Heated, Nearly Deadly Michigan Rivalry Soon To Take National Stage

Johnny LawrenceCorrespondent IMay 6, 2010

Replay the Series: Fueled by Gatorade will pit the Detroit Catholic Central Shamrocks and Trenton Trojans against one another on Fox Sports Net this Sunday at 9 pm.

In a replay of the 1999 high school game in which Trojan defenseman Kurt LaTarte almost lost his life, viewers across the United States can watch these bitter Michigan rivals resolve the outcome of the game they never completed.

Tied 4-4 in the third period, former Trenton player and current New Jersey Devil Andy Greene, checked CC's Brad Hall into LaTarte. Knocked off his feet, Hall's skate flew up and sliced the jugular of his opponent.

Several medical professionals observing the game fought their way through a jam-packed arena and rescued LaTarte. Though the injured player wished the game to continue, officials recognized everyone was too shaken to finish and wisely suspended the match.

Shamrock captain Matt Van Heest rehashed the incident in a recent interview.

"It was so surreal," proclaimed Van Heest. "No one really knew what was going on. You're in the midst of an emotional game, then the whistle blows and the game stops."

Unsure of what had occurred, he continued, "You're trying to figure out what's going on. It wasn't like a player going head-first into the boards—it was life or death. There's nothing you can say."

Trenton never recovered from the loss of LaTarte that season, as CC collected the Division I state championship, finishing with a 29-1-1 record.

Thickening the rematch plot, the only team to defeat the Shamrocks that year was Trenton.

Honorary coaches Scotty Bowman (Detroit Catholic Central) and Brendan Shanahan (Trenton) add an NHL presence to the event. Bowman sat down last week with CC coaches Gordon St. John and Todd Johnson to provide consultation and moral support. He will accompany the Shamrocks on the bench Sunday afternoon.

Two weeks ago, his role was unknown to the CC players. But April 25, the nine-time Stanley Cup champion surprised them at practice. While they gutted through drills at the opposite end of the ice, the NHL's all-time winningest coach entered on the other.

Sticks banged and jaws dropped. They froze at the sight of the greatest coach the NHL has ever seen.

Television cameras caught the player's reactions and journalists swarmed afterward for interviews. I found Van Heest who said he "got the chills" when he spotted Bowman lumbering his direction. He said, "Scotty's presence adds more value to the event."

When asked how he will help lead the Shamrocks over Trenton in front of a national audience, Bowman responded, "They'll be uptight, so I'll try to relax them and give them a few words of wisdom on what my experience has taught me."

If there is one coach in America who can will CC to one last victory, it's Coach Bowman—the leader who brought Detroit its first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

But the man who has coached since 1959 admitted he had never experienced an on-ice injury as severe as LaTarte's.

"In a pregame warm-up I had a player lose an eye," Bowman said. "The puck deflected from the goalie and it happened almost instantly. But I have not seen an incident so serious that it was life-threatening."

Apparently, Scotty hasn't seen everything.

Preparing for War

The final chapter will be written May 9 at Compuware Arena in Plymouth.

Leading up to the showdown, CC's players endured eight weeks of tests and intense physical conditioning. Gatorade assigned scientists to assess the condition of the athletes, measuring their strength and capabilities. They also assigned a nutrition program for each player to help them fire on all cylinders come game time.

Shamrock skaters recognized a victory would require full commitment, but not everything went smoothly out of the gate.

Within the first 30 minutes of the first practice, cameramen darted after a CC player who zipped off the ice and into the locker room. Glove pressed to his mouth, it was clear he pushed his limits.

That scene played out shortly after another player told a media member, "I'll give you $12 if you get me a 12-pack."

Perhaps the graduate consumed too many adult beverages the night before.

Coach St. John confessed a lot of the guys hadn't been on the ice in years, making the transition back to athlete more difficult.

"Being realistic, some of these fellows have done very little skating," said St. John. "So you don't know what to expect in a competitive situation."

Van Heest himself admitted he hadn't been on the ice much in the past five years, despite being one of six seniors on the 1999 squad to play hockey in college.

As weeks passed, however, training and improved diets began making a noticeable impact.

Passes started hitting the tape. The glass behind the goalie was no longer so frequently abused by errant shots.

Off the ice, Gatorade and Fox Sports staged a raucous pep rally to mobilize CC's fan base. Staring at 13 hockey state championship banners in the high school gym, Gatorade officials said they expect a packed house come May 9.

The players agreed.

"All that same emotion will come back," said Van Heest. "We've gotten back to together and we've had the fun. But once its starts, you'll see all the blood, sweat, and tears for the game we've played so long."