BOSTON – The locker room door at TD Garden had just closed, and goalie Matt O'Connor, after his final game at Boston University, rose to address his devastated teammates.
His face wet with sweat and tears, O'Connor apologized to everyone in the room. He told his teammates they deserved a better fate than the 4-3 loss to Providence in the championship game of the 2015 Frozen Four. He thanked them for working hard, reminded them of how far they had come. He told them how much he had enjoyed them.
Then he walked back to the door, opened it, stepped into the hallway, embraced his coach and burst into tears. "You deserved a national championship," O'Connor told coach David Quinn. "And I let you down."
Quinn can't stop thinking about where that conversation went:
"Then he said the most perfect words you'd ever want to hear. He said, 'There's no other goalie I'd want in the net than you.'"
O'Connor had allowed the flukiest of goals in the game, on a benign flip from center ice. O'Connor caught the puck easily — and then everything that could go wrong did.
First he waited for a whistle that never came.
He thought he still had the puck in his glove. He did not. Not knowing where the puck was, he instinctively dropped to his knees, pushing his pads together to prevent the puck from going between his legs. Instead, the motion propelled the puck into the net.
"It's as ugly as it gets, and it's really, really humbling," O'Connor said. "But I am going to be a stronger goalie for it. That's what I signed up for."
While O'Connor tried to decompress by walking around Boston with his family, former BU coach Jack Parker, who recruited O'Connor, called. Former Terriers goalie John Curry, now with the Wild organization, called. Opposing coaches called.
People reached out to O'Connor over social media. One BU student, who had been on crutches, thanked O'Connor for holding the door to the bus and the classroom building one day. "I was overwhelmed by it all," O'Connor said. "My phone was going off the charts. It took a while for me to believe all the nice things they were saying."
Wilfrid Sheed, in an essay titled "Why Sports Matter," wrote, "If sport teaches us anything, it is that less important things can hurt more than important ones — and that there are tricks for dealing with them, absorbing the pain and putting it in perspective, almost reflexively."
O'Connor is doing just that.
"Sports are character-builders, but they also put things in perspective," he said.
He added: "It's a path in your mind. If you want to take the hard path, you can use it as an ingredient to your success going forward. If you want to take the easy path, it can be pretty destructive. There are a lot of bigger mistakes you can make in life than thinking the puck was still in your glove when it wasn't."
The path O'Connor has chosen will take him to the NHL. He will get his business degree next Sunday, graduating in three years. He has been accepted into graduate school and is quite comfortable deflecting conversation away from misplayed pucks to topics like deforestation in Brazil, carbon footprints of animals, food safety and pesticides.
But he will defer his place to pursue his dream.
"That's what we want," O'Connor said. "That's what's in the back of our minds — to put yourself in the position to play after college. It's our passion."
O'Connor was never drafted by an NHL team. He took advantage of his free-agency status to sign a two-year deal with the Ottawa Senators that contains the maximum bonuses allowed in an entry-level contract.
While he considered where to sign, O'Connor met with the Senators, the New York Rangers, the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks — and their goalie coaches. There were film sessions, and there it was again. The goal.
"Oh, yeah, they showed it," O'Connor said. "They went over all my strengths and weaknesses. It was really nice having that transparency. They know goalies make mistakes. It's how you learn from them that counts."
He has learned a lot over the past month, about sympathy and empathy, about priorities and owning up. Far from letting the lapse define him, he is acknowledging it and using it as motivation.
"There's something to be said for people who know how to deal with these things," he said.