When Mason Bergh scored to push Colorado College ahead of mighty North Dakota, a couple thousand Tigers fans shouted and celebrated while indulging in a mass expression of hope.
At that moment, it was easy to believe the Tigers would sweep away the agony of the past four seasons and lead us into a fresh era of hockey fun.
Oh, well. The moment didn’t last. North Dakota’s Fighting Hawks (that new nickname is a vast improvement over the old one) rallied for a 6-4 victory.
Still, the moment was precious. During the past four seasons, hope virtually vanished at World Arena. The Tigers crawled to 27 wins in 141 games (with 11 ties) and the never-ending agony drained the fan base.
For decades, CC fans were spoiled. From 1993 to 2013, the Tigers averaged 24.15 wins a season, soaring even above DU’s 22.85 average. Mega college talents such as Peter Sejna, Mark Stuart, Marty Sertich, Richard Bachman and Brett Sterling skated at World Area, which was usually jammed with jubilant fans.
I spent most of Saturday’s game sitting in the upper reaches of Section 203, surrounded by an ocean of empty seats. I remember games not so long ago when loud and lovably obnoxious CC students filled the section. I remember when the whole place was packed.
But when Bergh scored in the second period and the fans erupted in joy, it was easy to imagine days ahead when World Arena will again be full.
CC athletic director Ken Ralph is planning for those better days.
“Well, you know, the best marketing plan ever invented is winning,” Ralph said. “. . . We have to win the fan back.”
The Tigers roared into the game on a two-game win streak over ranked teams. They stifled the No. 4 Fighting Hawks on Friday night, six days after defeating No. 12 New Hampshire on the road. CC is 5-3, which might not sound like much until you remember the Tigers averaged 6.75 wins over the past four seasons.
The Tigers have looked lost and overmatched in the fearsome NCHC, which is to college hockey what the SEC is to college football. Maybe – finally - the Tigers will skate through a season looking as if they belong in the NCHC.
Coach Mike Haviland endured a brutal introductory three seasons into college hockey. He senses the future could be vastly different, and better.
“Even tonight, you could see we never gave up,” Haviland said. “We kept coming. It’s just the way the attitude is with this team right now. They really believe they can play with anybody in the country and beat anybody.”
It’s early, and plenty of reasons remain for pessimism. Last season, the Tigers started with three wins in their first seven games before tumbling to five wins in their final 29. And, remember, the NCHC is unforgiving. National powers will come at the Tigers in waves.
But there was that moment of promise on Saturday, one of many in this young season.
Bergh knows a vast collection of skeptics still reside out there. Losing 103 games in four seasons is a sure method to exterminate belief.
“Everyone doubts us,” Bergh said, “but we know what we have and what we’re capable of.”
He smiled, briefly, when he thought back to his goal in the second period and the moment of celebration and support from the courageous, stubborn loyalists who refused to abandon the Tigers during their epic slide.
“It’s been nice to be able to give back to them,” Bergh said of the loyalists.
In October, the Tigers awoke from their long slumber. Watch out. It might not be long until a throng of casual fans rejoin the loyalists at World Arena.