Power Ploys

The hockey fans at Tucson Convention Center are getting what they've come to expect. The University of Arizona Icecats look like they're about to administer their umpteenth butt-kicking to the Arizona State Ice Devils.

On this February night, Arizona quickly jumps to a 2-0 lead in the first period, and the crowd of 6,000 reaches a simultaneous emotional orgasm. As the house organ plays snatches of "The Mexican Hat Dance" and "Old McDonald Had a Farm," Icecats fans diligently wait for musical pauses to shriek "You suck" to the Ice Devils stickmen.

For the Arizona State Ice Devils, it's the same old song. Over the two decades that ASU and Arizona have battled on the ice, Arizona's domination has been so complete, it's felt like punishment from the hockey gods of the Great White North for some unknown sin.

This season, Arizona won three of its first four meetings with Arizona State, with ASU able to manage no better than a tie in the other contest. In at least two games, ASU inexplicably threw away solid leads in the third period.

But ASU isn't rolling over so easily tonight. Late in the first period, the Ice Devils roar back with an impressive stretch of deft puck handling. In less than eight minutes, the team scores three unanswered goals. By the end of the second period, the Ice Devils have expanded that lead to 4-2. The players march to the locker room for the final intermission, mumbling to themselves that they still have 20 minutes left to go.

ASU first-year head coach Mickey Volcan is dressed in a smart black-and-gray suit. He carries a yellow legal pad, loaded with notes about player substitutions. In the locker room, he stays out of the players' way, except to tell them, "Look at how [the Icecats] are playing. It's wide open, so you have to be disciplined."

Ian Smith, a tall, chatty right winger from Detroit, sits on the locker-room bench and hurls exhortations like smoke bombs, at no one in particular. "We've got 'em where we want 'em," he says. "Let's shove it up their asses."

In the third period, the Ice Devils withstand repeated charges from Arizona, but with seven minutes gone in the period, penalties put ASU at a crippling disadvantage: the Ice Devils have to play with only three players, while UA has five.

With 5:41 remaining, UA is within a single goal at 4-3, and ASU's Jeffrey Tarala gets two minutes in the penalty box for tripping.

"Nice way to end your career, you fuckin' faggot," shouts Arizona's mammoth center Hunter Cherenack, from his team's bench.

The ASU bench is controlled chaos. Volcan unpredictably shifts emotional gears, one minute smiling at a toddler in the front row, the next minute spitting out profanities and making hand-job gestures to Arizona assistant coach Jeremy Goltz. The two coaches exchange rink pleasantries: "You're a fucking asshole." "No, you're a fucking asshole."

Volcan takes out a wad of cash and waves it at the UA bench, as if to ask, "How much are you paying the refs?"

With 1:05 left in the game, UA breaks through with a goal; the score is tied at 4-4. The air goes out of the ASU bench. Once again, it looks like the team is finding a way to let victory over Arizona slip away.

The stands are still vibrating with giddiness, when ASU's Tarala fires a pass to an open Ian Smith. With 47 seconds left in the game, Smith flicks a smoking slap shot into the Arizona net. The crowd swiftly becomes quiet as a morgue, but ASU players are shouting and hugging, and a red-faced Volcan jumps on the bench and pumps his fist at a heckler in the crowd.

In the closing seconds, ASU adds an empty-net insurance goal that brings the final tally to 6-4. For only the second time in 24 games this season, the Icecats have been beaten. In front of their home crowd, no less.

In the locker room, Volcan high-fives every player in sight and spews out a gusher of superlatives: "Fucking good show, fucking congratulations! You fucking deserved it, you fucking deserved it!" The players roar with exultation.

On this night, the Arizona State Ice Devils look like the epitome of a great college hockey team. They are tough, tenacious, quick and well-coached. They look like the kind of unified, determined bunch that will accept nothing short of victory.

So why, only two weeks before this game, did this same Ice Devils team turn down a prestigious invitation to the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) playoffs in Minot, North Dakota? The Ice Devils were one of only 12 teams in the country invited to the nationals. It would have been only the third time in the team's 21-year history that it had made it to the playoffs. And this year arguably signified its best-ever chance at a national championship.