Early Returns from College Hockey’s Most Chaotic Weekend

frozen_four_puck.jpgI have friends who are spirited WCHA partisans, and for a week now I’ve heard moans and groans from them about their conference being slighted by the NCAA selection committee. The WCHA placed three teams in the field of 16 — Minnesota, North Dakota, and St. Cloud. My friends correctly noted: the past five NCAA hockey champions have hailed from the WCHA. It’s college hockey’s best conference, hands down.
But the gap, today I allege, is closing.
Ascendant — most dramatically — are two CCHA clubs, Miami and Notre Dame. Miami is now at home in its new two-sheet, state-of-the-art rink that set back Ohio taxpayers a cool $35 million. The Redhawks appear to be a Top 20 fixture. The Fighting Irish under Jeff Jackson — what’s left to be said about them this season that already hasn’t? Blue and Gold Illustrated last month on its cover tabbed Jackson’s efforts in South Bend this season ‘Another Miracle on Ice.’ And one-year wonders they almost certainly aren’t: seven recruits arrive on campus this autumn, and all seven appear on the NHL’s list of likely-to-be drafted this June. Wow.
Meanwhile, the WCHA clubs who did make the field didn’t exactly blow away the competition. St. Cloud went out Friday without a whimper; Minnesota, facing the demons of last season’s all-time first-round shocker at the skates of Holy Cross, trailed 15-loss Air Force 3-1 well into the third period Saturday before prevailing 4-3.
The CCHA placed four teams in the field of 16, Hockey East a conspicuous five. The CCHA has acquitted itself superbly: it’s 3-0 through play Saturday afternoon. Alabama-Huntsville may well have snared a spot from a fourth WCHA team, and I’m with Michigan State coach Rick Comley about the five-team CHA: their tournament winner ought to earn merely a play-in game berth rather than one of the coveted sixteen slots outright.
But the Denver Pioneers finished 4th in the WCHA this season with 15 losses. Are the league’s supporters, confronted with 19-loss Huntsville and 15-loss Air Force already in the field of 16, seriously suggesting that another 15-loss-plus team ought to earn a selection?
But a word of commendation about both Huntsville and Air Force. Huntsville’s record, as unimpressive as it was, didn’t tell the full story of that fiery team that pushed the no. 1 team in the country to the sudden death brink Friday. Comebacks — large ones — littered Huntsville’s season. They trailed Wayne State 3-0 and won in OT. They trailed Niagra 3-1 and won 5-3. They trailed Robert Morris 4-0 in the CHA championship game and prevailed 5-4 in OT. And Friday they trailed the Irish 2-0 and yanked their goalie in the first period before knotting things up. Netminder Marc Narduzzi came in off the bench and stopped 49 of the 50 shots he faced.
I also heard a lot of dismissive talk this week against the Chargers predicated on their distinctive geographical locale. In point of fact, Huntsville has a rich hockey legacy (three minor pro teams there since the ’70s), and this season’s Chargers’ roster contained no fewer than 20 Canucks.
Friday was Head Coach Doug Ross’ last game after 25 years behind the Huntsville bench. I didn’t know that until this morning, but that explains a lot of the Chargers’ gutsy showing in a game everyone thought would be a laugher.
I thought Air Force was set up for a slaughter Saturday, with every resident of the Hockey State reminding Gopher head man Don Lucia this month about last season’s unacceptable round of 16 opening dismissal. But there the Falcons were Saturday, up 3-1 late against the Golden Gophers. Ten Falcons hailed from Minnesota, so you can imagine the motivation and pride with which they played.
Many of these Regionals are being contested in AHL rinks — Manchester, Grand Rapids, Rochester, for instance. They share this quality: charitably put, there’s no need to print standing room only tickets. And because college hockey has such a wonderful product to sell, and because hockey in general is on its hands and knees in terms of securing America’s fiercely competitive sports patronage, I’m led to think that college hockey should take these regionals to new and non-traditional outposts. I’m thinking . . . 10,000-seat, new and impressive rinks . . . like . . . Hershey’s Giant Center.

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1 Response to Early Returns from College Hockey’s Most Chaotic Weekend

  1. Stimpy says:

    Don’t forget, the 2009 Frozen Four will be held at our very own Verizon Center. Maybe the Caps in a playoff hunt and the 4 at the same time! Fine hockey indeed.

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