Tommy Wingels was a sophomore when Miami advanced to the national championship game.
He was on the ice when Boston University scored a fluky overtime goal off the shoulder of RedHawks defenseman Kevin Roeder to win an NCAA title game MU led by two goals with under a minute left in regulation.
Seconds after the puck floated just under the crossbar and off the netting, RedHawks goalie Cody Reichard dropped to his knees, and Wingels came over to comfort the freshman netminder who finished that season with a 2.11 goals-against average.
Following one of the most horrific hockey losses ever suffered on a national stage, Wingels was asked afterwards by the national media what he said to his goaltender during that moment.
With amazing composure, he said that he told his rookie goalie that he was his teammate and he loved him.
The date was April 11, 2009, and Wingels turned 21 an hour after that devastating loss. In a half hour he went from potentially celebrating his birthday in grand fashion following what would’ve been the biggest win in the history of Miami athletics to suffering the RedHawks’ most heartbreaking loss.
Going through that imbroglio of emotions in such a short span, from the bubbling anticipation of celebrating a national championship to the agony of watching a redirected change-up float into the top of the net from about five feet away and then having to answer questions about it on ESPN, is something that few experience.
And the amount of class he showed during that moment, as a college sophomore who just had his heart ripped out of his chest, is truly profound.
Following a 10-season pro career in which Wingels scored 127 goals in four leagues, Wingels, now 32, announced his retirement last week.
He had played parts of eight seasons in the NHL and the last two with Geneva of Swiss-A, the top league in Switzerland.
The fall after Miami’s horrific loss, Wingels was named team captain despite being outscored by classmates Carter Camper, Pat Cannone and Andy Miele the previous season.
Four months into that campaign, player-coach Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident, and Wingels oversaw a team that flew to Burke’s funeral in Massachusetts. Burke had come out as gay months earlier, making national news.
Between the championship game loss and Burke’s death 10 months later, Wingels was forced to mature quickly.
Despite the setbacks, the RedHawks returned to the Frozen Four weeks later under Wingels’ leadership, with the captain racking up 17 goals – including five game winners – and 25 assists.
Draft rules were different then, and it was tougher for the San Jose draft pick to justify staying in Oxford for his senior season, so Wingels turned pro after a 99-point career with Miami.
He scored 17 goals in the AHL and made the NHL his first pro season, dressing for five games. After splitting time between the leagues the next seasons, Wingels stuck in the NHL in 2013-14, playing 77 games and recording 38 points.
Wingels logged 448 NHL games, and the final two seasons of which he played for Ottawa, Boston, and Chicago, his hometown team. In 2018 he joined Geneva and proved he still had that scoring touch, netting 27 goals in 63 games over two seasons overseas.
But Wingels was more than just a scorer. He was one of the most physical players on the ice, from college to the NHL, and he was a key penalty killer at every level.
Stemming from Burke’s death, Wingels became a founding donor and member of the advisory board for the You Can Play project, which supports gay hockey players.
Burke’s father, Brian Burke, has served as general manger for Toronto, Anaheim, Vancouver and Hartford of the NHL and was most recently the president of hockey operations for Calgary.
Upon Wingels’ retirement, Burke praised him in an extensive statement posted on Twitter, stating that “the hockey world is unquestionably a better place today because of Tommy Wingels”.
Wingels was also nominated for the NHL’s King Clancy Trophy, awarded to the player who exemplifies leadership and community contribution.
Wingels’ highly-successful on-ice career may have reached its conclusion, but his legacy goes well beyond hockey as he enters the next phase of his life.