For J. Roger Dykes, the massive celebration that was set off following the RIT hockey team’s Frozen Four-clinching victory March 27 in the Albany regional of the NCAA tournament brought back great memories.
“It reminded me of 1983 when a team of underdogs beat the best team in the nation and returned home to a tumultuous welcome by ecstatic RIT fans,” notes Dykes, who spent 24 years as RIT’s sports information director before retiring in 1996. “We certainly stunned the hockey world.”
The RIT hockey team’s current run to the NCAA Division I Frozen Four, which includes a defeat of the University of Denver, the number two ranked team in the nation, builds on close to three decades of success at the Division II and III levels, including the 1983 Division II and 1985 Division III NCAA titles.
In 1983, the Tigers beat the two-time defending champions and undefeated University of Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks in the national semifinals, then beat Bemidji State in the finals. That team was coached by Brian Mason and led by goalie Dave Burkholder who was named tournament MVP.
“The River Hawks had been the dominant team in Division II for three years and actually beat six Division I teams during the ’83 season,” notes Burkholder, now the head hockey coach at the University of Niagara and a member of the NCAA Hockey Championship Committee. “We were playing them on their home ice and were really given no chance by the ‘experts.’ But as they say, that is why you play the games.”
Defenseman Blaise MacDonald, who was a sophomore on the 1983 team, also recalled the joy of that victory in front of his family and friends when watching the current Tigers make their run to the Frozen Four.
“In 1983 we were a young team that was talented but just coming into our own and not that well thought of outside of Rochester,” adds MacDonald, who is now the head hockey coach at U Mass-Lowell. “But after ‘83 that all changed. We really gained national recognition and used that momentum going into 1985. I see the same evolution happening with the current team on a much bigger stage.”
The NCAA’s Division II program was eliminated after the 1982-83 season and the Tigers moved to Division III, making the 1984 national semifinals before being upset by Union College. But a senior laden team now coached by Bruce Delvanthal and led by MacDonald, goalie Chet Hallice and forwards Chris Johnstone and Ritchie Herbert, came back to take the title in 1985.
“We were really a team on a mission in ’85,” says MacDonald. “All the seniors knew that this was probably our last chance at playing elite level competitive hockey and we made a decision as a group that we wanted to go out on top.”
The Tigers avenged the previous year’s defeat by beating Union in the national semifinals then defeated Bemidji State to win their second title in three years.
For all involved in those title teams there is a sense of pride at what they accomplished and a great feeling of camaraderie with today’s Tigers who are taking the team and the university to the next level.
“Success in Division I is really what all athletics programs strive for and what we hoped our success in the 1980s would ultimately lead to,” says Dykes. “I am so happy for the current team, its fans and everyone involved in this amazing moment for RIT and the Rochester community.”