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They Got the Call Right: On A Wild Night in Mankato

After the gloves and helmets had been tossed, after the handshake line, after the hats were distributed, after the trophy was awarded, after the picture was taken, and after the parade around the ice, there was a tweet.

That tweet came three minutes after Josh Groll’s apparent overtime game-winning goal in the CCHA championship. Some guy watching the game on his couch would assume the game was over, put his kid to bed, and then about nine minutes after Groll’s play, would have his interest sparked by that tweet and circle back to check the overhead video of the goal.

Others did the same, and it sure did look like the puck slips underneath the side of the raised net. But I’ve seen enough videos of extremely close plays over the years to know that low frame rates can lie. Maybe I was missing a higher resolution video that showed the puck go under Sholl’s pad.

Or maybe the officials did just flat out miss the play and it was unfortunate call. But at that point, what were they going to do? The ice had already cleared. It’s not like they were going to bring everybody back and restart the game, right?

Meanwhile, the players that didn’t dress for Bemidji State made their way down to their locker room and began showing Twitter videos of the play to Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore. It’s not often a healthy scratch ends up making one of the biggest defensive plays of the game. Serratore came back out onto the ice and found Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings, the athletic directors at both schools and CCHA commissioner Don Lucia and CCHA head of officiating Kevin Langseth, where he raised his concerns. The league’s official statement on the incident said “additional TV production camera angles” were made available to Lucia and Langseth, and it was apparently enough to convince the league that the referees needed to take another look at the play, even though the officials had already left the ice, and by NCAA game protocol, the game appeared to be over.

Exactly 19 minutes after Groll scored, or appeared to score, the championship-winning goal, Lucia went to find the Minnesota State coaching staff—who were gathered in the hallway watching video of the play on their phones—to let them know the play was going under further review.

Lucia took Mike Hastings over to the TV production center and showed him the additional TV angles they had.

By this point, it had become pretty clear that Groll’s attempt had actually slid under the partially-lifted net, rather than crossing the goal line. The question then became what, if anything, to do about it.

The Bemidji State players had stayed in their uniforms, hopeful for the improbable. Mike Hastings told his players to stay in their gear as well, getting the inkling that something might be up. The sold-out crowd had largely filed out of the arena, and the few stragglers were being shooed out by arena staff.

After the game Don Lucia would call the decision the toughest he’s had to make in his inaugural year as commissioner of the league. I’d be willing to bet it will be still be the toughest of his career, even if he stays at the job another 50 years.

‘Law’ and ‘justice’ are two similar, but discrete ideas. You’ll probably find much more coherent analysis of the philosophy behind the two elsewhere than what you’ll get here from the guy that tweets out dumb memes about an increasingly unpopular sport. But in the simplest possible terms, law attempts to overlap with justice as much as possible, but there will always be situations where the two diverge, forcing a decision between the two.

14 years ago to the week, in the exact same building(albeit four names ago), Minnesota State and Minnesota—then coached by none other than Don Lucia—played what is unquestionably considered the greatest three-game playoff series in college hockey history. Three overtime games, every second of which fought under an intensity completely foreign to anyone that came to the sport after college hockey’s disastrous 2013 realignment. If there was any solace to Minnesota State after coming out on the wrong end of that final game in what was—I’m sorry Miami fan, I will argue this point—the most devastating gut shot any program has ever taken, it was that the Mavericks came out of the weekend still with a great chance at making the NCAA Tournament.

Of course college hockey being college hockey, it worked out the following weekend that a near-perfect set of circumstances lined up against the Mavericks and left them in a three-way tie for the final two at-large spots with Wisconsin and Notre Dame, with Minnesota State being the odd team out in the tiebreaker. By any logical reasoning, Minnesota State should have been in over either of the two. Wisconsin had finished the season with a losing record and lost their season series with Minnesota State. Notre Dame had only managed to catch Minnesota State by benefiting from the quirks of some of the most ill-conceived portions of the Pairwise formula(This was the infamous year in which Notre Dame got into the tournament by losing their final game of the season, when a tie would have eliminated them from the tournament). But the law was the law, and there was nothing, the NCAA Tournament committee claimed, that could be done.

The following year, the NCAA enacted the “Wisconsin rule” requiring a team to have a winning record to receive an at-large bid, and two years later, many of the kinks in the Pairwise formula that helped sneak Notre Dame in over Minnesota State were ironed out. I doubt either of those changes came as any consolation to the MSU players that never got to play in the NCAA Tournament. The law was followed, but it’s hard to feel like justice was done.

I can understand the appeal to law above all else. It’s easier, cleaner. It defers personal responsibility and eliminates the ability for bad actors to bend things in their favor. It’s rare you can get all parties to agree on what the right thing to do is, and a neutral, pre-determined set of rules makes for an excellent arbiter.

But in the the situation of Groll’s supposed overtime goal, there was really no argument to be made that Minnesota State deserved to win, other than the narrow technical legal argument that the officials had left the ice and the game was officially considered over.

The easy decision would have been to let the goal stand. The league could have released a statement saying video replay was not 100% conclusive and they were letting the call on the ice stand. They even could have gone so far as to say a mistake was made, but once the officials left the ice, protocol dictated that the game was over and there was nothing they could do. The spotlight on college hockey is small enough that it is easy to hide from controversies like that. It would be a story inside the small bubble of the college hockey world for a few days—maybe less with the tournament selection show less than 24 hours away—and quickly forgotten.

But prior to becoming CCHA commissioner, Don Lucia worked 37 years behind the bench as a coach in college hockey. Most of those were spent in a league that had their fair share of situations where the law served as an excuse for a lack of justice, and it’s not a huge stretch to say that is part of the reason why that league no longer exists today. I think Lucia’s experience gave him a unique and invaluable perspective on the situation, knowing exactly how it feels to be on the other side of that situation.

And so exactly 35 minutes after Groll initially slipped the puck underneath the net, the nets returned to the ice, the pucks were returned to the scorer’s table, and word began to leak out that the goal was overturned and the game would restart.

To use the parlance of our times, Lucia made the decision to Main Character himself and the league and overturn the call. A game so niche that it required an outrageously-priced streaming subscription to view got a three-minute segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter, likely surpassing the amount of airtime on the show the entirety of college hockey has received collectively all season. Hockey Night in Canada picked up the story. The moment got a full Jomboy breakdown. They were roasted on Twitter by something called the Sickos Committee. And that doesn’t even get into the potential ramifications of the decision beyond just the ridicule of looking bad, especially if Bemidji State had come back and won the game.

After the game, Lucia made his first priority in making the decision clear:

“I don’t want to end someone’s career on a goal that is not a goal.”

Did Don Lucia end up following the letter of the law perfectly? It seems as though he almost certainly didn’t. But he did use his authority to deliver justice to the Bemidji State players, coaches and fans. That’s the true essence of leadership.

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The other factor in all of Saturday’s craziness that I don’t believe has been talked about enough is that if there is even an ounce of pushback on the idea from Mike Hastings or Minnesota State, I doubt the two teams ever take the ice again.

The Mavericks already had the trophy and possession is 9/10ths of the law. The other 10% of the law was pretty clearly in their favor as well. The biggest story of the year in college hockey prior to Saturday night, was some other guy proving pretty conclusively that if you don’t want to play, there are enough ways to weasel out of it. And in this case, given the circumstances, I’m not sure many would have even blamed MSU if they put their foot down and said the game was over.

There was absolutely nothing to be gained for Minnesota State by restarting the game. They had their trophy, their fans went home happy. At best, they could earn the same result they already had. At worst, they could lose the game, or potentially lose someone for the following week’s NCAA Tournament.

And yet, by all accounts, when Mike Hastings first heard they were going to take another look at the goal, all he did was tell his players not to get undressed yet. And once he saw the video for himself, his only question was what time were they going back on the ice.

If there is an enduring image from this whole thing, for me, it is this one:

I won’t pretend the personal relationships of the three involved didn’t play a huge role in leading them to the right decision. Hockey is a small world, but even by those standards, it’s remarkable how deep their connections run.

As much as college hockey tries to be something else, and has suffered for it, I think a moment like Saturday night gets to the heart of what the sport can be. The game shouldn’t belong to bureaucrats working in a suburban strip mall that shares a parking lot with an all-you-can-eat steakhouse. One can easily imagine in slightly different circumstances an army of lawyers parachuting in to save them from mild embarrassment over a product they have no feelings toward other than a slight buyer’s remorse.

Instead we got a moment that while chaotic, struck of deep and genuine humanity. Those guys care a tremendous amount about the game. Not because of its’ potential value as an asset to entice the Cincinnati TV market. But because they respect the commitment and sacrifice it takes from those involved to compete at this level above all else. If that somehow makes the sport “smaller” in the eyes of certain people, so be it.

They knew Bemidji State didn’t deserve to have their season end that way. They knew the right thing was to go back out. So really, what else can you do but laugh about the circumstances that got them there and then go finish the game the right way.