THE PRICE OF WINNING PRIMER

Plattsburgh, New York is a small town, located 60 miles south of the Montreal, Quebec, Canada border and 32 miles north of Burlington, Vermont. The most notable United States city near Plattsburgh is Lake Placid, New York, a modest village and the famed setting for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games where the U.S. men’s ice hockey team upset Russia to win the gold medal, better known as the “Miracle on Ice.”

In many ways the local Plattsburgh community is dependent upon the 300-acre New York state university for jobs, business, activities and attractions. In addition to the estimated 20,000 local residents, SUNY Plattsburgh attracts another 6,000 full-time college students who fill the local bars, restaurants and shopping malls. SUNY Plattsburgh brings to life what is, otherwise, a sleepy little town.

I was a student at the State University of Plattsburgh at New York for two years (1985-86 and 1986-87). Albeit, my role is insignificant to the events reported in the forthcoming book, it is very important to me as a writer and journalist that you know this information in advance.

Why? When I made the commitment to write The Price of Winning, I also knew part of my job as a journalist was to report the facts, without bias. In the end, the story will be told as it happened through the voices of those who witnessed and participated in the events.

I left Plattsburgh in 1987 and returned in April 2003 to research and interview some of the principals for this book. I arrived the morning of April 9. I checked in at the hotel and immediately drove over to the campus. I wanted to walk the campus, visit the college center, Mason Hall (the dormitory where I stayed for two years), the Ronald B. Stafford Arena and the Cardinal Points office (the college newspaper).

It was a typical early spring morning in northern New York: sunny and cold. Frozen piles of dirty snow were steeped on the curb. As I cut across Ruger Street and the center of campus, the bitter cold wind coming off Lake Champlain filled my lungs and briefly took my breath away. At that moment I realized I was back in Plattsburgh.

Swallowing cold air was an oral experience I had forgotten over time. It was as if I swallowed my past and stirred emotions and feelings that were void in my memory. It was a surreal experience for me. I had wondered the whole trip if something otherwise insignificant would jog my memory and open up the past. It did, it was in the wind.

Everything about Plattsburgh had changed but nothing was different. I never had to ask for directions, I knew where everything was – still. Only when I got there it looked a little different than I had remembered. There was nothing more than a fresh coat of paint on the city and university I once knew. All along I had that feeling that I have been here before. That’s because I had.

On April 8, 2003, the day before arriving in Plattsburgh, I checked out of the Marriott hotel in Burlington, Massachusetts. My thoughts were scattered. I had just come off a 14-hour drive from South Carolina the day before. I spent the evening dining and interviewing Steve Hoar, the former men’s ice hockey head coach at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

It had been 16 years since I last saw Hoar face-to-face in his office, the same night the State University of New York at Plattsburgh captured their first-ever NCAA Division III national championship. On the outside he was the same: proud and intense. Some call it arrogance, others call it confidence, either way Hoar still had it.

We talked extensively about his days at Plattsburgh. Hoar shined when he talked about the 1986-87 NCAA men’s ice hockey championship team. He spoke affectionately about the Plattsburgh community and the support they provided his program. When the conversation shifted to the three-year NCAA investigation that led to his resignation and culminated in March 1990, when the NCAA found Plattsburgh State guilty of multiple student-athlete violations and wiped all championship records from the history books, Hoar spoke slowly and quietly. He chose his words carefully. His body language and voice were loaded with emotion. His outward expressions clearly indicated he is still haunted by the personal and professional losses left behind in Plattsburgh.

When Hoar surprised everyone and left Plattsburgh in the fall of 1989, just two days before the first game of the year, he left under a cloud of suspicion. The NCAA was closing in on the Plattsburgh hockey program. Hoar was under the microscope and the pressure was mounting.  Feeling unwanted by the same college he led to a national title, Hoar resigned, leaving for good, vowing never to return. I later offered to take him to Plattsburgh on my follow-up trip, an all-expense paid anonymous visit. He declined.

Before making the final run from Massachusetts through upstate New York to Plattsburgh, I pulled off an exit in Woburn, Massachusetts with the sound of my childhood blasting out of my car speakers, a contemporary cover of Dobie Gray’s 1971 hit song Drift Away. I pulled into a Getty gas station to fill my tank. I was tired from driving and the adrenaline rush of the Hoar interview was fading. I remember leaning against the tail end of my car, watching my breath in the cold, misty spring morning in the northeast, just staring into space and thinking: How did I get here?

I started the 1986-87 year with a full-time academic schedule and sports editor responsibilities. If that wasn’t enough, I began an internship as the Plattsburgh assistant sports information director under Greg Claus. I was right in the thick of college athletics in Plattsburgh. If I wasn’t writing about it in the Cardinal Points college newspaper, I was compiling statistics and press release information for the sports information department.

It was a historic year for Plattsburgh hockey. After two years of frustrating losses in the NCAA Final Four, Hoar had the men’s ice hockey program at Plattsburgh on the verge of the school’s first-ever national title. Anything less would have been a major disappointment for the college and community.

After a slow start, SUNY Plattsburgh caught fire, winning 27 straight games, a Division III NCAA record and school record. Along the way the university and community shared in the excitement of two well-produced marketing campaigns that drew national media attention. The first was a scheduled exhibition against Spartak, the Russian national team. The second was an early season trip to Alaska, playing four games in five days against Division I powers Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage.

As Plattsburgh charged through the SUNY, ECAC and Division III tournaments, I began receiving bits and pieces of information regarding possible student-athlete NCAA violations. It was news to me but after confidential inquiries with sources within the ranks at Plattsburgh State, they reacted as if the information was old news.

In late March 1987, we watched with 4,000-plus rowdy students and local community supporters as SUNY Plattsburgh crushed SUNY Oswego 8-3, capturing the NCAA Division III title, the first-ever NCAA title in any sport for Plattsburgh.

Three years after an entire city celebrated a national title, all traces of a NCAA title were gone. How? Why? The Price of Winning takes you inside the investigation, the outcome and the impact in had on the city and program.

Finally, after several stops and starts, The Price of Winning will be published this fall. Sign up for email alerts for the latest news on the book’s release and my latest freelance writing work. Thank you for your support.

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