Even when they fell behind 1-0 in the national championship final, Riley Spraggs was confident he and fellow Coldstream hockey product Michael Hails would finish the night as champions.
He was right.
Spraggs, a senior playing his final college hockey game, and Hails, a sophomore, helped the Lindenwood (Mo.) Lions win the 2016 American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) men’s Div. 1 national championship at the Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville, Ill., just outside of Chicago, with a 2-1 victory over the Iowa State Cyclones.
“It’s still pretty surreal and hasn’t sunk in yet but it’s still one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Spraggs, 24, who won a Kootenay International Junior Hockey League championship with the Revelstoke Grizzlies.
“Winning in Revelstoke, it wasn’t my last year. This was my last year of college hockey. It was win or I’m done. I don’t get another shot at winning a college championship.
“It’s a pretty amazing experience to have my last college hockey game be a victory for a national championship. It’s, by far, the highlight of my hockey career.”
The Lions, who lost in the quarterfinals of the 2015 national championship tournament, tied the championship game in the last minute of the second period on a goal from senior and leading scorer Stephen Bopp of Kirkwood, Mo.
The Lions got the winner from sophomore Mike Lozano of Lockport, Ill. at 6:47 of the third.
“Iowa State is a very defensive team who won a lot of their games by playing very defensive and waiting on turnovers,” said Spraggs, the team’s second leading scorer with 16 goals and 23 points in 26 games, who graduates from Lindenwood in May with a degree in exercise science and a minor in strength and conditioning.
“It was a very tough game, very close. Even when we were down 1-0, nobody was down on the team. We knew we were going to win and go home with a title.”
Still, the Lions had to endure what Spraggs called “the longest five minutes of his life.” With five minutes to go and nursing the 2-1 lead, the Lions turned things over to Hails, who stopped 22 of 23 shots in the title game to be named first star. He was also MVP of the national championship tournament.
That included a late penalty against the Lions. Iowa State pulled their goalie for a six-on-four but could not beat Hails.
In the national semifinal against the Davenport (Mi.) Panthers, Hails made an unbelievable block save with a second left in regulation time to preserve a 2-1 Lions victory.
“I had a flashback to when I was trying out for Team Pacific in 100 Mile House where I made an identical save with the same amount of time left,” said Hails, 22, working toward a degree in sports management and marketing.
“I always had it in my mind that the puck wasn’t going to go in. I knew I had the time on my side so I only had to hit the puck once and not worry about the rebound. I just wanted to make myself as large as possible and spread out. I kinda got lucky, I’m not going to lie.”
Hails appeared in 12 games in the 2015-16 season, going 8-4 with a GAA of 2.58 and a .901 save percentage.
Coach Rick Zombo tagged Hails to be the Lions’ starter in the post-season and he rewarded his coach’s confidence with some of his best hockey of the year.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Hails of the Lions’ run to the national title. “I’ve been swamped with tests. The teachers congratulate you for winning a national title but you still have to make up for the week you’ve missed so it hasn’t sunk in and I haven’t had the time to think about it.
“But every morning for the rest of my life, I’ll wake up as a champion.”
Hails – whose parents Dave and Lynn watched the game via live streaming at home, with tears running down their face as time expired – said winning a national championship will help him with life still to come.
“I can tackle any task or obstacle that gets in my way, like school, with mid-terms, or job applications further on,” he said. “I have the confidence now that I can do any of that.”
For Spraggs, whose dad, Robert, took in the championship game live in Bensenville, four years as a collegiate student-athlete flew by.
“You come in as a freshman and you think you’ve got four whole years here,” he said. “School makes it go by fast. You go week-to-week doing your homework and living for the weekend, when the games are played.
“Before you know it, you’re a senior playing your last game. There’s nothing to prepare you for how quick it is. And winning a national title makes it worth it.”
Said Zombo of the North Okanagan pair: “They are quality individuals. Riley didn’t have the point production in the tournament he had in the regular season, but I made sure his line was on against the other team’s top line. And Michael was fantastic. He was just solid, his confidence was high and there was no flappability in him. Easy pick for MVP.”
Spraggs is hoping for an internship with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues this summer, and also hopes to continue playing either in the East Coast Hockey League or Southern Professional Hockey League.
Hails will return home for the summer before returning to Lindenwood in the fall for his junior year.