The pain had lingered for 27 years, deep in Bill Watson's heart. He will never forget the precise moment when it evaporated: 9:17 p.m. Saturday evening, when Kyle Schmidt buried the puck in the Michigan net.

Few ached as much as Watson did in 1984, when he and his Minnesota Duluth teammates lost the NCAA championship game to Bowling Green in four grueling overtimes. Few rejoiced as he did Saturday, when the Bulldogs got back to the title game for the first time since that day -- and earned a championship for themselves, for Watson and for a school and community that never forgot that loss but never gave up hope.

Now an assistant coach at UMD, Watson realized long ago that nothing short of an NCAA title was going to chase away the decades-old heartache he shared with his former teammates. Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, he reveled in the celebration he never experienced as a player. It didn't feel any less thrilling, any less special, even if it came 27 years late.

"The pain's all gone now,'' Watson said, wearing a freshly printed T-shirt proclaiming the Bulldogs as national champs. "It's all gone. That goal went into the net, and it erased all the memories.

"No one has to ask me about 1984 any more. No one has to ask me about four overtimes. All those memories are gone, because now, we have this one. This one, I'll never forget.''

The story of the 1984 team still makes longtime Bulldogs fans cringe. UMD entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the country, fresh off its first WCHA title, with a collection of players many consider the best in the program's history. The Bulldogs led Bowling Green 4-3 with just two minutes left in the third period when a fluke goal -- set up by a dump-in that caromed off a bad spot on the boards -- tied the score. Four overtimes later, Bowling Green scored the winner, condemning Watson and his teammates to be known for years as the team that almost won it all.

The next season, Watson won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey, then went on to a four-year NHL career with Chicago. He returned to Duluth to work for Northwestern Mutual, a job that allowed him the time to join UMD's staff five years ago as a volunteer assistant coach.

He never could escape the questions about the Bulldogs' near-miss. Coaching, though, gave Watson the opportunity to prepare young players for their own chance to pursue a championship. This season began on a historic note, as UMD left its old rink -- the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center -- for the new AMSOIL Arena.

That conjured up plenty of stories about the program's past. As the team grew more aware of the tradition it represented, it kept pulling closer together, leading Watson to believe this could be the year the Bulldogs put the specter of 1984 to rest.

In February, the Bulldogs endured a 3-4-2 stretch in WCHA play that brought out the doubters. "People said we didn't have enough goaltending,'' Watson said. "They said we didn't have enough defense. But these kids always believed in themselves. They thought they had everything they needed, and they never, ever quit.''

While the Bulldogs were seeking their first NCAA title Saturday, Michigan was chasing its 10th. A pair of second-period goals put the Bulldogs ahead until Michigan's Jeff Rohrkemper tied it 2-2 with less than three minutes remaining in the second. Watson kept the faith, and Schmidt rewarded him -- and all of the Bulldogs faithful -- with his game-winner at 3 minutes, 22 seconds of overtime.

Watson got his share of sweat-soaked hugs in the locker room, from players who understood what it meant to the past as well as to the present. "This was our goal since August,'' defenseman Brady Lamb said. "We all know about that quadruple-overtime loss in 1984. This is huge for the school.''

As the players' whoops penetrated closed doors and drifted down the hall, Watson smiled at what he knew must be happening in Duluth. The city would be turned upside down, he predicted, at winning its first men's hockey championship. And how would he celebrate?

"When this thing dies down, I'm going to call some of the old teammates from back in the day,'' he said. "We'll be able to put the ghosts away.''

Rachel Blount •