October 6, 2006

Captain Sixsmith Running The Show

Oct. 2, 2006

By Matthew Shapiro
Special To CSTV.com

For some, the motivation to win derives from a yearning to gain fame. Others strive toward victory for financial interests or because they feel disrespected and have something to prove.

When the Holy Cross Crusaders faced off against the No. 1 seed Minnesota in last year's NCAA Tournament, their mantra for why they needed to win - and not just win, but potentially pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of postseason college hockey - was much simpler than those aforementioned reasons.

"We want to have something to do tomorrow," said Holy Cross assistant coach Brian Akashian, recalling the team's credo from last postseason.

While most might go buy a movie ticket or make a dinner reservation, the Crusaders needed to do a bit more to make sure that they would be able to keep themselves busy the next day.

"The whole week we were hoping to have a pre-game skate on Saturday morning," said head coach Paul Pearl, referring to the fact that his team would need to beat the Gophers Friday night to earn a meaningful practice before Saturday night's quarterfinal game.

Though the chances of the Crusaders reaching that skate seemed slimmer than the blade on which the players glide, there was one group that didn't think it was out of the realm of possible.

"Everybody in the locker room thought we could beat Minnesota," Akashian said. "We thought that we had the goal-tending and the overall team defense to hang in there."

It turns out the Crusaders did have what it took to engineer the upset, beating Minnesota 4-3 and etching their names in the history books as the first No. 4 seed ever to beat a No. 1 since the tournament expanded to 16 teams. Senior captain James "Bubba" Sixsmith credits the team's success not only to their talents, but also to their head coach's ability to instill confidence.

"He honestly believes - and that's why this program has come so far - he honestly believes that we can play with anybody in the country," Sixsmith said. "And we proved that. The only reason we did is because he's always pushing us to believe in ourselves."

Pearl has a clear line of thinking as to why it is so crucial for a team to have that self-confidence.

"If you're going to go in to beat a team - any team - you have to have an expectation you can win, no question," Pearl said. "If you don't have that, when things start going wrong out there, it's very easily a game that falls apart on you."

That ability to motivate players to reach greater heights than they thought possible was noticed by many in the college hockey world. After the season, Pearl's name was one that came up in talks of head coaching vacancies at other bigger programs. And according to the New Haven Register, Pearl was one of four candidates who interviewed for the head job at Yale (Keith Allain ended up filling the position).

Despite the reports, Pearl vehemently denies that he ever spoke to other schools, citing his deep roots to Holy Cross as to why Worcester is the place for him.

"I never spoke to any other schools," Pearl said. "That stuff is on the Internet...I'm a Holy Cross graduate. I played there, I've coached there for 12 years, I wasn't going anywhere. Different media outlets might float that stuff on the Internet, but I can assure you that wasn't true."

Despite all the rumors, all that matters to the Crusaders and their fans now is that Pearl will be back in the saddle for several more years to come. In April, Pearl made good on his words, inking a three-year extension.

Sixsmith understands why his coach feels most comfortable at Holy Cross.

"We always talk about not getting all the equipment or all the benefits that someone like Minnesota gets, but he likes that," Sixsmith explained. "He likes being the team that has good citizens...He says `I'm raising people first and hockey players second.' And I think he believes he can do that best at Holy Cross."

Now that Pearl is officially back behind the boards for Holy Cross, it's time for the Crusaders to set their sights on 2007 and prove to people that last year's performance wasn't an anomaly.

"Everybody that thinks that us beating Minnesota was a fluke is completely wrong," Sixsmith declared. "We were a pretty damn good hockey team last year."

While it would seem logical that winning such a high-profile game could only help a relatively small program, Pearl explained that he isn't 100% sure.

"It's never a good thing if it makes other teams take notice of you," Pearl joked. "You want to fly under the radar whenever you can."

There will be no more stealth skating for these Crusaders. And Pearl is making sure that, despite their mantra of looking forward to tomorrow, his team remains focused on today.

"I approach this season that we need to have a good practice Saturday morning," Pearl said. "We don't get into a lot of clichés, but we really try not to look beyond the next day."

Their monumental upset last year opened the hockey world's eyes to this team. With some of the NCAA hockey spotlight firmly trained on Worcester, the Crusaders are ready to make a statement.

"Now that we have a little bit of attention, people will realize that we are a good hockey team, we're not just `the team that beat Minnesota'," Sixsmith said.

With Pearl calling the shots and Sixsmith running the show on the ice, the Crusaders look poised to reach March without the uncertainty of what they will do tomorrow.