I’m Playing with House Money

By Brendon Kearney

This might be tough for some of you to hear.

I’m a Buckeye in part because of That Team Up North.

My parents Doug and Julie went to That School Up North for their undergrad and went to Yale for their grad school.

One of the most famous rinks in college hockey, Ingalls Rink, home of Yale hockey and better known as ‘The Whale,’ would have public skates and they would take me out there and that’s where I learned to skate.

I was still very young when we moved back to Michigan. Whenever the Detroit Red Wings were on TV, my parents or my grandpa Glen would have the game on and I’d stop and watch. I had no clue what hockey was or how to play any of it, but hockey was one of those things that was mesmerizing to me. My parents said ‘Let’s give it a shot and let’s see where it goes.’

From there, it was the only thing I wanted to play. I tried baseball and lacrosse. My mom wouldn’t let me try football.

Too dangerous I guess.

I’ve gotten a few bumps and bruises from hockey over the years.

No one in my family had even played hockey. Hockey in the Detroit area is incredible and it’s something I wanted to do.

We had season tickets to watch the Wings at Joe Louis Arena and my teammates rip me all the time about my love for ‘The Joe.’

If I had to describe ‘The Joe,’ deferred maintenance is an understatement, but that’s what made it so great. Yeah, it was a dump but there were games where it got loud. It had a college hockey feel for a pro setting. The older buildings have that character and history that create their own atmosphere.

I remember going to see game six of the 2011 Western Conference semifinal series between the Wings and San Jose. Detroit won to force a game seven after being down 3-0 in the series. It was one of the loudest buildings I’ve ever been in.

Now, with a heavy emphasis on fan experience, that’s almost the issue with their new home, Little Caesars Arena. No one wants to go just watch the game.

I went to games with my grandpa all the time. I even went to five or six Stanley Cup Final games.

We got the chance to go up there for ‘The Joe’s’ final season of operation for the 2016 Big Ten Hockey Tournament.

Getting to play on it growing up and as a Buckeye was special. I scored a goal against Michigan State to change the momentum of the game in our quarterfinal matchup. It’s one of those things I’ll look back on in 20 or 30 years and love.

It wasn’t the prettiest of NHL rinks, but it was special and so were the Wings.

Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman were my guys. My fandom of Brendan was originally because of a shared first name, but then I started to watch him play. He was a scorer that had an edge to his game. It was funny when he was named the NHL’s director of player safety. If he watched some of his own hits, he would’ve given himself a few games.

When you’re younger, you don’t get to fully appreciate guys like that. The ’02 cup run was crazy because Stevie was playing on a bum knee. You don’t understand how tough that was for him just to win a cup. He wasn’t a guy that had to talk, he just led. You hear stories about how he didn’t talk often, but when he did, the whole room would stop.

Nowadays, it seems if you’re a leader, you’re screaming or making a scene.

Now here’s where I have to be very careful, because as far as the college hockey thing goes, we went to Yost Ice Arena – home of TTUN – as much as possible. Say what you will, but the fans do a good job up there creating a fun environment.

I saw one game at Yost, took in the environment, and I said ‘college hockey is for me.’

Fast forward to my official visit to Columbus. There were no other visits I wanted to make after that.

I wanted to be a Buckeye.

Right after the visit, my mom and I were walking out of the Schottenstein Center. She came down and took the visit with me. I remember thinking with my *ichigan background ‘This can’t be right. I can’t feel this way about Ohio State.’ When I looked at my mom, she knew. She felt what I felt.

All three coaches at the time had an impact on me getting to Columbus. Coach Rohlik would keep in touch throughout the process but the first coach to have an impact was assistant Joe Exter. I remember I was in my parents’ hotel room in Chicago during my junior hockey days with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. I got off the phone and they asked ‘Who was that?’ I said it was Ohio State. We laughed and said ‘Here we go.’

On one occasion, Exter came into Chicago for a Friday night game and I didn’t play great. He was supposed to go to Green Bay the next day but got snowed in and ended up watching me the next night and I turned it around. Shoutout to the Chicago weather, otherwise I might not be in Columbus.

Another weekend, I knew one of the other assistant coaches, Brett Larson, was coming to watch me play. On Friday, we lost 8-2 and I was a minus four on the old plus/minus scale. He didn’t speak to me after the game.

There goes that opportunity out the door.

He actually called me the next morning and told me he liked my compete level. I threw a couple of hits late in the game and he said ‘I’ve never seen anyone fight that hard when you’re down six goals.’

He came to watch me on Sunday and I had the first goal of the game. Later in the game, one of my teammates took a cheap shot. I fought the guy that hit him and got my butt kicked.

‘Lars’ came and talked to me after the game and asked me ‘What do I need to do to make you a Buckeye?’

My answer was ‘not much.’

People would make jokes as I was growing up saying ‘You know you’re going to end up at Ohio State right?’ The fact it actually happened was the craziest thing.


Since then, ‘Ex’ has moved on and is now an assistant coach at Michigan State. ‘Lars’ is now the head coach at St. Cloud State, the No. 1 team in the country. I learned tremendous stuff from them and it continues now with JB Bittner and Steve Miller. We’re incredibly lucky to have them. They’ve stepped in and in my opinion, they’re two of the best assistant coaches in the country.

‘Killer’ is one of the smartest hockey minds I’ve come across and JB bleeds scarlet and gray. The passion he has as a former captain of this program and for Columbus, Ohio, is unbelievable. You can tell how much he cares about this place.

You could say my freshman year didn’t start so hot.

I remember our freshman class started 0-7. We were all looking at each other like ‘this is going to be a long four years if we can’t figure this out.’ We had some good players, but we only had three seniors and 10 freshmen. It’s hard to say you’re young as a freshman in college hockey because everyone plays junior hockey after high school, but we were. That first half of that season was a learning curve.

It’s funny to look at that because you see something like that and then the next year we ended up making the NCAA Tournament. We had depth and were looking to make a run with two proven goalies, Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins.

We got knocked out in the Big Ten semifinals and should’ve beaten Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but we lost in overtime. We all sat in that locker room wanting to get back but the question of ‘Could we?’ popped into my head.

Little did we know we would take another step forward the next year.

We’ve come a long way from 0-7.

I’d be lying if I said last year’s Frozen Four isn’t something I think about pretty frequently. To this day, I don’t have an answer as to what happened in those first three minutes against Duluth.

Unfortunately, not showing up out of the gate was a trend that stuck with us and shown up in the Big Ten championship game a few weeks before that against Notre Dame.

The locker room before the Frozen Four game was a little more uptight than usual but not anything crazy. We were a loose team in every aspect. There was something about that group. We lived in the moment. We had the NHL visiting team locker room.

That was only fitting, because the fact the game was in St. Paul, Minn., about two hours away from Duluth, meant we had to play essentially a road game too. It sucked but at the same time it was cool. I get to tell people I played an NHL road game with a college crowd.

Even though it was our first trip to the Frozen Four in 20 years, we weren’t a team that usually got caught up in the moment. A lot was going on, but Duluth had been to the national championship the year before. They came out more composed.

Down 2-0, I wasn’t worried we were going to come back. I don’t think there was any worry in the room. We thought it was ‘when’ we come back, not ‘if.’ Were we able to get that first one with enough time to get the second? After a while, you could tell their goalie (Hunter Shepard) was making some saves and it strung on too long for us. We just ran out of time.

Now we’re on that same path. Duluth went to the Frozen Four in 2017, lost, came back and won the whole thing.

I won’t go back and watch the game. If there’s a commercial on or a highlight package of that rink, it still stings.

When that clock struck zero, my head went immediately to the same place it did the year before.

Can we get back here?

There were question marks on who was coming back outside of the graduating seniors. With the guys that didn’t have that choice, we lost some key guys. Matthew Weis was a big player and we had to make that run without him because he was injured prior to the Big Ten championship game. Character guys like Christian Lampasso, Luke Stork, Matt Joyaux, Janik Moser and Kevin Miller were guys that locked it down. That was right where my head went. I was thinking ‘Was this my only shot?’ It’s a scary thought. You go through all the pageantry of an event like that, and in the blink of an eye, it’s over.

Those questions are still to be answered. I think we have the pieces in place to do that again and come home with something this time.

This year, the big word we’ve heard constantly has been expectations.

To me expectations mean you’ve been somewhere and done some stuff. You don’t get expectations if you don’t win. If we started 0-7 every year, well that could’ve been the expectation.

I’ve talked to teachers and other people in classes this semester and even though we’re No. 7 right now, they say ‘Oh, that’s good, but you started at No. 1 right?’

Starting at No. 1 was cool. This program has never been in that position, but I don’t think there’s ever been a wire-to-wire No. 1 in college hockey. It’s not like football where you have an Alabama who has been No. 1 all season or the expectations of the Buckeye football team.

As far as we handle it, we weren’t going to go 40-0. Honestly, I’d rather get smacked in the face in November so we can build on it and play our best hockey in March and April.

Ironically, that’s exactly what has happened so far.

It wasn’t even the loss to UMass (who is No. 2 the nation right now by the way) on our home opening night that was the wake up call. We came back and beat them the next night in a series that was up for grabs.

Losing 8-2 to Bowling Green Oct. 26 was the worst Friday night since I’ve been here. Even when we were 0-7 we were losing one-goal games.

We just didn’t have it. We weren’t there. We let them come into our barn in a rivalry game and take it to us.

I wanted to delete Twitter that night. I couldn’t refresh it without someone from BG saying something about it.

However, that’s when we realized what we had in the room. We didn’t let it bother us. There was no time to feel sorry for ourselves. When you’re No. 1, everyone brings their best against you. You can lose 2-1 and you can lose 8-2, it’s still just one loss.

We only lost once in the seven games after that.

Let me tell you, this group is different.

Because ‘The Schott’ is also used for basketball and concerts, we sometimes have to take a shuttle from there down the street to the OSU Ice Rink for practice. During my freshman year, those rides were quiet. No one wanted to talk. We all just wanted to get through another day.

If you sit on that bus now, it’s one of the funniest and best parts of the day. Even now when it’s 20 degrees and gray and the last thing you want to do is be up any time before 10 a.m., it’s awesome. It’s one of those moments where you can take a step back and nothing else matters. Whether it’s the Monday after an 8-2 loss or if you think you’re going to get bag skated, everyone in there is loose and talking, and that’s the type of team we are.

"Let me tell you, this group is different."

We’ve got a heck of a core starting with our captain, Mason Jobst.

‘Mase’ isn’t the biggest guy. He’s listed at 5’8 but he’s heard all of that. He’s seen the players before him, he knows the stigma and he doesn’t care. He works his tail off every day and every summer. Whenever he’s home he’s in the driveway shooting pucks for six hours a day. Every time I go in the shooting room, I end up with a blister after 20 minutes, so there’s that. He’s pretty gifted and skilled but most of it comes from his work ethic. The sky is the limit for a kid with his drive.

When he’s got the puck on his stick, you pay attention because you wonder what he’s going to do and defenses do the same. That’s what gives him some space. Hell, when I get the puck, I’ve got five guys charging at me because they know I’m not going to do anything with it.

From a guy like that to two guys you can’t miss on the ice, we’ve got Tanner Laczysnki and Dakota Joshua. ‘Mase’ isn’t afraid to throw his body around but with those two, they’re very aware of who they are. Tanner is an absolute workhorse. When he’s got the puck and his legs are driving, you’re not getting it back. If you’re on the other team, you better hope that your goalie makes a save because he’s getting the puck to the net. He’s got a stubbornness to him. It’s not fun going against him in practice either. If you get the puck off of his stick for even a second, you better believe he’s going to go even harder to get it back.

With Dakota, he’s strong and uses his size, he uses his length to his advantage more than anything. I’ve never seen a kid stick handle through a crowd of three people and come out the other side with the puck on his stick. I’ll sit there on the bench and wonder how the puck is still on his stick.

We have a transfer from Miami (Ohio) that’s worked out really well with Carson Meyer who’s from here and was even drafted by the Blue Jackets. We all knew his situation coming back home but at first we left it alone. We wanted to figure out who he was. When we found out he’s laid back and easy going, we’d ask him if he was going to try the sushi when we have it on Wednesdays. It was a horrible situation but he laughs it off now.

Think about this. He almost had the same amount of points as me my sophomore year except with a 25-inch tapeworm inside of him and no energy. He was half of himself and could still do what I was doing. That’s how talented he is. The mental aspect has probably been a huge weight off of him. He skates like the wind, has unbelievable hands and can really shoot the puck. It was a tough situation, but we really lucked out.

Our defense has been our bread and butter and Sean Romeo and Tommy Nappier have been the backbone of that. I remember Sean’s first game against Ryerson in our exhibition last season. ‘Romer’ transferred from Maine and had sat out the year prior because of transfer rules.

We gave up seven goals and lost 7-4.

We had heard nothing but good things about ‘Romer’ and then that happens. You’re left scratching your head a little bit after that. We didn’t know what we were going to be.

He’s been nothing but unbelievable since.

‘Napes’ had to sit behind him last year. Not that he wasn’t playing well, ‘Romer’ was just playing so well, ‘Rohls’ had no choice but to leave him between the pipes.

Everything starts with them. The game moves so quick that it doesn’t matter if you’re playing your best hockey, there will be a couple times a night when it’s the other team and the goalie and one of them has to make a save. It doesn’t matter which one is in the net, they pick us up when we let a puck slip through.

For us to lift that trophy over our heads at the end of the year, we need to continue doing what we do best, keeping goals off the scoreboard.

I thought there was a switch that flipped during the Friday night game in South Bend against Notre Dame this season in our first trip back since last year’s Big Ten championship game. We were back in an environment where it felt like a championship. We won 1-0 which was the typical game we could win last year. You take the six to eight goal game every now and then, but that was the first game this year where we’ve bought back into team defense.

Time will tell what my future holds. At this point, I’m playing with house money. One, to be growing up in a family that no one had really played hockey before, there weren’t a lot of expectations. We didn’t know what I could do or where I could go. I wasn’t really sure if college hockey was even possible. Two, our class now has 25 percent of the NCAA Tournament trips and 50 percent of the Frozen Four appearances. That’s pretty special. Going to the Frozen Four is something you watch growing up.

"At this point, I’m playing with house money ... I wasn’t really sure if college hockey was even possible. Our class now has 25 percent of the NCAA Tournament trips and 50 percent of the Frozen Four appearances. That’s pretty special."

In a business sense, the return for investment on my career has already been maximized with unbelievable memories, events and relationships.

In the end, if I’m able to keep playing, that’s great. If not, I’ve got a lot to be proud of and happy with.

Ohio State has been everything I wanted it to be and more. This place is forever special to me. The fact that I can walk away at the end of May signing a contract while also having that piece of paper to go into the job market if the situation calls for it sets me up for life.

I don’t know how my parents did it, but I’m going to be pissed if my kids flip on me like this and go to That School Up North.

This place is that special.