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THE GREATEST GAME I’VE EVER CALLED

Thursday, April 22nd
THE GREATEST GAME I’VE EVER CALLED

Scientists say that time travel is impossible. Sure, physically it’s probably never going to happen. The principle of time travel, however, is something we experience on a regular basis in our memories.

Sports are great for evoking this effect. With how most sports fans brains are wired, one season or one game in particular can take you right back to the exact day, the exact moment of the big play or colossal game, and the celebration that ensued with your friends, family, and loved ones after the win. On the flip side, it can take you back to a moment where your team suffered a heartbreaking loss, and the rush of disappointment and anguish that was felt in that moment.

Just ask our front office. I can really go down a rabbit hole on these occasions, much to their amusement tolerance of my quirks.

During the pandemic last year, we got to relive some of those great sports moments in our lives because all that sports channels played were old broadcasts of classic games. It was a time where we got to relive the memories and moments that made us fans, or perpetuated our fanhood, in the first place.

Thanks to the ECHL and their social media, we got to relive one of the most exciting games our team has ever played. It shaped the early portions of my career with the Rush. It’s one of those games that I can vividly recall everything that happened throughout the entire day and in the game itself.

It is Game 7 of the 2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs First Round against the Quad City Mallards.

Still to this day, I consider it the best game I’ve ever called, and the best game I’ve ever watched in my eight years with the organization. Watching the game re-broadcast on the ECHL’s Facebook page evoked significant memories, and I’d like to share those with you, Rush Nation.

Some context on the showdown with the Mallards is essential to doing this memory justice. The year prior, 2014, the end of my rookie year of broadcasting, the Rush won home-ice advantage in the last CHL Playoffs ever and took on Quad City in the first round. The Mallards carried a 3-2 lead in the series heading into Game 6 in Rapid City. The Rush won to force a winner-take-all Game 7 showdown on a Wednesday night in April. The winner of Game 7 had to immediately jump on a bus and drive 18 hours to Allen, Texas, to square off against the Americans in Game 1 of the second round that Friday night. Quad City won late 3-1, and our 2014 playoff run came to an end.

Fast forward a year later to 2015, the Rush’s first season in the ECHL. After a rocky start in the first half of the campaign, the Rush went 23-8-5 in the second half of the season to earn home-ice advantage in the first round 2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs.

The Rush faced Quad City….again. The Mallards carried a 3-2 lead in the series heading into Game 6 in Rapid City…again. The Rush won to force a winner-take-all Game 7 showdown on a Wednesday night in April, and the winner immediately had to jump on a bus and drive 18 hours to Allen to start the Second Round on Friday…again.

As 13-time World Series Champion Yogi Berra once famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

There are people involved in hockey at every level, from the front office, to hockey operations, to the players that play the sport their entire careers and are never a part of a Game 7. Here I was, a second-year broadcaster in my second career playoff series calling ANOTHER Game 7. Talk about an adrenaline rush.

It was April 29, 2015. I got to the rink like I usually do by 8am. I got some coffee in me, turned on my Billy Joel playlist like I do for every game day and got right to work. My priorities that morning were finalizing my Game Notes, and going to work on my spotter board. For those that have seen my broadcast notes setup, my spotter board is very detailed. I used to hand draw the lines on my board and handwrite all of my notes! It was time consuming, but it was how I felt prepared for the best on-air product I could deliver. I hold on to the boards from all the games I’ve called, including this Game 7.

The whole day, I was so focused. I’ve never known my stats and lineups better for a game than that one. My preparation on my recall of lineups involves reciting a player’s number and name from lowest number to highest number from memory as fast and accurately as I can. Then I’ll reciprocate and repeat on the way down from high to low. Then, to really test my knowledge, I’ll alternate low and high until I hit the middle (ex/3-Jannik Christiensen, 48-Anthony Collins, 4-Mike Monfredo, 29-Jake Baker…and so on). If I can do all of that in under 1:15, I’m good. If I can get it under a minute, I know I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. For this game in question, I did all of that in roughly 56 seconds.

As I usually do before big games, I talked to my parents back home in Charlotte. My dad and younger brother set up a projector back home on one of our big blank white walls to watch the game on ECHL.TV. My dad, like he normally does for the big games, gave me a nice pep talk. My mom was there too, telling me how proud she was that she got to hear such an important playoff game on radio for a second season. My parents are simply the best. My older brother tried to listen in from medical school in Grenada, where he had just come from two weeks prior to visit me at the start of the playoffs. All my friends back home in Charlotte were trying to catch the online radio stream from 100.3 The FOX in some way, shape, or form. And, of course, my grandmother (who STILL hasn’t missed a single Rush game in eight seasons) was listening all the way from Cedar Grove, New Jersey. I was about to explode with excitement.

At roughly 5:00, I was just outside of Head Coach/GM Joe Ferras’ office downstairs getting prepared to do my pregame interviews. Joe told me to come in the locker room for his to address the team. He always took command of a room when he talked. He was such a great communicator and public speaker that his demeanor and voice always told you when you needed to listen. It was all eyes on him.

“It comes down to each shift tonight boys,” Joe said in a speech that I imagine he still recalls to this day. “We worked too damn hard in this second half to end our season tonight boys. They got us last year in this identical scenario. We get the payback tonight. This is our building, and this is our season. Stay out of the [crap], play [hard], and let’s go at these guys!”

(Please note that Joe’s vulgar, but hilarious vocabulary was censored. This is a family friendly story, after all.)

As I looked around the room during his pregame speech, every member of the team seemed laser focused. Some were playing “sewer ball” in the Zamboni room. Jesse Schultz was meticulously taping his stick. The Captain, Winston Day Chief, was getting taped up by our trainer, Cody Lindhorst. Danny Battochio was throwing his rubber ball at the wall and seamlessly tracking it into his goaltending glove. The preparation was at an all-time high.

Cody Ferriero was my pregame interview that night. He was the younger brother of former NHLer Benn Ferriero, who played with the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, and New York Rangers. He was called up earlier in the season from the SPHL’s Pensacola Ice Flyers, and was reunited with current Rush Assistant Coach, Jeremy Gates, who was also called up from the same club weeks before. Cody was the shot in the arm up front that this team desperately needed at the midway point of the season. He had 45 points in just over 36 games for the Rush and finished six goals away from the team’s single-season rookie goal-scoring record. He had 20 goals in just over half of the season…imagine if he played with the Rush the whole year!

As Cody told me in the pregame conversation, outside of a Bean Pot Tournament game in college during his career at Northeastern, he had never played in a game of this magnitude before. This wasn’t Boston College or Harvard he was staring down, this was a professional Game 7; it meant so much more.

If only we knew ahead of time the night that Cody was going to have.

I prepared my booth before warmup, along with my broadcast partner, Tim Acheson. He was the Rush bus driver but was also a former ECHL and CHL referee and IHL linesman with over a decade of experience as an official in hockey. In addition to his officiating experience, he had hockey operations roles with the WPHL’s Lake Charles Ice Pirates and ECHL’s Arkansas Riverblades. “Slice”, as he was affectionately known, was well respected by our listeners for his insight based on his various perspectives in the game. Our broadcast team was eagerly awaiting puck drop for Game 7.

I also got a chance to talk with Brian Lavelle, the Quad City broadcaster. We reminisced on last year’s Game 7 and the fact that this was like a scene out of “Groundhog Day” given how eerily similar both scenarios were. After going over lineups, we gave each other well wishes for an outstanding call, and went to our corners.

It’s now 6:35 p.m. I got the cue from the studio to start the pregame show. It was go-time.

I can remember almost all of what I said that night, particularly how I led the broadcast:

“In the world of professional sports, there are no two words more exciting than ‘Game 7’. It speaks for itself. The sense of urgency, the excitement, and the anxiety all folded into one time period of 60 minutes of hockey. The winner advances to Round 2 to take on the Allen Americans this weekend. The loser will watch their season come to an end.”

You could feel the buzz in the entire building as we neared puck drop. As I got the final countdown from my board operator to start the game broadcast, I gave everyone in the booth one last fist bump. Peter Tarnaris, the referee, looked at both goalies. Parker Milner, two-time National Champion out of Boston College got the nod from Head Coach Terry Ruskowski for Quad City. Joe Ferras went with “The Batman”, Danny Battochio in net for the Rush. Tarnaris blew his whistle and dropped the puck.

Game 7 was underway.

In every home game of the series, and in four of the six previous games in the set, the Rush scored the first goal of the game within the first two minutes. Michael Young scored 29 seconds into the playoffs in Game 1, Spencer Pommells in his Rush debut 1:51 into Game 2, Jesse Schultz 1:47 into Game 4, and Riley Weselowski 68 seconds into Game 6. The first few shifts were absolutely critical for the Rush to try and capitalize over Quad City.

Despite a brilliant start offensively with a couple of great chances on Milner, the Rush didn’t score early. They did, however, end the frame with all of the momentum, hemming the Mallards in their own zone for just about the final two and a half minutes of the first period. Just like the previous year’s Game 7, the first period ended 0-0. Shots were 9-3 in favor of Rapid City. Outside of scoring a goal, the Rush played one of their best periods of the series. It was tight checking, and old fashioned “grind it out” hockey.

The Rush out-shot the Mallards by another 9-3 margin in the second period. Despite another shooting clinic for the Rush and a few shorthanded opportunities from Justin Faryna, we had our front runner (at the time) for the “game-breaking moment” late in the second.

With 3:29 left in the second period, Mathieu Brisebois, a defenseman with 30 points in 36 games after he came to the Rush in January, had an opportunity to break the deadlock and give the Rush the game’s first goal. He took a d-to-d pass from Michael Young on the far side of the Mallards zone, got by his oncoming attacker, and came in close range of the net. From where I was standing, it looked like his first shot hit the post. He had so much momentum skating off the blue line, however, that he skated right into his rebound, collected the puck, and went for a wrap around behind the net.

Milner stoned him with about a centimeter to spare on the goal line.

Unbelievable.

Milner robbed Brisebois on probably the best chance of the game for either team, and the score remained 0-0. All Brisebois could do was look to the heavens. While he seemingly could’ve sworn the puck went in, Slice appropriately pointed out on the air just seconds later that the goal lamp never turned on.  After two periods of play, it was 0-0. Shots were 18-6 in favor of the Rush.

As the clock his triple-zero after the second period, Slice and I shared the exact same thought; if this game went into overtime, the Rush (or Mallards) were going to be in a serious world of hurt against Allen on Friday. Allen demolished Tulsa in their first round series in five games. The Americans basically had the entire week off. They were sitting on the couch waiting to see which one of us would survive the carnage and begin the Central Division Finals two nights later against them.

Both teams skated out of their dressing rooms for the third period. It was so freaking loud. It was now, or never. Or overtime. Or utter chaos. The possibilities were endless. After all, it IS the playoffs. Anything can happen.

If by this point of reading this your heart rate isn’t slightly elevated, I seriously question the efficiency and functionality of your circulatory system. All I could think of was that there were 20 minutes to determine the rest of the season. My adrenaline was through the roof. As a sports fan, and now a broadcaster, these are the moments you hope you’re blessed enough to be a part of.

Puck drops. Deep breath. Here we go.

You could feel the anticipation from the crowd. The fans knew something was going to happen. Every time the puck entered a zone or was passed or shot by a player on either side, the crowd would crescendo with it.

Roughly three minutes into the frame, there was a brief moment of heart break followed by absolute insanity.

Patrick Cullen entered the Mallards zone with speed, but he got stick checked from behind and lost the puck. However, the Mallards turned it right over to the attacking blue line and it stayed in. Michael Young rifled a pass down low (at least I thought it was Young, Slice swears to this day it was Brett Kostolansky) to a wide-open Cullen, point blank to the side of the net.

He hit the post.

In that moment, I was in disbelief. What if this game really was going to stay 0-0 for as long as it could?

As soon as I finished the thought, it was pure elation. Quad City turned the puck over on their near wall, and Barczuk and Ferriero did the rest.

“Here comes the puck back in the near corner of the Mallards zone. Matt Neal’s got it. Puck took an awkward bounce on him. He turns it over to Barczuk, up ahead for Ferriero. Dances. Backhand. SCOOOOORES! Cody Ferriero gives the Rush a 1-0 lead with 16:34 left in Game 7!”

Ferriero’s second goal of the postseason from Barczuk at 3:26 of the final period broke the deadlock and gave the Rush a 1-0 lead. Not even seconds after Ferriero scored, however, Jesse Schultz missed on an offensive zone opportunity and slashed a Mallards skater right in front of Tarnaris. The Rush went to their third penalty kill of the game. Enter “The Batman”.

There was 1:10 left on the Mallards power play and 15:23 left in the game. The ensuing faceoff to Battochio’s  glove side was won by the Mallards to Mike Monfredo, who played virtually the first half of his career with Quad City and was always a thorn in the side of the Rush. He was a steady hand for the Mallards that was coming off of a great season for Terry Ruskowski. He rifled a shot that got through and got deflected to former ECHL MVP Kevin Baker with a wide-open net to shoot at. Battochio dove from one post to the other and denied Baker. “The Batman” preserved the Rush lead with what was now the most important save of the game. All you could hear, outside of raucous applause from the Rush faithful, was the “Batman” theme song. It was always one of my favorite parts of when Battochio played.

With 11:12 left in regulation, the Mallards thought they tied it up. Logan Nelson, who was in training camp with the Rush that season only to be traded to Quad City after the first month of the year, believed he squared the game at 1-1. However, before putting the loose puck into the Rush net, he crosschecked Kostolansky away from the puck to free himself for the shot. Tarnaris saw it the whole way, called the crosscheck, and gave the Rush their only power play of the game. The Rush had a chance to double their lead, but were denied by a top-notch Quad City penalty kill.

As the game closer to its conclusion, I kept thinking to myself that it would be the most Rapid City vs Quad City thing ever if this game ended 1-0. These teams played such a grinder style of hockey that it just made sense it would end that way. As a matter of fact, that series set an ECHL playoff record for lowest goal total in a playoff series at 28 goals. To put that in perspective, the Kalamazoo Wings and Fort Wayne Komets combined for 31 goals in their series, which ended in five games. However, that wasn’t the case. The Rush soon received a crushing blow.

With 1:48 left in the game, the Rush iced the puck, forcing a defensive zone faceoff to Battochio’s blocker side. Quad City won the draw and worked it to the far side of the zone. Dylan Clarke had a chance to clear the zone and get a change, while also forcing Quad City to set up and pull Parker Milner from his net for an extra-attacker. Clarke couldn’t get the puck out, and it stayed in on the far wall. The puck came behind the net to Quad City’s Michael Clarke (no relation to the Rush’s Clarke), and from behind the net he found Justin Fox in the slot. Fox shook off Faryna, received the pass, and buried his shot over a sprawling Battochio.

It was tied. With 92 seconds left in the game, it was 1-1.

My heart sank. The air, the buzz, and the momentum all came out of the entire building.

Slice took over the mic and poignantly said one of the most dramatic things you could in the situation.

“Well, here we are,” he went on, “1-1. We are now in sudden death. The next goal is going to Allen.”

He was right.

After the tying goal and before the chaos that ensued, I vowed to myself that, Rush win or lose, this was going to go down as one of the best, if not the best game in my career. It was so gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking, chaotic, and exhilarating, all at the same time. It would take a lot to dethrone this game. Heck, we’re talking about this game six years later and it’s STILL number one in my book. At this rate, the only thing that could topple it is (God willing) an NHL broadcast or another Rush championship.

There was 1:32 left. Overtime looked imminent, until the Rush earned an offensive zone draw with 67 seconds left in the game. Ferras changed lines and put Cody Ferriero out to take the draw. He was flanked by Barczuk on the left and Schultz on the right, while Brisebois and Young were on the back-end.

Shortly after the whistle, Slice said to our audience, “Now we’re really down to crunch time and this is where faceoffs are absolutely critical. We have Cody Ferriero out there. He’s done an outstanding job all night on the faceoffs. This is one that is key.”

For those playing the home game, that’s called “foreshadowing”.

Ferriero won the draw to Schultz on the wing. Schultz kicked it to Brisebois on the blue line. He unleashed a rocket of a shot. I still swear to this day that this all happened in slow motion.

Ferriero got a piece of Brisebois’s shot and deflected it by Milner. The puck hit the back of the net.

2-1, Rush. 1:03 left in the game.

I’ll never forget the call for as long as I live.

“Faceoff to the glove side of Milner won. Brisebois a shot! SCOOOOOOOOOORE! I DON’T BELIEVE IT! 63 SECONDS LEFT, AND THE RUSH HAVE A 2-1 LEAD IN GAME 7!!!!”

I remember taking a gigantic breath and looking at the scoreboard to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I grabbed Slice’s arm and nearly ripped it out of his socket because I was so floored. He was in the same amount of shock as I was! It was absolute chaos. Two goals, not even 30 seconds apart…wow!

After the moment of shock, I got back into game mode. After all, we still had a minute left.

The Mallards got the puck deep and dumped it into the Rush zone. Almost in tandem, Milner shot to the bench, giving them an extra-attacker and an empty net to my right. All the Rush needed was one more goal and it was game over. Or, they had to survive the longest 60 seconds of our lives. For the last minute, I almost sprained my neck looking at the play and the clock, frantically switching views and watching it slowly tick down to 00.0. In the final seconds, Winston Day Chief sent the puck into the Mallards zone, and that was all she wrote.

“Day Chief off the glass! He clears the zone, and that’s it! For the first time in four seasons, the Rush are going to Round Two! Bring on the Allen Americans!”

At that very second, the Rush bench poured out and mobbed Battochio in his crease. It was pure elation on the Rush side. Everyone embraced each other. Battochio was jumping up and down, holding his entire team in his arms. Kevin Harvey hilariously took his fist-bumping a little too far…he accidentally nailed Jonathan Narbonne square in the gut, totally knocked the wind out of him. Riley Weselowski went off to the corner and constantly slammed his stick to the ice. I’m still surprised that it didn’t break.

As I watched all of this unfold, I looked to the scoreboard. Kevin Rhatican, who was our Director of Game Operations for just that season, put up in big capital letters a graphic that simply said “Bring on Allen”. The crowd didn’t sit down for the last minute of the game and the celebration. I was still speechless, which is an occupational hazard when you’re still live on the air in a job that requires you to perpetually talk.

Following the game, I shook Brian Lavelle’s hand in the Quad City booth, and went downstairs and gave Coach Ferras a big hug. I shook Assistant Coach Mark DeSantis’ hand, and congratulated the players on a job well done. I went home to frantically pack whatever I could into my luggage to jump onto an 18-hour bus ride and begin the next round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs in Allen, Texas, all while I juggled calls from my family about what in the wide world of sports just happened in front of me that night

By the way, the Rush won Game 1 against Allen, 4-2. I still don’t know how they had the energy to do it. They seriously just won three playoff games, two of them for their playoff lives, in the span of four nights in two different cities. Despite the early win in the series, our playoffs ended to Allen in six games that round. Even though our journey came to an end, that Game 7 gave me a night that I will still talk about for a very long time.

They say that time travel is impossible, but moments of reminiscing like this prove that, in some small way, it is possible. Every time I think of that night, I’m immediately transported six years ago to the day, the routine, the emotions of that night, and everything in between. It’s moments like these that either make us fans, or perpetuate our fanhood in sports. They are moments that, no matter what, will last with us for the rest of our lives.

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