NCAA hockey: Unheralded 1997 North Dakota team springboarded two-decade run
North Dakota hockey was picked to finish fifth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
It just lost three of its top four scorers from a year ago.
It only just three drafted players on the roster and only one in the top eight rounds--18-year-old fourth liner Brad DeFauw.
Ten of the team's 12 forwards were smaller than six feet.
No, there were not a lot of expectations for the 1996-97 UND men's hockey team.
Perhaps Jason Ulmer summed it up best. As a 17-year-old freshman, Ulmer said: "I wasn't even aware of how the playoffs worked. I just knew we had league games. I think it was pretty new for most of us."
But this blissfully unaware and unheralded squad, nicknamed the "Smurfs," won UND's first league championship in a decade, moved on to win the Broadmoor Trophy in the playoffs and finished the season off with the NCAA national championship, kicking off a 20-year unprecedented run for the UND men's hockey team.
Since the 1996-97 season, UND has won 550 college hockey games--more than any other program in the country. It has won nine conference championships--more than any program in the country. It has reached the NCAA tournament 19 times in 20 years--more than anybody in the country.
It has reached the NCAA Frozen Four in more than 50 percent of its seasons--11 times--and come away with three national championships.
That run is still alive as UND opens the 2016-17 season as the defending national champions and the No. 1 team in the country.
For players on that 1996-97 team, they look back fondly on their unexpected run to the national championship and with glee that so many teams have been able to follow in their footsteps.
"To see what's been done after I've left, to see the men that have gone through there, to see that the culture has stayed the same," said David Hoogsteen, the leading scorer on the 1997 national title team, "outside of my family, that's one of the things I'm the most proud of.
"There's not a program in the country like it. I don't care if a couple other teams win here and there. There's not a program that has the following, the culture, the caring community and the fans like North Dakota. I've always said it. The culture that we've built, there's nothing comparable."
While UND has a deep history and tradition going back to the 1950s, the 1997 team re-energized the Grand Forks fan base with their thrilling brand of hockey and their knack for winning dramatic games.
It started Game 1.
UND beat Denver 4-3 in overtime. The following week, UND scored a game-winning goal with seven seconds left in the third period to finish a sweep of Michigan Tech in Houghton, Michigan. UND came home and swept Northern Michigan in the third weekend to go to 6-0.
By Christmas time, UND was 11-4-1 and packing Ralph Engelstad Arena. Although attendance had waned in the mid-1990s, the building was filling up again--another trend that has continued through to today.
It didn't matter that UND didn't have a lot of high-end NHL prospects on that team. In fact, the only guy who played more than 21 NHL games on that squad was Jason Blake, who will be inducted into UND's Hall of Fame on Friday.
The rest of the team was made up of smaller players with speed and grit. They didn't have a lot of attention from pro teams.
"It was never talked about," Hoogsteen said. "We never cared about that. One reason that team was so successful is that we never got caught up in what's next. When I played for UND for four years, that was my NHL. That was my dream. Playing for North Dakota in front of those fans, that was it for me. I didn't think about money."
UND clinched the MacNaughton Cup at home against Alaska Anchorage with a week to go. The team celebrated with the Cup, but got swept at Denver the next week, allowing rival Minnesota to share the league title.
UND swept Michigan Tech in the first round of the playoffs and beat Minnesota 4-3 in overtime to win the Broadmoor Trophy on a goal by fourth-liner Peter Armbrust.
Then, it was off to the NCAA tournament.
"Everyone will say that you take it a step at a time," Ulmer said. "But we literally had to because we didn't know what the next step was. 'OK, we won the Final Five, what's next? OK, we won the next game, what's next?' Blaiser never talked about the nationals. I really don't think guys knew exactly what was next."
UND earned a bye in the NCAA tournament and beat Cornell 6-2 in the regional final to earn a trip to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee.
On March 27, UND beat Colorado College 6-2 in the semifinals, then found a spot in the seats to watch Michigan take on Boston University. The Wolverines were the heavy favorites to win the national championship with players like Brendan Morrison, John Madden and Marty Turco.
But Boston University stunned the Wolverines in the semifinals.
As the players walked out of the arena, Ian Kallay told Hoogsteen: "I think we can win this thing." I said: "Cassius, I think you're right."
Two days later, UND finished off its run to the national championship. Although it got behind 2-0 after a period against Boston University, UND exploded for five goals in the second--two by Hoogsteen.
"Those are days you don't forget," Ulmer said. "As you get older, you realize that it's much harder to do. That was a special time. For me, I was a young guy on that team. I hadn't lost before. But it was so unexpected that time."
UND went on to win the MacNaughton Cup four times in the next five years and win another national title three years later.
It made Frozen Fours in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016. And with the national championship in April, UND bookended the 20-year stretch with titles.
"It's truly an honor to see the culture stay and that the leaders there now believe in that culture and believe in doing things the right way," Hoogsteen. "I'm so proud. It brings a smile to my face."
This article was written by Brad Elliott Schlossman from Grand Forks Herald and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.