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Ben Smith

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Top to bottom, K’s earned right to dance

– And so another season goes out, with glee and littering and Orange Nation dancin’ in the aisles. Little kids and big kids, twistin’ and shoutin’. Grown-ups who ought to know better. Grown-ups who probably do know better, but … ah, what the heck, right?

Dance the night away, you 9,560 zealots. Because you know what that hockey team you love so much just did?

Danced right on the grave of presumption. That’s what it did.

Danced around and over and through the Wichita Thunder one last time, 6-3, and then it was clean-and-jerk time for a brand-new bauble, the CHL’s Presidents’ Cup. It was time, finally, to stomp to dust a certain October night 19 months ago – a night when the Komets, three-time champions of a dead league, faced the defending champions of their new league in the 2010-11 season opener.

Rapid City sheared ’em like sheep, 4-0. And it didn’t take a a mind-reader to guess what a lot of people presumed from that.

So what do you suppose they’re presuming now, with the orange and black streamers covering the ice again, and glitter shining like pixie dust on Michael Franke’s hair, and Jamie Lovell, the former Port Huron Icehawk, getting his first crack at bench-pressing the Cup because, after all, it was such a long time coming?

“I guess the IHL wasn’t that bad,” grinned Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock, the hometown guy.

You can take that away from Monday night, of course. And as for a fourth title in five years, in two different leagues?

What you take away from this particular title is that winning organizations are winning organizations, no matter what wrapper they come in. They’re leader-rich and leaderless, in the sense that everyone leads and everyone follows. And when the time comes – when you’re down 2-0 going to Missouri or down 1-0 in Game 5 after taking a three-games-to-none lead in the finals – everyone is not only on the same page, but the same sentence.

You can call that character, if you like. It may be an oversold concept, but it’s only oversold when you don’t have it.

“You’ve got to have guys with character,” Schrock said as the Cup was passed from player to player to player. “You have to have guys who, when they get squeezed, they do the right thing.”

Surely no one exemplified that better than Schrock or Brett Smith or the pre-eminent captain, Colin Chaulk, or the pre-eminent goaltender, Nick Boucher. Lovell did it and Jamie Milam did it and playoff MVP Mike Vaskivuo, the invaluable late add, and Frankie DeAngelis, too. And Bobby Chaumont and Chris Auger and Jean-Michel Rizk and Brent Henley and, ah, heck, just call out every name on the roster.

Everyone did something to get to this night. Every piece on the board served its purpose.

“They win here because they’re professional, they treat everybody well, and it starts with the people who come to watch us,” Henley said. “Top to bottom, it’s the classiest, best-run organization in hockey. And that’s where the hardware comes from.”

Maybe no one understood that better than Lovell, the 29-year-old vet who came so close to this night twice with Port Huron, only to see Orange Nation snatch it away in the cruelest way possible. As the final seconds drained away Monday, and the puck headed toward the Wichita zone, he turned at the blue line and began to skate toward Boucher.

One leg came off the ice, slowly. Both fists came up, slowly. And then he began to shake them, harder and harder, a gesture of pure, undistilled joy.

Dance on that grave, boys. Dance on it.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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