Perfection on ice; Illini celebrate year

By Wes Anderson

Anything short of a national title may well have been a crushing disappointment. Even so, the reaction to the Illinois hockey club’s 4-2 win over Lindenwood in the American Collegiate Hockey Association national championship game was anything but quiet satisfaction.

After the final seconds ticked away and victory was assured, a flurry of orange-trimmed helmets, gloves and sticks flew into the air, littering the ESL Sports Centre’s ice rink.

Players and staff streamed from the bench and slammed the boards behind the Illinois goal, mobbing each other in a frenzied mix of euphoria, incredulity and relief.

Finally, after 38 consecutive victories this season, the Illini aren’t pursuing perfection anymore – they’re celebrating it.

“It’s just unbelievable,” senior captain Drew Heredia said. “We always talked about it in the locker room, and now it’s finally over.”

Head coach Chad Cassel was forced to remain stoic until every last nanosecond rolled off the clock.

“They had a bit of pressure on us, so until the clock was at zero I was still trying to figure out how to continue to shut them down,” Cassel said.

Eventually, he joined his victorious team on the ice, and his celebratory embraces were in stark contrast to his formal suit.

“My initial reaction was kind of relief that it was over and that we accomplished everything we set out to do,” Cassel said.

During an overwhelmingly successful year, the accolades Illinois collected are too numerous to mention in full.

The winningest season and senior class in club history. The first undefeated team. Regular season and conference tournament titles.

Yet beating the Lions for the fifth time this season secured what was by far the most significant honor.

“Our most important goal was to win the national championship,” Cassel said. “Being able to accomplish that and have the perfect record, it’s really amazing and it speaks volumes about the character of this team, the leadership, and how hard they’ve worked all season.”

The most grueling part of the Illini’s championship run may have been the journey to the arena.

Unlike the 2005 national tournament, which was played in nearby Bensenville, Ill., the Illini instead made a 12-hour long bus ride to Rochester, N.Y.

“It’s a long trip,” Heredia said. “The way up there wasn’t that bad – we drove halfway, stopped in Ohio, then got up on Friday morning and drove the rest.

“It’s a long ride, but it’s fun when you’ve got 30 other guys that you can talk to.”

After playing four games in five days, the ride back to Champaign with the Murdoch Cup, the ACHA’s national championship trophy, was a welcomed one.

“I told (assistant coach) Darrin (Trulock) when we were checking out, ‘I feel like I’ve been in Rochester for a month,’ but it was obviously a very happy bus ride home. A long one, but a happy one,” Cassel said.

Despite stiff challenges from national powerhouses and spirited underdogs, the Illini did it all this season and never stumbled in the clutch.

After surviving sudden death overtime thrillers, heart-stopping shootouts and the pressure of being the most targeted team in club hockey, Illinois’ dream season became a reality.

With all of the Illini’s preseason goals accomplished, one thing is for certain: the ACHA may never see another team quite like this one.

“I don’t think it’ll ever happen again,” Heredia said.