Even now, 12 months later, Matt O’Connor has a hard time watching athletes stumble. When a college football kicker errs, he cringes. When an outfielder misplays a fly ball, his heart breaks for the guy.
Sure, he celebrated as raucously as any other New Englander two years ago, when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tossed an interception in the final seconds of the Super Bowl, handing the Patriots a championship.
But that was before April 11, 2015. These days, he says, witnessing another player’s blunder “just kind of makes me sick to my stomach.”
You may remember O’Connor. He’s the former Boston University goaltender who dropped a puck into his own goal late in last year’s NCAA national hockey title game, paving the way for Providence’s 4-3 victory.
The sports world has provided no shortage of high-profile flubs, of course. There was Chris Webber’s ill-advised timeout in the final seconds of the 1993 NCAA men’s basketball title game; then-Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez’s famous butt-fumble in 2012. And, of course, Bill Buckner’s gaffe in the 1986 World Series.
In terms of recent examples, however, it’s tough to find one as cringe-worthy as O’Connor’s.
Third period. The Terriers leading 3-2. Less than nine minutes from a national championship. For a team whose 2014-15 season had been a whirlwind of narrow victories and late-game heroics, a title seemed the only fitting conclusion. Even the site of the championship — Boston’s TD Garden, just down the road from campus — lent the game an air of inevitablility.
And there were few people you’d rather have in the net down the stretch than O’Connor. This was a guy who’d led the nation in winning percentage. Whose steady glovework had helped propel the Terriers to a 28-7-5 record, and who for the past two seasons had garnered the attention of various NHL teams.
So when O’Connor routinely gloved a long dump-in with 8:40 remaining in the game, it seemed like business as usual for the 6-foot-5 Canadian.
Which is why what happened next was so bewildering.
In the video of the play, you can see the puck slip from O’Connor’s glove and fall to the ice in front of him. At first, he doesn’t seem to realize what’s happened. Then, for a couple panicked seconds, he can be seen scrambling to locate it.
By the time he does, though, it’s too late — the puck has trickled between his legs and into the net, tying the game at 3. Two minutes later, Providence would net the winning goal, effectively ending BU’s title hopes.
College hockey doesn’t often venture into the national conversation, but in the hours and days following the game, O’Connor’s mishap was inescapable. On barroom televisions, in newspapers, across countless computer screens, the goalie’s worst professional moment was discussed, dissected, and replayed.
“Hockey Goalie Matt O’Connor Commits Mind-Blowing Gaffe In National Title Game,” wrote the Huffington Post.
“Boston U. Goalie Blows Late NCAA Title Game Lead With Huge Boner,” added Deadspin.
For O’Connor, a junior who would go on to win the team’s scholar-athlete award, the next few weeks weren’t pleasant. He went on a social media hiatus. He struggled to sleep, lost 10 pounds. Later, he heard that one NHL general manager who’d seen the game had decided his team would no longer pursue him.
“For about two months,” O’Connor says, “my girlfriend had to pull me out of bed in the morning.”
More than his own mistake, though, it was the feeling he’d helped cost his coaches and teammates a chance at a national title — even as those same players and coaches were quick to shower him with support.
“As a player and a teammate, you all feel bummed,” says Anthony Moccia, a senior on last year’s team. “And then on top of the feeling of depression, you have Matt feeling like it was his fault. It was tough.”
Adds BU head coach David Quinn, “One play certainly doesn’t define him as a player, or the impact he had on our team. People always want to hang on to one play — no matter the outcome. We had plenty of chances to win that game.”
At one point, O’Connor went to see a sports psychologist, BU doctoral student and sports psychology intern Jake Cooper, who talked about perspective and adversity and writing his own story.
“Everybody knows what to say or do with an athlete when things are going well,” says Cooper, who works with the school’s athletes. “But very few people know what to do when things aren’t going well, and that was kind of my role.”
Slowly, with Cooper’s assistance, O’Connor began to work through it. It didn’t hurt that he soon began visiting with NHL teams, getting wined and dined. And a month or so after the title game, he signed an entry-level contract with the Ottawa Senators.
Eventually, he was even able to joke about the whole thing — albeit darkly.
Once, a woman in a bar mentioned the game’s unceremonious ending, not realizing she was talking to the man involved.
“I heard the goalie took it really hard,” she said.
“He did take it really hard,” O’Connor replied.
These days, things have mostly returned to normal. Boston University is back in the NCAA tournament, the third-seeded Terriers opening play Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the St. Paul, Minn., regional against Denver. And O’Connor, for his part, seems to be doing just fine.
After a strong preseason, he was tapped to make his first NHL start in Ottawa’s home opener. And though he’s since been reassigned to the team’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., he’s currently second on the team in saves and this week stopped 46 shots in a shoot-out victory.
In February, meanwhile, he returned to Boston for the Beanpot, where he was met with smiles and hugs from former teammates and got to see a BU victory over Northeastern.
And though there remain a few residual effects from last year’s trauma, he does his best to look on the bright side.
“Ten years from now, [people aren’t] going to be remembering it and talking about it,” he says.