NYU’s hockey championship buoyed by goaltender’s inspirational recovery from brain surgery

The NYU hockey team celebrates its national championship.

When New York University goaltender Sam Daley had surgery to remove a brain tumor in January, the 21-year-old had hopes of returning to the ice this season. Unfortunately, that dream never became a reality, but at least when Daley can finally suit up for the Violets again this fall as a senior, he’ll be doing so for a defending national champion.

On Tuesday, NYU beat Florida Gulf Coast 5-4 to win the ACHA Division II title in Salt Lake City, the first national hockey championship in school history. The Violets finished the year with a 26-7-1 record, including a 13-2-1 mark in the 16 games after doctors discovered Daley’s apricot-sized tumor during the team’s winter break in December.

"The team really played great after (my surgery)," Daley told FOX Sports on Wednesday. "I’m glad to see so many other players, especially our younger goaltenders, step up and play as well as they did. They gave us a lot of motivation to play as well as we could this year, and I think that kind of carried over into the tournament this week."

NYU was hardly a favorite in the 16-team field — a group whittled from 180 programs across the country — but qualified for the semifinals after going 2-1 in pool play. The Violets were eliminated after pool play in 2014 despite posting an identical 2-1 record, but this year the team advanced thanks to a 6-5 overtime win over top seed Grand Valley State, the head-to-head victory breaking a tie atop a group that also included Liberty and Northern Arizona.

"That was the craziest game I think any of us have ever been a part of," senior forward Niko Masotta said. "That was one of the most emotional games ever. Grand Valley is a great team and twice we were down two goals. So winning that, battling back — our coach always tells us, ‘Adversity is just a test,’ and that’s what it was."

In Monday’s semifinals, NYU’s offense came to life and used seven straight goals during the second and third period to beat Lindenwood 8-1. That set up a meeting against 2014 runner-up Florida Gulf Coast in the championship game. The Violets then jumped out to a 4-1 lead on the Eagles and held on for the win despite being outshot 42-27.

"They got that goal with about 1:30 left, and it was a tough goal to concede because there was a scramble in front of the net and I made a couple saves, and it just ping-ponged and somehow found its way into the back of the net," said freshman goaltender Jack Nebe, who took over the starting role after Daley’s surgery.

"So then we were protecting a one-goal lead, and toward the end, they were just throwing everything on net and guys were flying around. It was definitely tense, but then when you hear that final horn, it was unbelievable."

For NYU coach Chris Cosentino, the championship was an accomplishment he’s been working toward since he arrived on campus in 2011.

"Every year this group has taken a step forward, and to close this chapter with this group of seniors … words can’t explain how proud I am, and I thanked them for letting me be a part of their ride and part of their story," Cosentino said. "I was just fortunate enough to be lucky enough to get this group of guys together and find a way to push the right buttons.

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"We called a timeout with about 30 seconds left in the (championship) game yesterday, and I didn’t say much, to be honest with you," Cosentino continued. "All of the players were doing most of the talking, and that’s when you know, as a coach, that you’ve got the right guys."

For Daley, however, NYU’s championship was in some ways bittersweet.

Initially, the junior wanted to be back on the ice in time for the postseason after his surgery on Jan. 7, but ultimately, doctors decided it was too soon for him to return. So while being there to support his team was special, Daley was still left wondering what it might have been like to play alongside his teammates during the team’s championship run.

"Obviously, anybody who plays the game wants to be in there for the biggest moments of the season," Daley said. "It’s no different with me, and it was definitely hard to watch the team win it without me, but I definitely wouldn’t want them to not succeed just because I wasn’t able to play. It’s tough to watch, but at the same time it’s great for all my friends get to that point that we’d been working to get to for a long time now."

To claim that NYU won the title without Daley would be incorrect, however, according to Cosentino.

"Sam had never had an injury before, and he’d never had to watch his team play, so he didn’t know what he was really supposed to do, and in the beginning I think he was definitely frustrated," Cosentino said. "He healed up so quick that he felt good, and he kept saying, ‘I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go,’ but doctors were saying other things.

"But over the past month or so, Sam has found a way to stay involved and find a role, and I think that’s what makes a championship player and a championship team — guys having the ability to adjust and fill a void. And even though he might not have been putting the pads on, he was talking to the goaltenders after periods. He was in there talking to Jack and (backup) Alec (Hardman), and it was almost like having another goalie coach."

It might be fair to say that, even though Daley didn’t play, NYU might not have won the title without him.

Sam is a special kid. What he went through and the way he handled it was unbelievable, and our team knew that. Him being around us just gave us that much more fuel and motivation to get this thing done.

Goaltender Jack Nebe

"I remember the first time people saw him back on campus, and their eyes lit up with joy," said Masotta, who was also named tournament MVP. "Sam is a special kid. What he went through and the way he handled it was unbelievable, and our team knew that. Him being around us just gave us that much more fuel and motivation to get this thing done. … Obviously, you don’t need any extra motivation to want to win a national championship, but Sam’s a guy who you just want to keep battling for."

"I roomed with him at the national tournament, and it was great to have someone with that experience and someone who has faced adversity in the way that he did," Nebe added. "Never once has he complained about what happened to him. He just kind of took it on, and I guess that’s quite similar to the way he plays. He just gets the job done."

So when Daley finally did get to take the ice — to accept his championship medal from ACHA representatives Jon Eccles and David Kurtz — it was an honor he had more than earned.

"If you watch the video of our league championship, the video of us beating Grand Valley in overtime or the national championship game, Sam was the first one running onto the ice in celebration," Cosentino said. "The kid had tears in his eyes after we won (Tuesday), and everybody is a part of this thing."

"Sam is loved by every one of his teammates and he was always in the back of our mind," Cosentino added. "Sam was with us on the trip and every time we saw him, it was almost like an extra jolt of motivation. He was such a big part of this team, and going through that whole experience definitely brought us even closer together. It was a close-knit team already, but his situation definitely magnified things."

If you watch the video of our league championship, the video of us beating Grand Valley in overtime or the national championship game, Sam was the first one running onto the ice in celebration. The kid had tears in his eyes after we won (Tuesday), and everybody is a part of this thing.

Coach Chris Cosentino

And thankfully, Daley still has a year of eligibility left and every indication so far has been that he will be able to return the ice for the Violets when the season starts up again this fall.

"I 100 percent plan on coming back next year and working as hard as I can during the spring and the summer so that I can return even better than I was," Daley said. "I’m excited to get back on the ice, and hopefully next season we can continue the success and keep playing well."

Added Cosentino: "That scene of Sam back in net, in uniform — it’s going to be awesome, and I can’t wait to see it."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.