In 1988, Lake Superior State became the smallest school — enrollment 2,100 undergraduates — to win an NCAA Division I championship.
The Lakers' hockey team beat St. Lawrence in overtime, the sports moment judged the greatest in school history. They won 4-3 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the 1980 U.S. Olympic team performed their miracle on ice.
This wasn't a miracle — LSSU won two NAIA titles in the 1970s and won two more NCAA championships in the 1990s. But their first NCAA title was magical.
Lake Superior's Athletic Hall of Fame tells the story.
The 1988 Laker hockey team chased and captured the dream, doing what most thought improbable, if not impossible, by bringing the NCAA Division I championship to the little school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This team is a part of an era when LSSU dominated the college hockey landscape and maintained a decade of excellence that would ultimately capture three national crowns, during nine consecutive NCAA playoff appearances.
Armed with determination and led by former coach Frank Anzalone, the team of only two seniors and 14 freshmen stormed through the 1987-88 regular season with a 27-5-6 record, finishing first in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season standings with a 22-4-6 mark. The team posted an impressive 6-1-1 mark against Big Ten powerhouses Michigan and Michigan State en route to what was then a school record of 33-7-6.
The Lakers tossed out Ohio State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, and edged Western Michigan 5-4 in overtime in the semifinals, before dropping a 5-3 decision to Bowling Green in the CCHA Finals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
LSSU received a first-round bye, then split its NCAA second-round home series with Merrimack, advancing to a Frozen Four based on the two-game, total-goals format.
The first round saw the Lakers falling behind Maine early but coming back to post a 4-1 win. Freshman Bruce Hoffort totaled 33 saves in the effort. Two days later, in the championship game against St. Lawrence, the Lakers grabbed a 2-0 first-period lead before the Saints evened the score at 3-3 late in the second.
After a scoreless third period, Mark Vermette tallied the game-winner with a rebound in overtime. That goal may stand as the most famous in Lakers hockey history.
“It went through about five people,” Vermette told the Syracuse Herald American. “I don’t know how it went in. I’m still in awe, really.”
Hoffort (left), the tournament’s MVP, stymied the Saints with 49 saves. (Hoffort led the nation with a 2.65 goals-against average and ranked second in save percentage at .909.) Kord Cernich and Mike de Carle were also named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team.
The individual honors followed the team’s success. Forward Vermette, who led the nation in goals, was the CCHA Player of the Year, first-team NCAA All-America and the Sporting News Collegiate Player of the Year. He was also a Hobey Baker Award finalist. Anzalone received several coaching honors including CCHA Coach of the Year and the Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year.
Freshman goaltender Hoffort and Vermette earned All-CCHA first-team honors, while sophomore defenseman Cernich and junior forward de Carle were named to the second team. Senior defenseman Terry Hossack received honorable mention. Freshman forward Brett Barnett and freshman defenseman Karl Johnston were CCHA All-Tournament team picks.
The Lakers became the first hockey champions to visit the White House, meeting with President Ronald Reagan.
The team was also feted in a Sports Illustrated story that read, in part:
Individually, Anzalone’s players are ornery but ordinary talents: guys like goaltender Bruce Hoffort, who played a season of junior hockey in Saskatchewan before accepting a grant-in-aid and a chance for a degree from Lake Superior; or forward Pete Stauber, who simply didn’t get any other college offers. … The Lakers arrived at Lake Placid lightly regarded and with the reputation of being robots programmed mainly for grinding and meanness (they had racked up 1,095 penalty minutes during the 44-game regular season).
“Yes, call us robots,” said the Lakers freshman forward Jim Dowd. “National champion robots.”
• LSSU Athletic Hall of Fame
Middle and on the cover: Lake Superior State's 1988 NCAA championship men's hockey team with President Reagan (Photos courtesy Lake Superior State University Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Kent State and Lafayette
• Tuesday: Lake Superior State and Lamar
• Wednesday: LaSalle and Lehigh
• Thursday: Liberty and Longwood
• Friday: Louisiana Tech and Loyola Maryland