Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What If: Gordie's Goal

March 1954: Gordie Peterkin scores in overtime against Minnesota to give RPI its first national championship

Perry Como - Wanted

It is a testament to Ned Harkness that in just its fourth year, the modern version of the RPI hockey program was playing in the NCAA Tournament, and the following season was in the national championship game. The combined impact of Harkness, who would go on to establish himself not only with three Frozen Fours and a national championship at RPI but with four straight Frozen Fours and two more championships at Cornell, and the innovation of the RPI Field House created in the Engineers an early eastern powerhouse.

And yet, despite RPI playing in its second consecutive national tournament, the Engineers appeared something of an afterthought in Colorado Springs in 1954. Sure, RPI had finished third in the previous year's Frozen Four, but they certainly weren't going to be a match for Vic Heyliger and the back-to-back-to-back defending champions, the Michigan Wolverines, in the first round. They were from the east, and eastern teams simply couldn't match up well with the far better west. Besides, RPI wasn't even supposed to be there - everyone knew St. Lawrence, with its early season victory over Michigan State in its back pocket, was the more worthy team from the east. Only the Engineers' 4-2 victory over the Saints in Troy the previous week to earn a regular-season tie in the Tri-State League had sent them to Colorado - where they'd suffered twin 8-3 drubbings to Denver and Colorado College in late January.

But something funny happened on the way to the third place game - RPI handed Michigan, the only team to appear in all six previous NCAA tournaments (and four-time national champions), a 6-4 upset loss thanks in large part to Gordie Peterkin's hat trick. And despite their newly earned reputation as giant-killers, the Engineers were still huge underdogs to a Minnesota team that was physically bigger, had a larger roster, had been runners-up to Michigan the previous year, and had an extra day of rest following a 14-1 demolition of Boston College (a 13-point win that is still the largest margin of victory in the history of the NCAA tournament).

RPI jumped out to an 3-0 lead against the Gophers early in the second period, but Minnesota stormed back to take a 4-3 lead themselves. After Abbie Moore tied the game late in the third period off a pass from the great Frank Chiarelli, it was Peterkin's goal two minutes into the sudden death overtime that shocked the college hockey world and saw a little engineering school from upstate New York capture the east's second ever national crown.

Anyone who's watched an overtime game in the playoffs knows just how crucial every shift, every bounce of the puck can be. The sudden-death nature of overtime, and the requirement in the playoffs that there be a winner, makes every little detail so much more important. We've seen multiple overtime games in three of the last five years, none of which were won by RPI, so we ought to know just how devastating it can be to lose.

Several other teams know that pain on a larger level. St. Lawrence (1988), New Hampshire (1999), and Miami (2009) would all have national championships to celebrate today if they'd been able to get the bounce of the puck to go their way in the overtime period of a national championship. They couldn't - they don't. Michigan State (1959) and Minnesota-Duluth (1984) were in the same boat before they eventually won national titles, as was Minnesota following Peterkin's goal.

So the question is - what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if Minnesota's John Mayasich or Dick Dougherty had beaten Bob Fox rather than Peterkin putting the puck and Jim Mattson into the net?

Most immediately, Minnesota celebrates a national championship twenty years earlier than it actually did when Herb Brooks brought the Gophers their first title in 1974. Minnesota coach John Mariucci, who eventually helped start the Minnesota North Stars and for whom Minnesota's arena is named, would have a national championship on his record, perhaps the biggest thing that's missing from the Hockey Hall of Famer's resume.

Tangentially speaking, the 1959 Frozen Four may not have taken place at the RPI Field House if not for the Engineers' attention-grabbing national championship five years earlier, though the fact that the Field House was one of the nicer arenas in college hockey may have seen it end up there anyway.

For RPI, however, a loss in the 1954 national championship game could have had lasting repercussions, though there would have been little expectation of it at the time. The severity of those repercussions depends largely on how the lack of a national championship on his record would have affected the decisions of coach Ned Harkness. Overall, Harkness amassed a record of 176-96-7 during his time at RPI and brought the Engineers to the national tournament in 1953, 1954, and 1961.

Would that have been enough to pique Cornell's interest by itself when their coaching position came vacant in 1963? If not, it's possible Harkness could have stayed on at RPI longer, and the difficulties the team experienced in the late 1960s could possibly have been avoided. Perhaps, if Harkness had stayed long enough some of the same recruits he brought to Ithaca could have come to Troy, although given the differences in the academic offerings, it's almost certainly pie in the sky to suggest names like Ken Dryden would have appeared in the RPI history books. Ironically, a loss in 1954 - if it had led to Harkness staying in Troy - could have led to a boost in the program's pedigree during the 1960s and 1970s.

If Harkness had left for Cornell after all in 1963 - entirely possible, given the apparent problems he had in getting the players that he wanted due to academic restraints - the ensuing difficult years could have spelled disaster for the Engineers at the Division I level. The Institute struggled with the question of whether the program was to remain in the then-new Division I while it was limping to repeatedly poor showings, including a combined 1-17-0 ECAC record in 1966 and 1967, which had coincided with the departure of many of the smaller schools from the ECAC just a few years earlier into what was then called ECAC-II, soon to be called Division III.

As it was, one of the important elements encouraging the team to stay in Division I was the 1954 championship. Without that hardware and the legacy it created, it would have been easier for president Richard Folsom to fold the hand and bring the Engineers to the ECAC-II, where they would have been more competitive during the time period. RPI's hockey focus would be saved thanks to Harkness' success and the three NCAA tournament appearances, so the Engineers could well have become Division III powerhouses in the years that followed, but they'd forever be a quirk in the NCAA's record books - the only program to reach the NCAA tournament no longer playing in Division I.

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