A Dream Deferred
Denied a chance at a national championship, men’s hockey captain Jarrod Fitzpatrick maintains a healthy perspective amid crisis and consequence.
Jarrod Fitzpatrick ’20 and his teammates were riding a wave of momentum. The Utica College men’s hockey team entered the NCAA National Championships as the tournament’s top seed and the No. 1 team in the national statistical team rankings. They had extended their nation’s-best winning steak to 20 games by defeating Wilkes University in the UCHC championships on March 7.
They had captured the hearts of the city, the lit windows of the downtown State Office Building spelling out UC and the landmark Adirondack Bank Building illuminating in blue and orange.
The wave broke in unexpectedly jarring fashion. For Fitzpatrick and his teammates, the hopes and dreams of a national championship were dashed by the realities of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which brought the world to a sudden, unceremonious stop.
It was a familiar refrain for athletes across the country and even around the world. In a flash, the March 12 news of the NCAA’s decision to cancel all winter and spring 2020 championships had ended the senior’s college hockey career – just three wins short of achieving the dream that brought him to Utica College. Through deep disappointment, he maintains perspective—not to mention a sense of grace that belied his gritty, toe-the-line-physical style of play on the ice.
“Heartbreaking way to end my senior season. To all seniors in high school and college, no matter what sport, I encourage you to reflect on the good times you had with the family you’ve grown so close with,” Fitzpatrick shared in a tweet the day after the NCAA’s cancellation announcement. “In such a crazy world it’s easy to jump on the negatives and follow that, but you’ve worked far too hard to be anything but proud. Thank you, Coach Heenan. Thank you to my team who made my senior season the most incredible year of my life. Thank you to the best fans in college hockey. Words can never express how much we appreciate your unconditional support. Thank you, UTICA.”
Fitzpatrick’s message resonated. On Twitter, the post quickly earned dozens of shares and more than 220 likes. Fitzpatrick describes it as an impulsive, in-the-moment reaction – a pivot in his reconciling his personal disappointment with the gravity of the situation that caused it.
“There are so many people affected by this. People all around the world have had things taken from them,” he says. “It’s not just me and my teammates and the other 11 teams (in the tournament) getting our national championship opportunity taken away. My girlfriend is a nursing major. She’s going to graduate this year, and her pinning ceremony was canceled. I know that to her is what that national championship is to me.”
The toughest loss
It was a dizzying sequence of events that led to the abrupt end to the season—and Fitzpatrick’s hockey-playing career—in mid-March. The Pioneers defeated Wilkes on March 7 in front of a screaming, sellout crowd to claim their second conference championship in three years. Two days later, “Selection Monday,” they earned the No. 1 overall seed as well as a first round bye in the 12-team championship tournament.
On March 11, the ever-widening effects of the coronavirus pandemic would drop the first shoe on the college sports world. The NCAA announced that all championship tournament games, including UC’s scheduled March 21 quarterfinal game against the winner of the Wesleyan-Babson March 14 opening round game, would be held without fans in attendance. Fitzpatrick immediately braced himself for the news he knew would soon follow.
“You knew (concern over COVID-19) was getting worse as time went on. We have a team group text message. Coach Heenan would write in and say, ‘We’re still on. Stay tuned.’ And then the next day it was, ‘We’re playing with no fans, but the game is still on.’ Once it got to the point of no fans, it felt like you knew what was coming next. We’re all on social media, we knew what was happening in sports and with everything else. It seemed like a matter of time before our season was going to end. You try to prepare for it, but it wasn’t reality yet.”
The reality showed up on his and his teammates’ phones the next morning. Heenan sent the text they had all been anticipating.
“That was tough,” recalls an emotional Fitzpatrick. “That was tough for everybody. We were waiting for that news, so everyone saw it the minute he sent it. It was quiet. No one wrote anything. Everyone just had to take it in for a little bit.”
The moments that followed would affirm a decision made almost a year earlier when Fitzpatrick was unanimously voted team captain by his teammates.
Like everyone else, he was deflated. But as he stared at the screen of his phone, aware that the 27 other players on the team were facing the same reality and feeling the same way, the captain set his personal disappointment aside. He needed to get his teammates in one room. And then he needed to lift them up.
Within hours, the team was gathered in the locker room. And by the time they left, there were even a few smiles cracked, as Fitzpatrick, buoyed by the team’s three other seniors – Gianluca Baggetta, Daniel Fritz, and Joey Rutkowski – led an impromptu reminiscing and look ahead that would typically be saved for a year-end team banquet.
“As a leader, I think it’s important to not take your feelings and lay them over everyone else,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s more of, ‘What can I do for everybody else?’ You’re only going to lift people up to an extent. No one’s going to be one hundred percent. Our main goal was to get everyone together and to get smiles. We had an unbelievable run, and I think it was important to focus on that instead of everyone sitting alone and dealing with how it ended.
“I’m not going to lie,” he continues. “It was hard. We knew what got taken from us. We just had to move on.”
It was unquestionably hardest for Fitzpatrick and the team’s three other seniors. “The seniors had our own group text,” Fitzpatrick says. “There weren’t many words to say. It was tough for all of us. Four years, and in a second, it’s all over. It was extremely tough to know that that’s the way we were going out.”
For Fitzpatrick, Baggetta, Fritz, and Rutkowski, the championship road ends – three wins short. Their teammates, however, will return to the ice in seven months with one goal, capturing UC’s first-ever national title in any sport. Fitzpatrick speaks about the year ahead with a confidence and conviction.
“We’re only graduating four. You can’t replace guys like Baggetta, Fritz, and Rutkowski, but we have 20-something guys returning. They’re not going to slow down at all. They’re going to be there next. They’re going to win the national championship.”
If – or, as Fitzpatrick predicts, when – that happens, the team’s Class of 2020, will have had a piece in it.
“I haven’t told Coach Heenan this yet, but when they win it, I’m putting on my pads and jersey and going out there (on the ice) for the celebration,” he says.
It will be many years before the feeling of loss subsides, if it ever goes away. But through the most difficult of circumstances, Fitzpatrick sees a larger picture.
“It’s like I said in the tweet. Following the negative is a lot easier than looking at the positives,” he says. “Having it end that way for our team is heartbreaking. But I look at it this way. The last time I put on that Utica jersey, I went out holding a trophy over my head. How many people get to step off the ice like that?
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