It wasn't supposed to end this way.
Tears flowed in the Saint Ignatius hockey locker room at the John M. Coyne Recreation Center in Brooklyn early Thursday afternoon. Just an hour beforehand, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) announced the postponement "until further notice" of the 2020 State Ice Hockey Tournament due to the nationwide outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Wildcats sat in their home away from home – the locker room – trying to talk through the surreal scenario. The postponement holds the possibility that the State Semifinal and State Championship may be played at a future date. But the Wildcats knew right away that it would likely turn into a cancelation, ripping away the chance to win an unprecedented fifth straight OHSAA State Championship. Saint Ignatius might have made history, too, as the first OHSAA boys program to win five titles in a row in multiple sports (football won five in a row from 1991-95).
After the team talked for a long time, Head Coach Pat O'Rourke '90 opted for a team vote – would the team like to play one last time with their friends and brothers?
The Wildcats unanimously voted to play one more time.
"We were talking about the whole situation and acknowledging that it stinks," O'Rourke said. "We talked about how an Ignatius man should respond. We can sit around and complain about it, or we can go play hockey with our brothers one more time. We decided to go out and play."
Having an intrasquad scrimmage would allow for some closure.
And indeed it did.
The Wildcats suited up in full uniforms, dividing into gold and white teams. The squad put on the pads, laced up the skates, and prepared to play.
The Wildcats played about 45 or so minutes of hockey. All the while, you could see the smiles on the players' faces.
While it did not have the intensity of an actual game, the scrimmage did feature plenty of highlights. Cam Kurtz scored a highlight-reel goal and many players broke out dekes and sleek moves. The game was fun to watch, particularly for the parents who came to the rink one or two at a time. All the while, Jack O'Rourke broke out the SIBN gear to broadcast the game with Ethan Schum and Mac Spellacy for folks at home who couldn't make it to Brooklyn.
At several points during the game, the Wildcats pretended to get in brawls, exchanging playful jabs and fun chirps. All the while, big smiles often came across their faces.
The white team defeated the gold team, 7-6, at least that's what the scoreboard said. The gold team might have disputed the score, but at the end of the day, the result didn't matter.
After the scrimmage, the Wildcats did their typical 4x2 drill and then played a shootout. The team wearing white won, with Erik Galauner slipping the puck into the back of the net on a sweet move for a fun victory. His teammates mobbed him and smiles abounded.
Coach O'Rourke then gathered his team together by the benches. He addressed them as a group, as a family. O'Rourke told them how much he loved them and how special of a team they were.
"Everybody wanted to get to the rink today," O'Rourke said afterward. "It's like our second home. It's like the year we had the tie [in the 2014 state championship]. Everybody was down and confused. So you circle your wagons with your family – not your biological family, but pretty darn close. Not to compare anything, but it's a similar eerie feeling to 9/11. Everyone is confused, it's a public health scare. Some of us have compromised immune systems, so we don't know what the next couple of months will hold. While we're here and with our family for the last time, we're going to play a little bit of hockey. It was good to come to the locker room and talk it out a little bit."
After praying the Prayer for Generosity, the Wildcats started hugging each other.
Much like you'd see after a state championship, the Wildcats exchanged hugs and words, but without the celebratory music playing over the Nationwide Arena loudspeakers or a trophy to pass around. And there was more sadness in these tears than joy.
"Obviously, a lot of emotions. But ultimately, I'm glad to be out here finishing things out with my boys, my brothers, the family," said senior Michael Boehm. "Obviously, a big disappointment with a lot of emotions. It's tough. But I'm glad to be out here. We finished this off the right way. It's definitely tough. We wish we could have finished at Nationwide, but it's okay. We finished with our family, which is all that matters."
Boehm and fellow captain Greg Langermeier may have lost a chance to make history as the only Saint Ignatius athletes to play in and win four state championships in a row in one sport.
But even if the Wildcats don't get the chance to play, Boehm and the seniors will never forget this team.
"I'll remember how close we were. All of the memories, we've had so many memories," said Boehm. "A lot of us have been here since the start, all four years. We've played together since freshman year. This is a very senior-heavy group. I'm going to miss all of the boys. Right from day one, we grew as a family. We were so close. I'm going to miss the memories and seeing the boys every day. That's my favorite part of the day – going to the rink and seeing everyone."
Fellow senior Matt Sullivan expressed the same sentiment.
It's impossible to overstate how special this group of seniors is.
"It was a great way to end it with the boys. It was a blast," Sullivan said. "The best team I've ever been on. Great year. I love the boys, I'm sorry it had to end this way."
Indeed, the ending was not ideal.
After plenty of hugs and words, the Wildcats slowly started to file off the ice. One by one, after taking some pictures, the Wildcats proceeded off the ice. Each player hugged each coach, talking about what this season and years past have meant.
Boehm and Langermeier were the last players off the ice. And suddenly, the ice was cleared. A sense of closure overcame the Wildcats, which led to more tears in the locker room. No one wanted to leave.
"I'm just sad. This is the worst way to go out," said senior goalie Zak Kovatch. "I would have rather lost in double overtime in the finals or even the semis. I just wanted to play, that's all I wanted. The practice and scrimmage were making the best of a bad situation. We scrimmaged, we did 4v2, and we did a shootout. That's the best, most fun thing you can do in hockey. Go Cats."
Coach O'Rourke also felt plenty of emotions in the locker room afterwards. This team is special, no doubt.
But, this last time on the ice together just felt right.
"We wanted to go out our way. It's still going to hurt in the morning, but at least they can get a little bit of closure and have some fun," O'Rourke said. "This is what we do, we play hockey. The sun will come up tomorrow. The birds will be chirping. There will be little kids playing basketball when I drive home. Life doesn't end, this isn't the worst thing they will hear in their lives. You need to be big boys about it. That's the best way we know how to handle it."
Before leaving the rink, the Wildcats expressed their feelings to each other.
"I love you, man" was a consistent refrain throughout.
"These guys are my family. I'd die for any one of them," said senior Alex Bilardo. "That's why it's brutal right now. We didn't get a chance to prove ourselves one last time. These guys have been my best friends since freshman year, some of them since third or fourth grade. That's why it hurts right now, because I know we would have got it done."
Losing out on the opportunity to win a state title is heartbreaking. On Friday afternoon, the OHSAA announced that it had "no plans" to cancel the winter tournaments. However, if and when the state ice hockey tournament resumes is dependent upon the spread of the coronavirus. And no one knows just how long the pandemic will last in the United States.
Coach O'Rourke brought some perspective to the situation in the aftermath. In the midst of a devastating virus, sports seem inconsequential. But as O'Rourke said, life is all about how you react to setbacks and adversity.
And the way this Saint Ignatius hockey team came together one last time is commendable. This is an exceptional group of young men.
"We're just trying to start the healing process," O'Rourke said. "They're kids, so they haven't been through a lot. Adults have seen bad things. Like we talked about, you're going to go through life, and maybe a doctor will tell you that you have cancer, etc. There are way worse things in life. This stinks right now, but life is more about how you handle bad news. Everybody gets bad news. It's about how you respond. This was a good Ignatian and hockey way to respond."