When it came time to support two of his former University of Wisconsin men’s hockey teammates over the weekend, Michael Mersch took the safe, diplomatic route.
He sent text messages to Frankie Simonelli and Joel Rumpel, whose clubs met for the East Coast Hockey League title Sunday night, with the exact same good-luck sentiment.
“I told them they’re both going to win it,” Mersch said. “I made them both feel good.”
Apparently Mersch, who was fresh off winning the American Hockey League championship with the Manchester (N.H.) Monarchs on Saturday night, had some euphoria to spare.
The gesture wound up having more significance for Rumpel. The former standout goaltender for the Badgers was in uniform when the Allen (Texas) Americans trounced South Carolina 6-1 to claim the Kelly Cup as ECHL champions.
With all due respect to two former UW captains who played key roles for the Stingrays — Simonelli and Sean Dolan — the outcome is proof hockey gods do exist.
Three months removed from the most excruciating season in UW history, Rumpel got some glorious emotional payback.
“It was definitely nice to end on a really positive note after we had our struggles,” he said.
Rumpel spent four years in Madison, becoming one of the most decorated goaltenders in program history. He ranks in the top five on the all-time career list with shutouts, save percentage, appearances, minutes, saves and wins. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter awards as a junior.
But his senior season with the Badgers was skewed toward the horrific. UW finished with the fewest wins (four) and most losses (26) in modern program history. Along the way Rumpel made 31 appearances and lost 23 times despite a 90.2 save percentage and a 3.49 goals-against average.
The rough season didn’t prevent San Jose of the NHL from signing Rumpel to a free agent contract and assigning him to their Class AA developmental league club in Allen. He joined the Americans in late March, won some key games down the stretch and opened the playoffs with the hot hand before giving way to Riley Gill, who started every game in the best-of-seven Kelly Cup run.
“He was absolutely lights out,” Rumpel said of Gill. “They just rode him.”
Rumpel said he learned more from the struggles he had with the Badgers than the triumphs he had with Allen, but in a tale of two journeys, he knows which one was more fulfilling.
“To win the last game of the season, not many people get a chance to experience that, especially in their first year in the pros,” he said.
Mersch can relate. A year removed from scoring a team-best 23 goals for the Badgers as an All-Big Ten Conference winger, he led Manchester in playoff scoring and was fourth on the club in point production during the regular season.
The Monarchs are a Class AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, who selected Mersch in the fourth round of the NHL draft in 2011. He said winning a championship, regardless of level, is a daily exercise in focus. Manchester played 94 games, the last a 2-1 victory over Utica.
“That’s a lot of hockey games, and when you play a season that long, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, a lot of bumps and bruises,” he said. “You’ve got to fight through a lot.
“You don’t really understand it unless you’ve been through it. It takes a lot.”
Mersch said watching the Stanley Cup Final between Chicago and Tampa Bay has offered a tantalizing vision. Four years after Norfolk won the Calder Cup, many of its key players are making names for themselves with the Lightning. That includes coach Jon Cooper, center Tyler Johnson and wingers Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat.
“If you look at that kind of stuff, you think maybe that could be us someday,” Mersch said.
Mersch and Rumpel both feel like they moved closer to their dream of playing in the NHL. More work, development and focus are ahead. As Rumpel will tell you, a nod from the hockey gods helps every once in a while.
“I’ve gotten a chance to learn an awful lot in my career,” he said. “I definitely think someone’s looking out for me.”