Seniors the class of the Wildcats

The four seniors slowly trudged their way into the postgame conference after the WCHA championship game last weekend, trying to keep their heads up although it was probably very difficult.

The Northern Michigan University skaters had just been dealt a terrible loss on their home ice. And it was handed to them by their archrival, Michigan Tech, in heartbreaking fashion.

It was clear that they all were hurting. They were still wearing their full uniforms as they sat down at the table, not ready to take them off for the final time.

After a rough 2016-17 season, the four seniors — Robbie Payne, Zach Diamantoni, Jordan Klimek and Filip Starzynski — had a chance to help notch an NCAA tournament bid to cap off what had been their stellar final season at the Berry Events Center.

With a supportive crowd behind them, the foursome tried valiantly to lead the Wildcats to victory, but despite some good chances, nobody on the team could knock the “O” off Northern’s side of the scoreboard.

NMU got burned by a bad bounce in the second period and desperately tried to tie the game in the third, but with goalie Atte Tolvanen pulled for the extra skater with two minutes remaining, the Huskies capped off their win with an empty-net goal.

When the final horn sounded, the Huskies leaped over the boards and skated to their defensive end, throwing their helmets, sticks and gloves in the air.

At the Northern end, skaters bent over with their heads down and their sticks still in their hands. Others took to one knee and silently stared at the ice.

It’s typical to see after games with one team exuberant and the other dejected, but it’s rare to see rivals do it the last game of the season with so much on the line. That’s what made the final outcome so much more painful to watch from an NMU perspective.

It had been an interesting final year for the seniors, to put it mildly. These players went through a difficult junior season, getting off to a disastrous start and not getting a home victory until mid-January. It took a late run just to get NMU into the postseason, and after getting the final spot in the WCHA playoffs, the Wildcats were eliminated in the first round by top-seeded Bemidji State.

Once that season was over, longtime head coach Walt Kyle was let go, leaving questions about the program and what direction the team and the athletic department would go.

Eventually, the Wildcats picked Grant Potulny to be their new bench boss and that had to be a bit of a jolt for the seniors, since Potulny’s style of play was quite different than Kyle’s and they’d have to learn it quickly.

Despite that, the seniors put up a good front of positivity at Potulny’s introductory press conference and it looked like the transition could be a smooth one.

As Wildcats fans know, it went better than many expected as Northern had its best season in years.

NMU won 20 games for the first time since 2010 and 25 for the first time since 2002.

Northern also landed a home playoff series for the first time in six years, finished with the No. 2 seed in the tournament and were in contention for the MacNaughton Cup until the last couple weeks of the season.

People started talking about Wildcat hockey in public again and attendance started to gradually grow.

There were good crowds in the first-round playoff series with Alabama-Huntsville, even better ones the next week against Bowling Green State and then culminating in the massive sellout crowd against the Huskies.

A lot of the team’s success started with the seniors. If they hadn’t accepted the coaching change and Potulny’s style right away, NMU might not have gotten off to a good start.

If Payne hadn’t had his insane scoring surge in the first half, the Wildcats would probably struggled to build momentum.

Diamantoni was a quiet leader who was willing to play on any line and on special teams. If he hadn’t been willing to move around and be a team player, Northern might’ve not developed the flow they needed.

Klimek anchored the blue line and provided the experience that was needed with a still young defensive corps.

Finally, Starzynski became the needed fourth-line center and he fit in nicely before being sidelined with an injury late in the season.

Potulny has praised the senior class a lot over the course of the year and did so again in his opening remarks after the disappointing loss to Tech.

In a credit to their class, the four seniors were willing to answer questions even though that was probably the last thing they wanted to do. They tried to explain what went wrong in the game, what they’d remember most and other things, and tried to give the best answers they could.

Once they were dismissed, they quietly got up from their chairs and very slowly walked their way out of the Izzo-Mariucci Room for the final time.

The foursome may be leaving their equipment behind, but their impact in the locker room will last for quite a while.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.