The most important game I ever played

More news about: Norwich

By Peter Langella

With the NESCAC schools finally playing their first games of the season last weekend, and Thanksgiving right around the corner, the DIII hockey part of my mind is really only thinking about one thing: the PrimeLink Great Northern ShootOut.

Norwich claimed the 2006 PrimeLink title with a bittersweet 4-2 win over Plattsburgh State.

It's being held at Norwich this year. Traditional foes Middlebury and Plattsburgh play in the early game and invitee St. Thomas takes on the home Cadets in the nightcap. It will be the first time I watch the tournament games as a fan, and I'm a little nervous about the feelings I might have to deal with.

You see, the last time I was at the Primelink was in 2006. It was my senior year, and I was one of Norwich's captains. We had only played two games, but we were feeling pretty good about where we were headed. Like this year, the tournament was being held at Kreitzberg Arena, and we were confident that playing on home ice would be a big advantage. Little did we know we were about to face something much more difficult than a couple of hockey games:

The death of our friend and former Captain, Mike Serba.

The week leading up to that Thanksgiving was a good one. It always felt special to be on campus playing hockey when school wasn't in session. We felt like pros, practicing extra and hanging out at the rink all day. When Thursday came, we practiced in the morning before heading off to have dinner with community families who were gracious enough to host us at their tables. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) lived close by, so her family invited my roommates and me. My parents also came up from New Hampshire for the meal. It was great. We ate the wonderful food and then headed off to a movie before settling in to prepare for our first game against Potsdam. We were still just college kids, with barely a care in the world.

The next day went by quickly, as did the Potsdam game, which we won, our raucous home crowd helping us every step of the way. Plattsburgh beat Middlebury in the other game, so we woke up Friday morning focused on beating the Cardinals.

Mike Serba didn't have that chance.

I walked in the rink for our morning meeting to go over film and our daily line-up. I was quickly stopped by Steve Mattson, one of our assistant coaches, and pulled into Coach McShane's office with the other captains, Raphael Robitaille and Eric Lauriault, who happened to be Mike Serba's roommates. I'll never forget what I saw when I walked into that room. Coach McShane looked more serious than I'd ever seen him. His face was much different than the one he usually wore when barking out orders from behind the bench. There was a concern there that was different somehow. Fred Coan, our other assistant coach, sat off to the left-hand side, sobbing. I couldn't fathom what was wrong. None of the guys had been talking about anything strange on the way into the rink. It didn't seem like anyone was hurt. I didn't think anyone had gotten in trouble. The team seemed to be fine. Former teammates never entered my mind until Coach McShane spoke.

Mike Serba had captained our team to a league championship and an NCAA tournament berth the year before. And although those results are expected at Norwich, Mike was one of the reasons why that season was so successful. He was one of the hardest workers I'd ever skated with, and he loved the game; he lived the game. He was a pure hockey player. As I said, he was still living with guys on the team because he was working for Norwich and taking classes in the MBA program.

So when Coach McShane told us that morning that Mike was dead, my whole worldview changed. In one instant, I went from a carefree college hockey guy, to a young man who wanted and needed to think about my priorities. The horrific way in which Mike died made the situation even worse. I won't get into the graphic details, but he was murdered. There is no other word for it. He was home visiting family in Toronto and a mugger attacked him. Coach McShane told us he was brain-dead and that he was being taken off life support. It was just a matter of time before he was gone for good.

We all broke down in our own way. Some people letting it out through yells and tears. I continued to look inward, my mind racing in a million different directions. After a time, we went with our coaches into the main lockerroom to inform the rest of the team. I remember making eye contact with Phil Sbrocchi and James Duhamel, two of the other Toronto natives. I'll never forget their eyes. They didn't know what was happening, but they knew I wore my emotions all over my face, and they knew something was very, very wrong.

The rest of that meeting is a blur. I know that we didn't think we were going to play that night. Everyone was too upset. Sure, most of us had seen death in our lives, even the deaths of people our age or younger through diseases, accidents, or suicide, but none of us had known anyone who had been murdered, never mind someone as close as our friend and former captain. It was unimaginable until we were in the moment.

I went back to my dorm and called the people I love. My girlfriend, who was also a close friend of Mike's, and my parents, came over. I shared the news again in more detail and we tried to make sense of a senseless situation. It was no use. All we could do was try and find comfort in the memories we had. I was still thinking about priorities, trying to figure out where hockey fit in.

We ended up deciding to play the game because Mike's father asked us to. He said that it was what Mike would have wanted, and, deep down, I think we all agreed. We knew that Mike would have found the energy and courage to perform had the situations been reversed.

News of the situation spread through the campus and community like wildfire. The arena was buzzing with a nervous, raw intensity before the opening puck drop. I remember shaking a little during the national anthem.

Plattsburgh never had a chance. I don't mean to say that the game-play wasn't close, because it was very close. I bet a video replay would show a fierce, tight game. But there was no way we were going to let them beat us. And there was no way our families and friends and fans in the crowd were going to let us lose. That's nothing against the Cardinals, either. They played their best. But they were only playing hockey. We were doing something much more. We were trying to make sure that there was still some good in the world. We were trying to show a grieving family in Toronto that a whole town loved their son. We couldn't have cared less about hockey. Hockey had nothing to do with it.

And, because of that, it was the most important game I ever played.

To learn more about Mike and the charity golf tournament that keeps his memory alive by donating its proceeds to children, visit www.imissmike.com.

 ~

 

Peter Langella played at Trinity College and Norwich University and has also coached at Williams. He is now a writer and librarian in central Vermont.

No contests today.
No contests today.
No contests today.