PLYMOUTH — Kenny Chaput, hockey coach at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, paused when trying to describe his relationship with sophomore forward Roman Villaire.
“Him and I have had about a year and a half of … fun,” Chaput said.
Care to elaborate?
“We’ve had our ups and downs as far as getting on him,” Chaput said. “He’s literally been all over our lineup from the first line to the fourth line and threats of playing JV hockey and everything else around the way. Again, it’s because the talent’s there.”
The talent Chaput believed Villaire possesses blossomed in the playoffs and burst through at precisely the right moment for the Warriors in the MHSAA Division 2 championship game Saturday at USA Hockey Arena.
Villaire scored what proved to be the winning goal in a 4-2 victory over top-ranked Byron Center with a great individual play.
He picked up the puck at the Rice blue line, skated one-on-one against a defender, made a quick move to open up a shooting lane and fired the puck into the upper right corner of the net with 4:42 left in the game to break a 2-2 tie.
“I just saw (the defenseman) go down to one knee, saw I had a shot, took it to the middle and just put it top right,” Villaire said.
Coming into the playoffs, Villaire had enjoyed a decent regular season, but wasn’t one of the Warriors’ impact players. He had three goals and eight assists in 26 regular-season games, but scored four goals with five assists in five postseason contests.
“That’s not a grinder goal right there,” Chaput said. “That’s a skilled kid who can really bring the offense. He’s had to learn the other things around the game — playing harder, playing more defensive, and he’s done it. It’s a great thing to see how the game really ended with that goal, because he came a long way to get there.”
While Villaire became an unlikely hero during the Warriors’ run to their seventh MHSAA championship, star forward Peter Rosa performed like the elite player he is.
Byron Center took a 2-0 lead into the third period on first-period goals by Logan Nickolaus and Cade Pratt before Rosa scored three of the Warriors’ four unanswered goals.
He began the comeback with a shorthanded breakaway goal at 1:37 of the third and tied the game with a shot off a faceoff win by Jack Cassidy at 10:42.
After Villaire gave Rice the lead, Rosa completed his hat trick and secured the championship by scoring into an empty net with 20.7 seconds remaining.
“We won sophomore year,” said Rosa, who turned down an offer to play juniors in the North American Hockey League to finish his career at Rice. “A couple of us like (Andrew) Marone and Cassidy were together for that championship. We lost in the semis last year. Marone was hurt, so that didn’t help us out.
“In the locker room, we have a back wall that’s full of banners. There’s one bottom corner that’s empty. Every day we came to practice, we said, ‘That’s our spot.’ It’s great to finish on top.”
For Byron Center, it was the second gut-wrenching loss to Rice in the championship game over the last three seasons. The Bulldogs lost 2-1 two years ago when Rice’s Alex Hamady scored with 6.7 seconds to play.
In those two seasons, Byron Center took a combined record of 46-1 into the championship games. The Bulldogs were 28-1 going into Saturday’s matchup.
“It’s a lot of heart and hard work,” said senior Byron Center goalie Carson MacKenzie, the starter in both championship games. “Coming to the rink every day, seeing these guys I’ll never forget. I just hope the future years the underclassmen are going to see how hard we work. I’m so proud of everyone, just stuff we’ve done. I’ve never lost a Regional championship. It’s crazy accomplishments I can be so thankful for. I’m happy to be here right now with my teammates.”
First-year Byron Center coach Jordan Steger, an assistant coach the previous three seasons, told his players the bonds they’ve formed are more valuable than the outcome of one hockey game.
“From day one, it’s been a family,” Steger said. “Like I just reiterated to the guys in the locker room, that doesn’t stop because the season’s over. There were 26 of us this year, three coaches and 23 boys, and that family doesn’t stop because the season’s over. We’ll always be there for each other, not just at the rink, but like I told these young men, a lot of them will be in each other’s weddings and get to know each other’s kids. That means so, so, so, so much more than even a state championship.
“Getting to know these young men has been far more of a gift than a state championship.”