Compared to fellow Frozen Four participants Union and Ferris State, Boston College and the University of Minnesota certainly represent the “old guard.”
BC, the winner of the second NCAA championship in 1949, is making its 23rd appearance at the Frozen Four this week. Minnesota earned its 20th trip to the Frozen Four on March 25 when the Golden Gophers defeated North Dakota in the finals of the West Regional at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Eagles are seeking the fifth championship after winning their fourth two years ago in Detroit. That would tie BC with Minnesota, which won its fifth title in 2003 in Buffalo.
Those credentials certainly make for a stark contrast with the combatants in the other semifinal game, as Union and Ferris State are both making Frozen Four debuts on Thursday afternoon at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
“Two traditional teams that have made a lot of trips to the Frozen Four and won national championships,” said BC head coach Jerry York, “but also two clubs that have really responded to [FSU coach] Bob Daniels and [Union coach] Rick Bennett. You don’t have to be a University of North Dakota to win a championship in this particular sport.”
However, while the Eagles and Golden Gophers have a great deal in common when it comes to rich hockey traditions, they couldn’t be much more different when it comes to recent history.
Minnesota, for its part, is making its first Frozen Four appearance in seven years. That hardly seemed likely when the Gophers joined North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College at the 2005 Frozen Four in Columbus. After all, it was the third Frozen Four in four seasons for head coach Don Lucia and his team, and while the Gophers bowed out to North Dakota in the semifinals that year, their seniors left with a pair of national titles to their credit, having won it all in 2002 and 2003.
The years since 2005, however, have been filled with controversy and disappointment, despite a plethora of top talent that has come through Mariucci Arena, including two-time NHL All-Star Phil Kessel, former No. 1 draft pick Erik Johnson and New York Islanders star Kyle Okposo.
It all started with an unprecedented upset by Holy Cross in 2006, with the Crusaders becoming the first No. 4 seed to top a No. 1 seed since the tournament expanded to its 16-team format in 2003. Minnesota suffered that loss at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., where thousands of fans of the Gophers’ fierce rivals from North Dakota reveled in Minnesota’s misery. Minnesota won just one more NCAA tournament game in the five seasons that followed, a 4-3 win against Air Force in 2007 that required the Gophers to score three third-period goals to avoid a second consecutive first-round loss to an Atlantic Hockey opponent.
In fact, when the Gophers were announced as part of this year’s 16-team tournament field, it ended a three-year tournament drought, only the second such skid since the legendary Herb Brooks took the reins of the program in 1972.
“It’s not easy to get to the Frozen Four,” said head coach Don Lucia. “It’s even harder to win it all at the end. I’m just really excited for our players, because we had a couple of years that didn’t go like we hoped, but when the year begins, you get a fresh start. You don’t really worry about what happened before, but it can be a motivating factor.”
While the Gophers had been conspicuous by their absence, the Eagles were Frozen Four regulars. Starting in 2006, BC advanced to the national title game in three consecutive seasons, finally winning it all in 2008 in Denver. The Eagles missed the NCAA tournament the following season, when Commonwealth Avenue rival Boston University won its fifth title in 2009, but BC stormed back with a vengeance in 2010, winning the program’s fourth title at Ford Field in Detroit and decimating Miami University and the University of Wisconsin by a combined score of 12-1.
However, while recent seasons in Chestnut Hill and the Twin Cities have had very different feelings, both schools have been driven, in part, by their experiences in 2011.
For the Eagles, it was a stunning 8-4 loss to Colorado College in the semifinals of the NCAA West Regional, less than a week after BC defeated Merrimack to win the Hockey East title. The Eagles had entered the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all, but wound up going home early. In this year’s regional round, the Eagles went to the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., and played like a championship favorite, shutting out both Air Force and 2011 champ Minnesota-Duluth to punch their ticket to Tampa.
“I think that last year’s loss to Colorado College confirmed what we already knew,” said senior defenseman Tommy Cross, the Eagles’ captain, “that playoff hockey is really hard. Every team you’re going to play in the playoffs is a good team. Going into the weekend against Air Force and Duluth, we knew that that was going to be no different. Last year’s experience, we carried that over into this year. It really has taught us that playoff hockey’s hard, and that the better team that night is going to win the hockey game.”
For the Gophers, the key moment came two weeks later, when they watched Duluth win its first NCAA title, celebrating on the ice in St. Paul at a championship weekend hosted by their own school. Seeing a fierce rival win it all in the Gophers’ backyard motivated the Minnesota players to come back strong in 2011-12.
“Coming into the year, part of our goal for the year is to take over the state of Minnesota,” said sophomore forward Zach Budish. “Being the host, we were hoping, obviously, to be in the Frozen Four, since it was just a couple of miles from campus, and then seeing Duluth win the whole thing, pretty much right in front of our eyes…obviously, we watched the games, and we wished we would have been playing there.”
Now, both schools have rebounded from 2011 disappointments to arrive in Tampa with a chance to win it all. After Thursday, however, only one will still have that chance.
“Winning is very difficult,” York said, “and we’re staring right at a traditional powerful team that has unbelievable history to it.”
Across the ice, Don Lucia can say the same.