Friday, January 21, 2005

"The Runner-Up is the First Loser" - The Dick Umile Story

In 49 of the 50 states of our great Union, finishing first and winning is the goal taught to us at just about every aspect of life. Whether it was when we were told as kids that victory would earn you free pizza at the Little League shack or the fact that the winning team got the bigger trophy, finishing first is a value drilled into our psyche at a young age.

Personally, my earliest memory of achieving victory was during my youth at age 7. I had notched the game-winning goal to secure my team's polo championship and my parents showered me with imitation champagne and fed me all-I-could eat creme brulee. When I got home, the hired help actually carried me on their shoulders like a conquering hero around the grounds of our estate.

Amazingly, there is a place where finishing second is not only tolerated, it's feted. A place where people like Nancy Kerrigan, Mike Dukakis, and the Buffalo Bills hold a special place in the hearts of its inhabitants, you guess it, it's called New Hampshire. This is a place that even the famous "Old Man In The Mountain" got sick of waiting for a NH championship and finally destroyed himself after millions of years of waiting.

No person represents the time-honored value of finishing second more than University of New Hampshire hockey coach Dick Umile. Umile, a fantastic regular season hockey coach, always folds when the lights are at their brightest and the chips are on the line. If Umile were competing against a woman in a "peeing contest" measuring distance, the Melrose High product would most certainly finish second.

To Umile's credit, he wears his perennial "silver medal" proudly and has received several awards recognizing his skills, prior to the final game that is. When he coached Watertown High School's hockey team in Massachusetts, he won back-to-back Middlesex League titles in 1984 and 1985. Unfortunately, once the state playoffs began and the Red Raiders were playing for the big trophy, Umile got his team to the semis twice, only to fall flat against Matignon and Wakefield respectively.

After leaving the high school ranks, Dick "Lord of the No Rings" Umile joined the Providence College staff and finally landed his first NCAA coaching job at UNH, his alma mater, in December of 1990. Having played at UNH during his student days, Umile "captured" 21st place on the Wildcats all-time scoring sheet, Umile was brought in to right the UNH ship that was having as much success at that time as Robert Downey, Jr does today of staying out of the medicine cabinet.

It took a few years, but before long, Dick Umile turned UNH into a competitive program and after a stunning upset of Jack Parker's filthy BU Terriers in 1998, earned a trip to the Frozen Four. Defeating top-seeded BU, led by Chris Drury and the immortal Juha Vuori, gave UNH fans hope that their drought of NCAA crowns, dating back to the Jurassic Era, would finally come to an end. Predictably, the national TV cameras were turned on, and before the first traces of homemade grain alcohol reached the pickled brains of their rural fans, UNH was bounced by Michigan, 4-0.

UNH rebounded in 1999 and finished first in Hockey East. Seeking their first Hockey East tournament crown, Umile and his boys met America's Team and, although heavily favored, saw BC's collar-up forward Blake Bellefeuille break UNH's heart in OT.

Undaunted, UNH fought its way all the way to the NCAA final where it would take on their hillbilly rivals from Maine for all the marbles. Hopes were high as UNH, just weeks before, demolished Maine on back-to-back nights and the stars appeared aligned for the Wildcats to finally step into the winner's circle.

Then it happened again.

"Umile's Underachievers" dropped a crushing overtime decision to once again earn UNH the title of runner-up. After coming out slower than a 400 lb. New Hampshire woman comes out of a bathtub, the Wildcats fell behind 2-0, and ultimately watched Maine skate with the trophy.

There's an old saying that says "those who deny history are doomed to repeat it". Well, in 2002, UNH again reached the Frozen Four and again faced Maine, this time in the national semifinals. Two weeks before the "toothless two" met in St. Paul, Minnesota, UNH beat Maine to win their first Hockey East crown. A rematch over a team they'd just beaten, would go a long way in easing the pain of 1999 and setting up a shot at the national title.

Led by forwards Darren Haydar, Lanny Gare, and their red-hot goaltender Michael "beachball" Ayers, Umile finally had a team that could, and probably should, win it all. When rookie Sean Collins scored less than a minute into the game, UNH appeared to have punched their ticket to the NCAA final.

Then, it happened again.

Tied at 2 heading into the third period, UNH watched Maine score five straight goals, to stun the Wildcats and take the 7-2 win. Umile, wearing his patented 'turtle neck' to enhance his choking skills, was too stunned to call a time-out during Maine's onslaught and somehow refused to change goaltenders, even though Ayers had slowly morphed into an orange traffic cone.

Not to be outdone, UNH defied the odds and, after winning their second straight Hockey East crown, punched their ticket to Buffalo, NY for another trip to the Frozen Four. This time, they were underdogs in the semis as the powerful Cornell defense stood in their way. Shockingly, it was Cornell who choked this time and UNH became the beneficiary of a bad referee call on a non-goal and made it to the NCAA final for the second time in four years.

Against defending champ Minnesota, the Wildcats appeared to be getting the breaks this time as they took a 1-1 tie into the third period. The Gophers led by star freshman Thomas Vanek from "Parts Unknown, Austria", was held in check for two periods and UNH was just one goal and 20 minutes away from a win that would kick off "imbredpalooza" back home in Durham.

Then, it happened again.

Ayers, still smarting from his 2002 shellacking vs. Maine, allowed the Gophers to score four unanswered goals to win their second straight crown with a 5-1 demolition of Umile's charges.

For Umile, it's business as usual. From his days coaching the Red Raiders at the old Watertown Rink to the big sheet in Titletown, NH, the balding bench boss with the loud whistle is destined to finish second. Like another bald character, he always seems to have someone pull the football away at the last minute.

So far this year, Umile's Wildcats are 15-5-2 heading into this weekend's games, headlined by their impending loss to America's Team on Saturday. If they beat the odds and manage to return to the Frozen Four again this year, expect Umile to choke again. No matter how many "good cards" he may be holding, count on Whistlin' Dick Umile to fold once the stakes get high, as usual.

Collar Up.

- DW


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