CHICAGO- There he sat in full pads, crutches in hand, walking cast on his right ankle, smile on his face and a national championship in his hands.
Denver defenseman Tariq Hammond exited the game wheeled off on a stretcher earlier in the third period after an injury so gruesome anyone viewing the replay did not need a second glance. Three orthopedic surgeons were there to put his ankle back in place, according to DU head coach Jim Montgomery.
And yet in the locker room, seated next to the goaltenders, was the junior defender, who scored a goal and had two assists in the Pioneers’ 6-1 win Thursday over Notre Dame. Hammond was there at the end, hugging teammates and beckoning over reporters following a trip to the x-ray machine.
He was there celebrating a 3-2 Pioneers victory in Saturday’s national championship.
“I’m just elated. Just to see everyone with smiles on their faces and all the hard work that we put in since last year when we lost (in the Frozen Four semis), it’s such a good feeling,” he said. “I’m so proud to be on this team and call these guys my brothers.”
While Hammond was getting looked at by medical professionals, his “brothers” were doing everything possible to hold off yet another late charge by Minnesota Duluth.
“It’s tough to see anyone in a game do that. Especially one of your brothers. (Tariq’s) battled so hard for us. It was really tough to see, but we were saying ‘let’s win it for him,’” said Troy Terry, who helped turn the game in Denver’s favor with two assists. “I’m so glad we were able to finish it off for him. I know he’ll be back.”
(Montgomery believed Hammond’s ankle was broken. Hammond didn’t go that far following Saturday’s win.)
Nobody claims Bulldogs have nine lives yet Scott Sandelin’s team was doing everything in its power to be the first. Every dog has its day. For UMD they were stretching across an entire postseason.
Denver, starting off strong Saturday just as it had throughout the NCAA Tournament by getting the first nine shots on goal, ended being outshot 17-3 in the third period. Not having Hammond for the final 16:50 meant the Pioneers had to depend on its remaining blue liners and goaltender Tanner Jaillet, who finished with 38 saves, to hold a lead driven by teammate Jarid Lukosevicius’ hat trick.
Hammond’s teammates said they would do it for him. Once they did, he joined them. Hopping back on the ice with the help of his teammates, uniform and all.
“It brought so many emotions. I started crying. We love each other so much. We’re brothers,” said DU defender Blake Hillman.
In an entertaining game the rubber match-up between the two top overall seeds lived up to the pregame hype. One question entering Saturday’s national championship was whether it’s better to win a championship by blowing out teams one after the other or being resilient, scoring last minute and overtime goals.
The match-up between the two top teams showcased both ends. Denver’s strength being able to speed by teams and utilize its depth was on display with Lukosevicius scoring twice in a 16 second span. His hat trick was the second by the PIoneers in the NCAA Tournament after Terry.
“That’s the key to our team. We’re so deep. Everyone can score, hit, shut down, and shoot pucks. It’s just awesome,” said Hammond.
Minnesota Duluth, meanwhile, made its bread and butter on playing until the final second. With two overtime wins and a final minute victory over Harvard in the NCAAs (and several more OT and last minute efforts in the regular season), trailing 3-1 didn’t seem to be as big of a hurdle. By the time Riley Tufte cut the lead in half the Bulldogs .
Only this time it came with a different ending. Denver didn’t answer the question whether it was better to be keep blowing out teams. The Pioneers were the ones to dig deep in the end.
“We knew what we had to do to be successful and we didn’t stray from it,” Hammond said.
So did Hammond. To get back on the ice and have his moment after teammates earlier surrounded him, wishing him the best as Hammond was wheeled off, was nothing short of a surprise to them. Having spent the entire week talking about teammates first over accomplishments, seeing DU actually put into action meant more than words.
In his press conference after the game Montgomery mentioned Hammond would be wearing a letter next season, likely a “C” as captain.
“Like they say, ‘champions walk together.’ We couldn’t have done it without (Hammond). He was our key,” said Hillman.
While maybe not the best choice of words given what happened, a hint of truth. Denver walked together for the eighth time in program history. Even if, this time, one of those grabbed some crutches in order to do so with his “brothers.”
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate