Behind the scenes of NCAA playoff hockey

Follow Joe Venniro on Twitter
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

The RIT men’s hockey team hopes to celebrate an upset win over University of Denver in the first round of the NCAA Division I tournament.

It seemed kind of surreal, leaving on Wednesday afternoon for the trip to Albany with men’s hockey for today’s NCAA East Regional Semifinal game. First of all, we left on a Wednesday to go just three hours for a Friday afternoon game. We needed to do that because Thursday is a big media day, with ESPN and other outlets getting their chance to meet the Tigers. Secondly, it was perfectly sunny, with no snow on the ground and a relatively balmy 55 degrees out. Was this a hockey trip, or lacrosse trip? Our last trip came in early February, when there was a fair amount of snow and the thermostat was significantly lower.

The media coverage over the past week has been excellent, but this heightened level of attention is unusual for the team. After winning the Atlantic Hockey Association Championship on Saturday, coverage has gone into overdrive. Every local television station and the Democrat and Chronicle have been daily fixtures at the rink. There have also been several phone interviews for players and coaches from various parts of North America.

As we left, a few of the local television stations stuck around, waiting for the bus to leave, so they could get that shot for their newscasts. At 4:15, Wednesday afternoon, the bus was thruway bound for the three-hour ride to Albany. In hindsight, we received a tremendous break with the way the brackets unfolded. How many four seeds get the chance to play three hours from home?

“When watching the selection show, I was not concerned with who we were playing, but more on where we were going to play,” said RIT Head Coach Wayne Wilson, now in his 11th season behind the Tiger bench. “We knew we would be facing a top-seed, so any team we were playing is going to be one of the best in the country. Having the chance to play so close to home is a tremendous opportunity for us, our fans, and alumni. It beats a long plane ride and worrying about losing luggage and possible delays.”

The team was very loose on the bus ride. Many of them were filling out questionnaires given to them by ESPN, chatting and poking fun at each other. Watching the movie Kingpin did not hurt in keeping the team loose either.

We arrived at the arena after an uneventful bus ride around 7:30 p.m. The Times Union Center is a very nice venue a few thousand seats shy of being large enough for an NHL arena, but is large nevertheless, with a capacity of 15,500 for hockey. The locker rooms are nice and cozy, right behind the team bench. Seeing RIT’s name on the boards also pumped the team up quite a bit.

We arrived at our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, a little after 8 p.m. and went right to our pregame meal, also in the hotel. A nice salad, garlic smashed potatoes, tasty vegetables and chicken awaited and was well worth the wait. After that, it was time for the team to call it a night and get ready for Thursday’s activities.

The team awoke Thursday morning to a nice breakfast in the hotel, headlined by an omelette bar. At 9:45 a.m., the Tigers headed to the Times Union Center for practice. ESPN was awaiting and wanted Jared DeMichiel, Andrew Favot, Cameron Burt, Dan Ringwald, and Head Coach Wayne Wilson for interviews.

Sitting in the room for the interviews, it was clear that the ESPN crew was having fun with our guys. There should be some fun moments on the broadcasts this weekend.

Practice got underway at 11:15 a.m. and went for exactly one hour (per the NCAA). By this time of the year, practice is essentially to stay sharp and break a sweat. Rumors swirled on the ice that ESPN commentator John Buccigross was in the building, and, wearing a Hartford Whalers cap. We checked it out and yes, it was true. That pumped up several of the guys.

Denver arrived not long after, since they were scheduled to practice right after us. I found out that Denver was actually happy to come east because they would compete against different teams.

At 12:45 p.m., Ringwald, Burt, DeMichiel, and Wilson were whisked away for a press conference with the media. Wilson was a few minutes behind the guys and of course, Burt and DeMichiel, gave a 30 second moving quoting session on Anchorman while testing if the microphones worked. That prompted a few scribes to chuckle and comment on how loose our guys seem to be. That being said, I have to think they are all tired of answering the same questions over and over, especially the one on what it feels like to be the big underdog. The game can’t come soon enough, I’m sure.

We were back at the hotel by 1:35 p.m., with lunch downstairs at the restaurant/sports bar a few minutes later. Spicy chicken wings and big bacon cheeseburgers followed. Several of the guys were watching game seven of the 1993 Western Conference Finals between Toronto and Los Angeles on a few of the screens at the restaurant. Since several of the guys are from the Toronto area, it brought back memories for many if not all.

After lunch, a few of the guys stayed in the restaurant to shoot darts or play Big Buck Hunter. No matter who was playing what, trash talk from the peanut gallery was prevalent. With a video session looming at 4 p.m., there was no point for some of them to go back to the rooms and nap.

The video session which is a weekly occurrence, was no different than any over the last few months. Coaches went through Denver’s special teams coverage, defensive coverage, offensive tendencies, and so on.

From there, the guys had a few hours to relax before the bus left for dinner at 7:15 p.m. Dinner was tremendous, one last big meal together before the big game. Once again, everyone was extremely loose and excited for the opportunity to be here.

Once back at the hotel, some guys split up and played cards, some did homework, others called family and friends. The lights were out and the guys went to bed, knowing that hopefully, the best is yet to come and RIT becomes a household name in Division I hockey.

Come 3 p.m. today, the college hockey world will be fixed on the Tigers and Pioneers.