It’s pretty easy to say that Maine sports fans have been spoiled with lots of championships over the years.
Since Adam Vinatieri split the uprights at the Superdome in New Orleans in February 2002, clinching the New England Patriots first Super Bowl championship, the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics have a whopping nine titles between them.
Then, you have a fan base, like, say, Cleveland, which hasn’t had a championship parade in more than a half-century. The Golden State Warriors, in spite of losing Game 5 of the NBA Finals to the Cavaliers on Monday night, can still add to Cleveland’s heartbreak by winning Game 6 on Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland’s stumbles and bumbles in championship games has been cannon fodder for sportswriters, sports talk show hosts and late-night comedians for generations. You may look at the incredible run New England’s teams have had over the last 15 years, and forget among all those championship banners, there has been plenty of Cleveland-esque heartbreak mixed in.
That being said, here are my Top 5 “heartbreaking” moments as a New England sports fan since Super Bowl XXXVI. And yes, being in the Pine Tree State, University of Maine hockey moments count, too.
1. TIE – SUPER BOWL XLII and 2002 NCAA HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP
The tie between these two was a no-brainer. The heartbreak is quite similar, but the 2007 New England Patriots and 2001-02 UMaine hockey team had vastly different backgrounds.
That powerful Patriots team was supposed to make history, but the New York Giants beat Bill Belichick at his own game. He must have had flashbacks to Super Bowl XXV, when he was the artist behind a Giants’ gameplan that stifled the high-powered Buffalo Bills. That gameplan is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Patriots fans can still see that ball on top of David Tyree’s helmet. Of all the Pats’ championships, this was supposed to be at the top of the heap. 19-0. History-making. But the sports gods had another plan. Remember, the helmet catch doesn’t happen if Asante Samuel doesn’t drop an interception just prior to that fateful play.
The 2001-02 Black Bears were a team of destiny. Legendary coach Shawn Walsh had lost his battle with kidney cancer in September 2001, only 24 hours before Maine’s first on-ice practice of the season. Under the guidance of Tim Whitehead, the Bears made it back to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the national championship game against the Golden Gophers.
Maine was less than a minute away from its third national championship when the Gophers tied it late in regulation. In overtime, a controversial tripping call sent Michael Schutte to the penalty box, and Minnesota scored on the subsequent power play, crushing the hearts of Black Bear Nation.
To this day, many Maine fans still say Minnesota’s Matt Kolaska should’ve joined Schutte in the penalty box for diving. The head referee in that game: Steve Piotrowski, who had ejected Walsh from his final game, a 2001 NCAA regional final loss to Boston College. Peter Metcalf believed the NCAA “had it out” for Maine.
Whether you think that call was controversial or not, that loss to Minnesota is easily the most heart-wrenching in the history of UMaine hockey.
2. SUPER BOWL XLVI – MARIO MANNINGHAM.
Same opponents. Same scenario. Different stadium. The Patriots needed one stop to beat the Giants, and claim Super Bowl XLVI during a season in which Pats Nation mourned the death of owner Robert Kraft’s beloved wife, Myra.
Mario Manningham, however, pulled a David Tyrie. Except he somehow dragged his toes along the sideline. I still don’t know how he stayed in bounds to this day. Ahmad Bradshaw scored later in the drive, and the Giants broke New England’s hearts. Again. However, it was a dropped pass – this one by receiver Wes Welker on a third down on the Patriots’ prior drive – that preluded a fluky catch.
3. 2013 STANLEY CUP FINALS, GAME 6
This Boston Bruins team was left for dead in the third period of the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, with the Toronto Maple Leafs running Boston out of TD Garden. But some Garden magic followed, with the B’s scoring four unanswered goals to win 5-4 in overtime. The Bruins subsequently dispatched the New York Rangers in five games and swept the Pittsburgh Penguins to set up a Stanley Cup showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Fast-forward to Game 6 in Boston. Bruins down 3-2 in the series, but leading 2-1 late in the third period. Sports bars across New England are planning for Game 7. Then, Chicago pulls the goaltender and Brian Bickell scores with 1:16 left to tie it at 2.
No problem. The Bruins will get them in overtime. Only thing was, 17 seconds later, Dave Polland beat Tuukka Rask to give the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead, and they would hold on to take the series.
The Bruins haven’t been the same since that night, having missed the playoffs two of the last three years. But, in spite of just winning a title with the Penguins, I’m sure Phil Kessel remembers that night at the Garden, watching his Leafs blow a three-goal lead.
4. 2003 ALCS GAME 7 – AARON BOONE
Had the “Curse of the Bambino” not been broken a year later, this would be higher on the list. I can remember my sister, who was in 6th grade at the time, going to bed in the middle innings, thinking when she woke up, the Red Sox would be American League champs.
Sadly, I had to resort to explaining Grady Little’s “logic” in sticking with Pedro Martinez in the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball floating sadly toward the left-field bleachers. Red Sox nation heartbroken. Again. But, payback happened a year later.
5. 2004 NCAA HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIPS
Not nearly as heartbreaking as 2002, but still pretty darned gut-wrenching. Maine was the top-ranked team in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament, and its run to the national title game against Denver included a Bruins-like comeback in the opening round against Harvard.
But once again, controversy did the Bears in, with a skate in the crease negating a Derek Damon goal in a game the Bears would lose 1-0, in spite of having a 5-on-3 power play that turned into a 6-on-3 when goalie Jimmy Howard was pulled in the final minutes.
Maine has not returned to the national championship game since that fateful night at TD Garden.
There you have it. Even in the midst of an incredible run of hats, T-shirts, trophies and parades, we’ve had plenty of heartbreak here in New England too. And I think with Draymond Green returning for Game 6, Golden State will take care of business and repeat as NBA champs.
HONORABLE MENTION: 2010 NBA Finals, Game 7; 2008 ALCS, Game 7; 2007 AFC Championship Game, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6