An astounding thing has happened in men’s college hockey. Since it took place in September, you may have been paying more attention to the Red Sox wild-card push, but with the college hockey season now starting on Nov. 7 (how silly is that?) attention must be paid. Please sit down and take a deep breath.
The Princeton Tigers are favored to win the ECAC.
Not by the Prince or the assistant trainer’s mom (although she’s pretty savvy) but by the league coaches. The hockey coaches. The men’s ice hockey coaches.
Admittedly, the Tigers are the defending league playoff champs, but we’re still talking uncharted territory here. The team snuck up on the hockey world last year; Princeton has won the ECAC regular season exactly never. Coming off a 15-16-3 season the year prior, they were a top-eight team in the conference, but clearly not top four. Then under fourth-year coach Guy Gadowsky they caught fire, going 15-5 after Jan. 1 to win the ECAC tournament and steam into the NCAAs. They return a slew of key folks this year, and there’s molto excitement down at Baker Rink.
Having been reminded by the management that eight months ago does not quite qualify under PAW’s stringent definition of history, I hasten to mention that I only note this frozen sea change as a parallel to the story of one of my favorite Tiger squads of all time – the equally unlikely national champion men’s lacrosse team of 1992. In fact, there’s a downright weird parallel between the two that brought that whole season back to mind.
Selected as the ECAC playoffs most outstanding player, the goalie at the heart of the hockey team was a sophomore with the magically mellifluous name of Zane Kalemba ’10. The All-American goalie at the heart of the lacrosse team was a sophomore with the magically mellifluous name of Scott Bacigalupo ’94. Call it the Bacikalembagalupo confluence – I dare you.
Anyway, fiery Bill Tierney had come to Princeton in 1988 from two national championships as an assistant at Johns Hopkins to scoop up a men’s lacrosse program that had cratered, 12-46 over the prior four years, 5-19 in the Ivies. Suddenly, by 1990 the Tigers were 11-4 and made the NCAA tournament of 12. In 1991 they went 12-2 and got a first-round bye, but in the quarterfinals lost an excruciating 14-13 triple overtime game to Towson at Palmer Stadium. The freshman Bacigalupo would go 18-0 at home the rest of his career.
So the ’92 team wasn’t unheralded, but it was also hardly elite. Hopkins, Syracuse, and North Carolina among them had won the previous 14 NCAA championships, and while Princeton was ranked going into the season, it was suspect, with a grand total of two (losing) tourney games in its history. Sure enough, early one-goal road losses to Hopkins and UNC left the team at 3-2 and one giant rung below the triumvirate. Improving bit by bit, the Tigers took on nationally ranked teams from Yale, Brown, and Cornell and went 6-0 for their first unbeaten Ivy season since their last league championship 25 years before. The Cornell game was played in Palmer Stadium, and superquick co-captain Andy Moe, the lone remaining veteran of Tierney’s first team four years earlier, scored the winning goal in overtime.
That was intentional practice for the tournament, since Tierney expected a home game in Palmer. (Among other colorful character traits, Tierney is a preparation demon. He used to take his teams into Jadwin early in the spring simply to watch basketball practice in silence; his theory was that if you couldn’t learn by watching Pete Carril coach, you couldn’t learn, period.) Sure enough, Maryland came in and engaged in a game of huge runs: The Tigers, up 6-3 one minute into the second half, gave up six straight goals in the next 11 minutes, then retaliated with five straight of their own over the next 14 to go up 11-9. Andy Moe swatted away the last flurry in front of Bacigalupo, who had 11 saves and high gymnastic scores from the judges; his tippy-toe stance and fearless rushes around the crease and the field were always a marvel, even to old lax hands.
So Princeton was in the Final Four on Penn’s Astroturf in Franklin Field. With (you got it) Carolina, Hopkins, and Syracuse. First up was defending champ UNC; they knew Princeton from early in the year, and neither team had lost a game since. After the two teams were feeling each other out and the score was 2-2, Bacigalupo got hot, Princeton’s shooting gelled, and suddenly the Tigers were up 7-2 at the quarter. The crowd (both sides, to be honest) was stunned. The television announcers, unfamiliar with Princeton, realized “This Bacigalupo kid is amazing” and “Tierney’s intense, isn’t he?” (The latter is like saying the Statue of Liberty is large.) By halftime, Bacigalupo had 10 mystical saves and a few rushes upfield, All-American defenseman of the year David Morrow ’93 had two goals and Princeton still led 8-6. The second half was a tong war. Carolina was bigger, Princeton was faster. Carolina took seven minutes to finally tie the game at 9, but four different Tigers scored in the next six minutes to go up 13-9. The Heels took 11 minutes to claw back again to 14-14, then Bacigalupo, who ended up with 19 saves, held on maniacally as Mal Meistrell ’92 scored the unassisted game-winner – his only score of the tournament – and team scoring ace Justin Tortolani ’92 put in the 16-14 insurance goal with less than two minutes left. Afterward, Bacigalupo told his team that if they held Syracuse to nine goals in the final, they’d win.
Syracuse had lost one game all year, by a goal at Johns Hopkins. In its semifinal rematch at Penn, the Orange plastered the Hop 21-16. They averaged 18 goals per game, and a winning margin of 6 1/2 goals. But they hadn’t played now-disciplined Princeton for 16 years and had only two days to prepare for the Tigers after the Carolina surprise. Princeton controlled the ball, and after 28 minutes led shockingly 6-0. The halftime score was 7-2, and Moe in his last game already had three goals. Syracuse had only six shots on goal, and coach Roy Simmons Jr. was apoplectic. The Orange regrouped, came out firing, and finally tied the game at 8 with eight minutes left. Face-off specialist Greg Waller ’92 scored to put Princeton back up, but Bacigalupo of all people, now with 14 saves, whiffed on a downfield clear and Syracuse picked up an empty net goal with 42 seconds to go. That meant 9-9, overtime.
Syracuse won the faceoff and had the ball for two minutes, putting one shot on Bacigalupo. Princeton then had the ball for two minutes, putting no shots on goal. It began to look like an all-night affair. But on the second overtime faceoff there was a standoff, and as if Cornell had been simply a rehearsal, Andy Moe grabbed the loose ball on the run, sped half the field untouched and bounced it past the Orange goalie. Final: 10-9, cue the pandemonium.
The Tigers would go on to five more national championships in the next nine years; Morrow was the national player of the year in 1993, then Bacigalupo in 1994 with another NCAA title. Princeton was now one of the big boys. But back in ’92, Andy Moe remembered his 2-13 freshman year, and knew how Cinderella felt when her fairy godmother took her to watch Pete Carril practice.
Now, 1992 was Bill Tierney’s fifth year with the Tigers. This is Guy Gadowsky’s fifth over at Baker Rink, with incumbent ECAC Player of the Year Lee Jubinville ’09 (from Alberta), goalie Kalemba (from New Jersey – wha?), and a host of others back to take another run at the NCAAs. Hmmmmm.
A brief unrelated sports note: On curiously short notice (less than a month) given the long wait, the University retired the uniform number 42 for all its sports teams in honor of Dick Kazmaier ’52 and Bill Bradley ’65 on Harvard weekend. Bradley originally knew about Princeton through Kazmaier’s exploits; he in turn was given the number by legendary trainer Eddie Zanfrini h’42, who had tended to Kazmaier. This could be coincidental, like New York City being in New York State. Anyway, neither football nor men’s basketball ever gave the number out again, but there’s never been formal recognition of any sort, and in fact no Princeton number in any sport has been retired before. This is a great gesture, justified as much by the men’s importance to Princeton since graduation as for their athletic achievements. May I be the first to suggest that, having set the bar this high, this be the end. We don’t need an athletic Hall of Fame; we don’t need dozens of jerseys hanging in the rafters. Princeton sports are team sports, and it’s more important from that perspective to see the continuity of numbers over the decades, to see hundreds of team trophies together in the case, rather than celebrate the exploits of individuals. I probably could be talked into an exception should a woman athlete (and we’ve had some great ones already) reach the same pinnacle, but aside from that, we’ve done it right – let’s quit winners.