Just by looking into Michael Houser’s eyes, you could tell the agony of defeat hadn’t even begun to fade after losing a national championship 12 hours prior.
“It’s still stinging pretty good right now,” the Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year said at the London International Airport on Monday afternoon, moments after landing.
Following Anton Zlobin’s overtime goal, the 19-year-old hunched over in his crease with his head down as Shawinigan started up a jubilant celebration in front of him. His head stayed pointed down as teammates skated by to offer traditional post-game condolences.
And although the netminder’s season for the ages came to a crashing halt, he remains irreplaceable to the organization.
“If we didn’t have Michael Houser, it’s not like we might not have been in this situation — it’s we would not have been in this situation,” assistant coach Dylan Hunter said sternly.
Houser, along with a slew of other veterans, might have played their final game in a Knights uniform. The club has only two overagers — Colin Martin and Brett Cook — ineligible to return for the 2012-13 season, but the futures of Jarred Tinordi, Jared Knight, Austin Watson, Scott Harrington, and even Olli Maatta are all up in the air heading into the summer.
“We kind of all just stared at walls,” Watson said of the post-game atmosphere inside the dressing room. “It’s hard to accept, and it’s hard to let the feeling register.”
Knight, 20, called the loss a “swift kick.” Over a four-year span, the Battle Creek, Mi., native has transformed from a boy to a man in the Forest City, a place he now considers his second home.
“They treated me like I was a son,” the Boston Bruins prospect said of the coaching staff, pausing after each word. “Everyone says this, but I really wouldn’t be the player I am today without them.”
It’s still stinging pretty good right now — Michael Houser
While the feats accomplished by the relatively young squad in 2011-12 are remarkable, the pain of being a single goal away from national glory isn’t sitting well with Knight at the moment.
“When I was on the bench yesterday, I really couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I firmly believed we could beat Shawinigan.”
Hunter, who played six years of professional hockey following the 2005 Memorial Cup, knows the awful feeling of utter disappointment first-hand. He also knows it won’t last.
“After a few days, you get the pit out of your stomach,” he said. “You look back and realize what you’ve accomplished.”
— Depth player Colin Martin said he has received a number of offers to play for Canadian universities next season. However, he has yet to decide which one he’ll take.
— Head coach Mark Hunter on defenceman and Londoner Tommy Hughes: “He played with a slight crack in his foot. He’s a young man who bleeds for the organization.”