A few months ago, Bryce Bair was too busy working his way back from a football injury to even ponder the odds of his scoring a game-winning goal in a championship game during hockey season.
The Bishop McCort Catholic senior capped his comeback by netting the eventual game-winner in the second period of the Laurel Mountain Hockey League championship game, as a large and vocal crowd attended at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial on Thursday.
Bair’s goal, his team’s third of the game, provided the winning margin in a 3-2 victory over city rival Westmont Hilltop.
“I came back two weeks ago, for one regular-season game, and then the playoffs,” Bair said, wearing a gold medal around his neck after the 16-0-0 Crimson Crushers posed for photos with the Ann Harris Smith Cup.
“I tore my ACL in football,” said Bair, who suffered the knee injury during the first football scrimmage of the year against Bedford. “It was a lot of hard work. It was worth it in the end. I busted my butt for it.”
Both teams put forth championship-game-worthy efforts.
Westmont Hilltop closed a 14-3-0 season, with all three setbacks coming against the Crushers, including two during the regular season.
“I definitely got to say the boys left everything out there and made every effort they could to make this game what it was,” Westmont Hilltop coach Don Lamison said. “I’m not disappointed in one player, one minute. I’m very happy with the effort.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back next season, so that’s going to really make a good start to the season next year.”
The Crimson Crushers took the early momentum. Adis Ultanbekov scored 58 seconds into the game with an assist by Demian Tychenko.
Westmont Hilltop tied the score as Payton Sell got free and tallied a goal at 6:06 of the first period.
Bishop McCort went up again after Ultanbekov won a faceoff along the right wing to Tychenko, who scored at 12:12.
“It was a long season, an undefeated season for us,” Ultanbekov said. “It was super hard. We finally did it. We were trying to make it the whole season and win every game. It’s a big win for us.”
The teams skated even throughout the second period, as Westmont Hilltop successfully killed off two Crushers power plays and McCort killed one Hilltoppers advantage.
The Crimson Crushers’ Bair netted the only goal of the period with 2:45 remaining to give his team a 3-1 advantage.
“Our defensemen throw it high off the glass,” Bair said. “Our winger standing on the wall chipped it up to me, a nice play, set me up just how you want it. Got me on the rush coming up.
“I just had to work hard and try to get a good shot in front of the net. It’s a great feeling to score a goal, the game-winner especially.”
Westmont Hilltop’s Aiden Rice cut the deficit to 3-2 at 9:36 of the third period, but the Crushers held off the comeback.
Bishop McCort outshot Westmont 33-17.
Crimson Crushers goaltender Nikita Volski had 15 saves. Westmont Hilltop’s Ian Amaranto stopped 30 shots.
“It’s a huge deal, especially against Westmont, one of our biggest rivals,” Bair said of Bishop McCort’s winning the title in its first season in the LMHL.
A large crowd attended, with each school’s student section well-represented.
The big-screen video scoreboard played an introduction by local businessman Matt Smith, who talked about the game’s tradition and the Ann Harris Smith Cup, which is named in memory of his late mother, who died of ovarian cancer.
The players from each team lined up on the blue lines as a video featuring highlights from the longstanding city rivalry series played. Brief interviews with graduates of each team, ranging from the 1990s through the 2010s, spoke about the rivalry and encouraged their former squads.
“I have to give it to the league,” Lamison said. “I thought the presentation of everything was very professional. It was an atmosphere I have not seen in the area in a while at the high school hockey level. I think they’ve done a nice job.”