soon as St. Norbert ended their season in the conference tournament that it would work to reverse those fortunes.
“Whether it was a bad bounce or we didn’t come out hard in the first period or third period or whatever it is, I think that offseason we put in the work as a group,” said David Donnellan, a former state champion at Memorial. “Tons of guys stayed in Eau Claire over the summer.”
And off to work the Blugolds went, putting in extra time in the weight room and perfecting the chemistry on the ice. By the time the 2012-13 season hit, they were ready to make a statement.
“I think it was the build up going into the season,” Stephenson said. “I think the season prior was not the way we wanted to finish. Getting back into training camp and with the new guys we added, I think we realized that we were going to be good. It was just how good were we going to be.”
UW-Eau Claire figured it out early in the season and put the rest of the country on notice. The Blugolds began the year 10-0-1, going undefeated in October and November games.
The week before Thanksgiving, they traveled to none other than St. Norbert, where they gathered three points in a series at Cornerstone. They won 5-3 on Friday night before tying the Green Knights 3-3 on Saturday.
According to St. Norbert sports information director Dan Lukes, the only other team to win twice at Cornerstone in a single season went on to win the national title — the 2002 UW-Superior Yellowjackets. The Blugolds were already setting the bar high.
After a two-game pounding of Concordia on Thanksgiving weekend with 12-4 and 6-3 wins, UW-Eau Claire came back and knocked off perrenniel power UW-Stevens Point 5-2 on Nov. 30 before seeing the unbeaten streak come to an end with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pointers on the first day of December.
“I think being able to play with St. Norbert and Stevens Point early in the year, we realized that hey, we’re there,” forward Jordan Singer said. “We can do it.”
That early pace never let up. The Blugolds sprinted all the way to Lake Placid.
■ ■ ■
A funny thing happens when a team starts winning. Seats in an arena fill up.
The first home game of the season, the win over Concordia on Nov. 24, a total of 417 people watched the game at Hobbs Ice Center.
The first Friday home game with students in the house, 888 people witnessed the Blugolds take down UW-Stevens Point.
By late February with an NCAA berth in the making, 1,200 folks were packing Hobbs regularly.
“You win hockey games, people in this community will come support you,” said McCabe, another former Memorial skater.
The Blugolds had a backing, and going to games became a thing for students to do on weekend nights as busload after busload would pick folks up from campus and drive them down to Hobbs while off-campus students stopped in at Ray’s Place on the way to Hobbs before the game. It made for wild atmospheres and a tough home-ice advantage.
This Blugolds squad was all business, though. It had a mission and couldn’t get caught up in the atmosphere.
Which makes it less crazy that the team actually experienced more success on the road during the 2012-13 run.
UW-Eau Claire was 12-1-2 away from home.
So maybe, just maybe, St. Norbert coming in and shutting the Blugolds out in front of a capacity crowd of 1,600 people on March 2 at Hobbs Ice Center to capture the NCHA crown was a blessing in disguise.
The NCAA selection committee elected to put UW-Eau Claire, despite having a better record and two head-to-head wins and a tie to just one loss against the Green Knights, in the wild-card game of the NCAA tournament.
The winner of the Blugolds/St. John’s game on Wednesday, March 6 would go to St. Norbert.
“I think we need a game before we play St. Norbert anyway,” Loen said on March 3, the night of the selection show. “I think it’s a wakeup call for our team. We didn’t play well last night.”
The Blugolds woke up midway through the second period that following Wednesday night.
Down 2-1 to St. John’s, they rattled off three goals in a 3:11 span to grab a stranglehold on the game. Devin Mantha tied it at 12:31, Isaiah Bennis scored the go-ahead goal at 14:22 and Weston added insurance at 15:42.
“The one thing that we all, that I’ve never seen on a team before or after, is that we never panicked,” defenseman Jack Callahan said. “No matter what, no matter the situation, we’d look down the bench and it would just be like, ‘We got this.’”
After holding off the Johnnies in the third period, the Blugolds earned themselves another opportunity at the Knights.
And on that overcast and cold Saturday night in March, they pounced on it.
Especially with an ultra-focused Stephenson in net.
“We knew as a defensive core that no matter what happened, we had Brando,” Callahan said. “I think truthfully it gave us that confidence to take a few chances and a few risks because if it didn’t work out, Brandon was one of the best.”
■ ■ ■
The shot totals that night didn’t tell the story, at least in Stephenson’s eyes. It was a 40-21 Green Knights advantage. But most of them didn’t have second-chance opportunities, which is all the goalie from Saline, Mich., needed.
“I think we really kept them away from the grade-A scoring chances that can break open games,” Stephenson said. “I told the guys throughout the entire run, if you let me see the puck, I’m not going to guarantee I save it, but I’m going to have a pretty darned good chance of saving the puck. Let me see the first one, and you guys get the rebound.”
By the final buzzer, they all had a trip to the Frozen Four ahead with perhaps the biggest hurdle to clear in the rearview mirror.
“There was no doubt in my mind that the national championship game was played in the Cornerstone that night,” said Lukes, who had a front-row seat with the rest of the game officials between the benches.
For UW-Eau Claire, though, it was off to northeastern New York for a chance to bring home what many thought was won already that night in De Pere.
“Our confidence was riding so high,” Kapetanovic said. “Once we won that thing, you could tell the way guys were feeling that were going to win the national championship.”
■ ■ ■
Still, when the Blugolds got out to Lake Placid the following weekend, they were with a trio of teams from the East Coast: Utica (N.Y), Norwich (Conn.) and Oswego State (N.Y.).
They were the unfamiliar team, and the video at the banquet the night before the semifinal games proved that.
At last Friday’s five-year gathering, Donnellan, McCabe and Kapetanovic recalled vividly the memory from that with each bringing in an additional memory that rounded out the full experience.
Here’s the gist of it.
The other three teams, according to the trio, would show packed houses, highlight-reel goals and celebrations. The whole works.
The only appearance the Blugolds made in the cut was them skating out onto the ice for the national anthem at a random game.
“We had confidence in ourselves, but the East Coast teams didn’t think we were anybody,” Donnellan said. “They thought they were going to walk all over us, and I think that’s what made it so cool was that internal confidence.”
The Blugolds made sure their opponents for the weekend saw their highlights in person.
After falling behind 1-0 midway through the second against Utica in the semis, UW-Eau Claire rattled off five straight goals and cruised to victory. Singer got the equalizer, and Ross Andersen had the game-winner 22 seconds later. Weston scored twice in the third, including a short-handed tally, before Andersen put it way with an empty net goal late.
“They were not expecting what they got,” McCabe said.
One night later, the Blugolds had their chance to bring home gold and prove the best brand of hockey was played close to the Missisippi River instead of Atlantic Ocean.
Two weeks after falling in the Peters Cup and a week after avenging that loss with an epic quarterfinal win against St. Norbert, the puck dropped in the final game of the season.
Yet it was Oswego State taking control of the game early, scoring two quick goals and threatening to end the storybook journey with a missing last chapter.
But like they had done all year, the Blugolds stayed calm and collected. An inspiring speech from a senior leader sparked the rally.
“Singer bent over and was like, ‘Boys, we’re going to win this game,’” Callahan said. “And he was our leader and captain. And we were like, ‘Alright, we’re gonna.’ I think next shift he scored. And we were like, ‘Wow, yeah, we are going to win this game.’”
Singer indeed scored a power-play goal with 14:25 gone by in the first, and Andrew Wilcox tied it with 53 seconds left to go in the opening 20 minutes.
From that point on, it was all Blugolds.
“We went down in games, we had a couple of bad losses during the year, but we always came back,” Singer said. “Being down 2-0 in the championship game and winning it really painted a picture of that team.”
Daniel Olszewski put UW-Eau Claire ahead with a goal at 6:29 of the second, and Mantha made it a two-goal game early in the third period.
After the Lakers brought it within one with 10 minutes left to play, Stephenson slammed the door, and Weston added an empty-net goal with 59 seconds remaining.
As it was once said at the same Lake Placid arena in a certain game during the 1980 Olympics, the countdown was on.
Do you believe in national championships? Yes!
■ ■ ■
For a group to come together and achieve the ultimate pinnacle, there has to be superior cohesion. Everybody has to buy in and realize their contributions are one small part of the greater good. This UW-Eau Claire team from 2012-13 got that. They were partners on the ice. They were brothers off it.
“We didn’t do anything without everybody,” Kapetanovic said. “A guy would want to go out to dinner and grab a burger, and everybody would be there.”
A team with a mix of Division I transfers and blue-collar recruits came together to unite a university and community.
They had strong voices and guys who were willing to listen.
“Where I worked in games, and just the things I heard on their bench and the leadership from their guys during that (St. Norbert) game, and that led me to believe that they were going to go out to Lake Placid and win it,” Lukes said.
When they came together a week ago, many seeing each other for the first time since 2013, it was like they never left each other.
“A once in a lifetime group of guys,” McCabe said.
They are bonded by a banner that’s perched high for all to see at Hobbs Ice Center.
As the years go on, and five-year reunions turn to 10, 15, 20 and so forth, the 2013 UW-Eau Claire men’s hockey team will always have a place in the university’s lore.