“Once we had our post-game meeting, I slipped off by myself and had a moment where I broke down. It was an overwhelming moment to beat them, to have a goal and feel like I had a really big impact on the game. It was special, something I’ll always remember.”
—'Suitcase Steve' Ruggiero, after Lake Superior State stunned Michigan 5-2
Friday night at Taffy Arena brought some serious déjà vu, as if Lake State and Michigan had jumped into the time machine and found themselves in a classic CCHA slug-fest, the once and future powerhouses battling it out in front of a raucous crowd on the banks of the St. Mary’s River in the American Sault. It was a startling out-of-town score to the rest of the country: the nationally ranked Wolverines, one of college hockey’s biggest brand names, getting shoved around by the recently downtrodden Lakers, 4-2 midway through the third. Lake State’s burly defenseman Steve Ruggiero was in full battle mode: roughing and holding and slashing his way into the penalty box for six minutes, reminding every Wolverine that a trip into the Laker crease came with a price tag.
In a scene from its glory days of yesteryear, Lake Superior was defending its lead in the offensive zone, cycling along the wall at the hashmarks, creating offense through sheer physical will. Ruggiero hopped over the bench in the midst of a play that had been choreographed only hours earlier.
“Hampus Eriksson made a reverse pass to our captain Gage Torrel,” said Ruggiero, describing a scenario that is now part of his permanent record. “Just that morning, we were working on that exact play. Torrel was rolling up the wall, and caught me streaking into the zone, jumping into the lane, and he made a cross-ice pass.”
And then Ruggiero did something he had never done before in his four seasons of college hockey. He lit the lamp.
“Just peaked at the last second, and I was able to get the shot off through traffic, and it found its way to the back of the net.”
Ruggiero, the least likely candidate, had buried a dagger into the vaunted Wolverines late in the third period, snuffing out Michigan’s chances for good. Although a consummate team player, that goal represented a poignant moment in time for the well-traveled junior.
“It was surreal,” said Ruggiero, actually understating its significance.
“Suitcase Steve” has put on more miles than Johnny Cash in his career — he’s been everywhere, man: Penn State (commit), Youngstown (USHL), NTDP, Providence, Youngstown (again!) and finally Lake State. Playing Michigan, a team that is essentially a finishing school for NTDP products, brought Ruggiero back to a time in his career before a nasty groin injury, when he was one of America’s best and brightest prospects, winning an IIHF gold medal with the boys from Ann Arbor. He couldn’t help stopping in to the Wolverines’ skate after their bus pulled into Taffy Arena.
“I was able to catch five minutes of their practice on Thursday,” said Ruggiero. “These are guys I used to play with; it was a little bit of a flashback. Back when I was with the program, all of us had goals, our own ambitions, it was always competitive. I know what those guys are thinking at Michigan, ‘We’ll come up here, sweep’em, head home, no problem.’ We knew what to expect.”
And the once-forgotten Lakers of the revamped WCHA went out Friday night and bloodied the Wolverines’ noses. The former USA Hockey national team enforcer, who had fallen off the elite hockey fast track due to injury, had his name inked all over the score sheet Friday night, putting purple bruises onto the Maize and Blue at every turn. Ruggierio’s hard-earned experience helped him seal up Friday’s emotional victory.
“I was put out on the ice to close out the game, trying to tell myself, ‘Stay focused, relax, get the job done and you can enjoy the moment after.’”
Which is exactly what he did. He left the ice to a lusty roar in old Taffy Arena, under rafters crowded with NCAA championship banners. It was a seminal moment for the 5-0 Lakers, having woken the echoes of a sleeping giant of a program.
The team returned to their locker room victorious, getting a rousing speech from head coach Damon Whitten, a former MSU Spartan who treasures each and every win over the Mitten State’s glamor squad from Ann Arbor. As the room emptied, Ruggiero sought some solitude, and let his emotions wash over him.
“I’d be lying if I told you after the game I didn’t cry,” Ruggiero said.
After regaining his composure, Steve lifted his 24-hour communication embargo, and switched his cell phone out of “airplane mode.” Texts and tweets of congratulations came pouring in as he set his mobile device down next to the ice bath. Caring for his body is a strict religion for the 6-foot-3 defenseman, but he punched a call to Kings Point, Long Island before sliding into the frozen tub. The other Steven Ruggiero picked up.
“I called my parents,” Ruggiero said. “I put them on the speaker, it was a really exciting moment. They said, ‘We’re so proud of you guys, proud of you.’ My dad said, ‘Enjoy the moment, but take care of your body. It’s going to be a war on Saturday.’”
And war it was. The wounded Wolverines, desperate to salvage a split of the series, struck early in the finale of the two-game set, and held on to win 5-3. The Lakers are now 5-1, and are picking up points in all the national polls. After a decade of mediocrity, Ruggiero insists that this Laker resurgence is not a mirage.
“We take a lot of pride here with Laker hockey. I don’t think we’re a flash in the pan — we’re the real deal.”
One question remains, however: How long must we wait for Ruggiero’s next goal?
“When God blesses me with the next opportunity, hopefully I’ll capitalize.”
Tim Rappleye is the author of "Jack Parker's Wiseguys" and the forthcoming book: "Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review," set for release in November. He can be reached @TeeRaps.