Three thousand screaming fans waving towels and dressed in white inside a sold-out Campus Center Ice Arena on a Friday night can only mean one thing: the Oswego State Lakers are going head-to-head with archrival SUNY Plattsburgh.
For the past 35 years, the Lakers and Cardinals have met on the same ice 98 times. Plattsburgh owns a 67-31-4 record against Oswego State. Each game adds another chapter in the intense rivalry between the two SUNYAC schools.
“It is clear that no matter whether they are playing here (at Oswego State) or playing up at Plattsburgh that it is probably the biggest rivalry in the SUNYAC for sure, but maybe in Division III hockey as a whole,” said Oswego State Athletic Director Tim Hale. “Both teams, wherever the game is, draw the biggest crowd of the year for that game.”
Hale has been the athletic director at Oswego State for the past nine years and has seen roughly 10 to 12 ice hockey games between the two schools. He has seen the two teams play in Plattsburgh and at Oswego State, taking note that every game is physical and typically decided by a goal, no matter where the game is held.
The first time these two teams met was in 1975, when George Crowe was coaching the Lakers and John Corker was coaching the Cardinals. Since that matchup, the Lakers have had four new head coaches and the Cardinals have had five. One coach in particular, Herb Hammond, has coached at both schools. Hammond coached the Lakers for 12 seasons, compiling a 176-122-5 record before taking the head coaching position at Plattsburgh. Despite only coaching at Plattsburgh for two seasons, the mere fact that he took the coaching position intensified the rivalry. The fans didn’t want to hate Hammond himself, because he was the pioneer for Laker hockey, so they instead hated the school he departed for.
During the 1986-87 season, the Lakers and Cardinals faced off on six different occasions. The two teams battled in their traditional two regular-season games, but also met in Plattsburgh’s annual tournament, the Cardinal Classic, as well as in the ECAC finals, SUNYAC finals and the National Championship game, which was held in Plattsburgh. The Cardinals came out victorious in all six meetings, but the NCAA Committee on Infractions vacated their participation in the NCAA tournament, and therefore stripped the school of its first NCAA Division III National Championship.
“Rivalries exist between two teams that have had great history, tradition and battles,” Lakers head coach Ed Gosek said.
Since the 2001-02 season, the Lakers and Cardinals have met eight times in the SUNYAC finals, a game in which the winner is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Division III Ice Hockey Tournament. The Cardinals have won a total of 20 SUNYAC titles compared with the Lakers’ eight. Plattsburgh has appeared in the NCAA tournament 18 times, reached the Frozen Four 13 times, and won two national championships, in 1992 and 2001. Oswego State has appeared in the NCAA tournament 12 times, reached the Frozen Four five times, including two consecutive trips and won one national championship in 2007.
“It’s a genuine fan hatred that they had for us and our fans had for them,” Gosek said. “As much as we battle with them and have great games with them, we respect their program. They have good players, they’re well coached, they have a great fan base and I think they would say the same thing about us. There’s mutual respect even though they don’t have any love for us and we don’t have any love for them, so to speak. That’s what makes a great rivalry.”
One reason for the two teams’ success has been coaching. Plattsburgh head coach Bob Emery is in his 23rd season with the Cardinals, sporting a 501-157-53 record. Emery’s 501 wins ranks him 18th on the all-time wins list for hockey coaches in the NCAA and ninth among active coaches.
“He wins, he wins consistently, he wins big, he is always contending at a national level,” Hale said of Emery.
Gosek is in his ninth season with the Lakers, compiling a record of 182-49-16. Gosek’s .769 winning percentage ranks him second all-time in NCAA history among coaches who have coached at least 100 games. Gosek’s teams struggled against Plattsburgh in his first seven seasons, winning only five of 16 meetings against the Cardinals. But over the last two-and-a-half seasons, Gosek’s teams have had the upper hand on Plattsburgh, going 5-0-1 in the last six games.
“In that game, you can’t have a bad shift or it will cost you,” Gosek said. “There’s times where we’ve played well but that one bad mistake, that one glaring mistake, they take advantage of it. Or they make the glaring mistake and we take advantage of it.”
No rivalry would be complete without fan support, and both teams have their share of raucous fans. When these two teams meet, whether in Plattsburgh or in Oswego, the arenas sell out. Ronald B. Stafford Arena in Plattsburgh fills its 2,288 seats, while the Campus Center Ice Arena at Oswego State fills its 3,000-seat capacity.
Each fan base has its own traditions, which date back to 1990 when the Cardinal Hockey Booster Club began a tradition of throwing hundreds of tennis balls onto the ice after the first Cardinal goal was scored against the visiting Lakers. The idea to throw tennis balls was due in large part to the color of the tennis balls matching the Lakers road uniforms at the time and that the head coach of the Lakers was Don Unger, who was also the school’s tennis coach. The Lakers countered the tennis ball throwing with bagel throwing in 1998 after the Lakers shut out the Cardinals in Plattsburgh, denying fans the opportunity to throw the tennis balls. The idea behind bagels was that it was to signify that the Cardinals had zero on the scoreboard. When the Lakers retired their bright yellow road jerseys, Cardinals fans began throwing red tennis balls onto the ice, representing the team’s colors.
The bagel tossing at Oswego State lasted until the 2006-07 season when the Lakers moved from Romney Field House to the Campus Center Ice Arena. Prior to the start of the season, the athletic department had WTOP, the school’s campus television station, shoot a public service announcement with the team captains pleading to the fans to not throw bagels onto the ice. The reason behind the public service announcement was because, while the bagel throwing was a spectacle to behold, it was disruptive to the game and did more harm than good. The first time the bagels flooded the ice, the Lakers would be given a warning for delay of game. After the bagels were thrown for a second time, the Lakers were assessed a two-minute penalty.
“It’s not that you don’t want the fans involved, but it’s when those things started to have an impact on the game that it was time to do away with it,” Gosek said. “If you want to throw something, throw it after the game is over or throw it during warm-ups.”
The public service announcement worked, as that year only one bagel was thrown onto the ice, and the second year had the same result. Last season, no bagels were thrown onto the ice. Replacing the bagel throwing was the implementation of the “White Out Game,” where fans were given white towels to wave and were encouraged to wear white to the game. Hale says it was a way to keep the fans involved, but not in a disruptive manner. The Cardinals followed the Lakers’ lead and banned the throwing of tennis balls onto the ice on Jan. 25, 2008, ending the 18-year tradition.
As two of the better teams in Division III, recruitment battles are a common occurrence. Very rarely are Plattsburgh and Oswego State not attempting to corral the same prospects. Both teams have had its fair share of First-Team All Americans and Second-Team All Americans. Goaltender Paul Beckwith was the last First-Team All American for the Lakers and Ian Boots was the last Second-Team All American.
It’s no question that when the schedules are released, players, coaches and fans are looking to see when the two rivals meet.
The two rivals meet on tonight at the Campus Center Ice Arena at 7 p.m. in the annual “White Out” game. The Lakers can clinch the SUNYAC regular season title and home ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a win over the Cardinals.