Frozen Four: Was it worth the wait?

ST. PAUL – It took 15 years, but my journey as a college hockey fan had finally reached its destination. I attended my first Frozen Four at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

As I walked around the loud and packed corridors around the rink Thursday, I couldn’t believe it took me so long to get to one. For some people, college hockey’s main event is a yearly vacation where they can go to a new city, watch some quality hockey, and potentially make new friends. For me, it was just a chance to see a team celebrate wildly on the ice at the final horn, throw its gear in the air, and hoist a national championship trophy live and in person.

My true interest in college hockey started back when Minnesota ended its long title drought in 2002, appropriately, in St. Paul. It blossomed into fandom a few months later when I saw my first college game as a student at North Dakota. I was hooked. I had attended conference tournaments and even NCAA Regionals before, but the big stage always escaped me. This was primarily due to cost; Frozen Four tickets can be quite expensive and I’d most likely have to fly somewhere. That was out of the question as a poor college student. Even when I became a full-time sports writer, it was rather difficult.

Everything came together this year. My dad managed to score tickets for the family and I was finally able to go to the massive event. The fact that the games were going to be in my home state just made things even more special.

We got to the X about 4 pm., an hour before the puck drop in the early game. After making it through security, I decided to take in my surroundings. I had been to the arena many times, but this was a new experience. Most of the fans were in a laid-back, casual mood  a surprise, considering that the season was virtually on the line for all four teams playing that day. This was quite different than the games I saw at the formerly WCHA Final Five, which was full of intense rivalries where nobody wanted to lose to anybody and a drunken brawl could erupt in the hallways at a moment’s notice. In a way, I kind of missed that.

Our seats were at the very top, just like the ones on our annual trip to the Final Five. That might be disappointing to some, but we also got a rail to both set our drinks on or fall asleep if needed. Watching the first game made the latter very enticing.

On paper, Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State made for an enticing matchup. The Bulldogs barely got into the tournament but somehow managed to fight their way back to St. Paul, where they won their first national title in 2011. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes were in only their second FF and their first in 20 years. Despite being one of the strongest teams in the nation on both ends of the ice, OSU truly played like it hadn’t been there in two decades.

Duluth scored both of its goals within the first three minutes of the game, sending its fans into a frenzy and making the rest of us wonder what was going on with the Buckeyes. Leading up to the game, some of the Big Ten reporters told me that OSU was a force on the ice and it showed last weekend in its thrashing of defending champion Denver. On Thursday though, the Buckeyes looked like they stayed in the locker room and was replaced by their intramural team. OSU head coach Steve Rohlik actually said in an interview after the game that getting smacked in the face “wakes you up.” I’m sure your team did Steve, but it definitely didn’t do so during the game.

The Buckeyes managed only four (four!) shots in the first period and were forced to play catch-up from that point on. They struggled badly against UMD’s lockdown defense and only got on the scoreboard due to a Bulldog mistake midway through the third period. While on the penalty kill, an OSU player’s stick snapped on a shot as the puck skittered its way to the blue line. A Duluth forward attempted to clear the puck out of the zone, but he ended up hitting the broken stick still on the ice. The puck then deflected over to another Buckeye, who wristed it into an open net.

Seriously, that was the only OSU highlight of the game. If you were one of the dozen or so Buckeyes fans in attendance (Big Ten represent!), you saw up close why some of us reporters thought OSU might be a tad overrated. With the exception of those first few minutes, Duluth didn’t look much better. For an opening act, this was highly disappointing.

I wasn’t deflated, though. While the action on the ice was leaving a lot to be desired, I took in my surroundings. I saw just about every jersey imaginable in the stands: commonplace college jerseys like the Golden Gophers, UND, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin to really obscure ones like RIT, Yale and even Illinois (which doesn’t even have a DI program). There was even a guy in a Russian national team jersey. He was a little out of place, but in the jovial atmosphere around the arena, he fit in quickly.

After reliving some fond memories of eating overpriced food at the X, I settled in to watch the night game, which had a slightly more competitive feel to it. Football rivals Michigan and Notre Dame did battle and unlike the Buckeyes, they actually brought a decent number of fans with them. The Fighting Irish had the larger group and more of the general crowd support. Few college hockey fans outside of Ann Arbor like Michigan. They weren’t happy early on. Michigan held a 2-0 advantage early in the second period, but Notre Dame showed why it was considered by many the best team in the country by tying it up before the end of the frame. I tried to remain an unbiased reporter (even though I was off the clock), but my wife hates Michigan with a passion. The Irish’s efficiency made it difficult not to pull for them.

With about five minutes left, my mom got antsy and tried to get us to leave early with the Irish only up by one. I guess she wanted to beat the traffic out of the arena, but she ended up jinxing herself. The Wolverines tied it up 3-3 just seconds after she tried to usher us out of our seats. I can’t say I blame her as it had been a long day, but now we were forced to stay put at least until the period ended. Thankfully for her sake, Notre Dame ended up stunning Michigan and everyone else in the arena in the closing seconds. With time ticking down, an Irish forward raced up the boards toward the Michigan net and then quickly sent the puck over to his teammate, who one-timed it through the Wolverine goalie’s five-hole with 5.2 seconds left to put ND in the title game. This was the third time in the NCAA Tournament that the Irish had pulled off a crazy victory. They also topped Michigan Tech in overtime and beat Providence in the final minute of the regional final.

I went home that night energized and already prepared for Saturday night’s championship. With Duluth attempting to win its second title in front of its home fans and Notre Dame trying to finally get that elusive first championship, it made for a fun storyline. I actually tried to come up with a lead for a game story even though I wasn’t writing one. That’s how excited I was. (I really should stop doing that. I do it a lot. Just ask the wife.)

We got to the game early on Saturday, hoping to find some good souvenirs and to take in the festivities outside the arena. If there’s one complaint coming out of the experience, it’s that the NCAA really drops the ball when it comes to souvenirs. They had a variety of colored shirts, but they were all very generic. Also, they only had one T-shirt design for each team and these didn’t even have the team’s logo. Michigan and Notre Dame’s shirts looked practically identical. I’m not sure if it was just time constraints to print the shirts in two weeks or what, but it was kind of pathetic. That’s par for the course with the NCAA, though.

However, the events across the street were fun. They had cornhole contests along with booths where you could test the speed of your slap shot as well as your shot accuracy. They even gave out free Wendy’s hamburgers, and a long line of burger fans wound its way through the area  proving once again that people love free stuff, even if they can get that product whenever they want.

After slowly making our way through security, we rode the elevator back to our seats in the rafters once again. Also once again, Duluth took an early lead. Midway through the opening frame, a careless mistake by the Irish turned the puck over and a Bulldogs forward snapped a wrister into the net to put them up 1-0. Just before the end of the period, UMD scored again when a shot deflected off the Irish goalie’s leg and into the net.

As the second period approached, I wondered if this was going to be another repeat of the UMD-OSU Thursday snooze-fest, which would be a terrible way to end my first Frozen Four. Instead, things got interesting. Duluth got back-to-back power plays to start the frame with the chance to put the game away rather early, but the Irish’s impressive penalty kill weathered the storm. ND later pulled within one with a power-play tally a few minutes later and with the Bulldogs only up 2-1 heading into the third, the game had the potential to be a classic.

It was, at least for one team. UMD continued its strong defensive performance, shutting down any openings in the neutral zone and kept the Irish from generating any quality opportunities in the third frame. When the final horn sounded, just about every eye in the arena went to the far end of the ice as the Bulldogs began their celebration. It was a moment that I’d always wanted to witness, but somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I saw the Notre Dame players sadly hunch over, a couple dropping to their knees in despair and it was hard to watch. So while my family leaned over the rails watching the Bulldogs attempt to out-hug each other, I stayed back and just listened to the sounds. I heard the Duluth fans cheer wildly, some of them literally barking at each other, which was something new. I listened to Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin try to explain how his team, which some said didn’t even belong in the tournament, managed to pull itself together and win another championship in St. Paul. But I couldn’t watch it. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it’s the Minnesotan in me. I’d seen my favorite teams fall so short in championships that to watch a team deal with that heartache right in front of me (we sat directly above the Irish goal) was too difficult to behold. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much though. I’d watched UMD hoist its first trophy on TV back in 2011, so this wasn’t anything new. I just waited until my family was ready to leave and we took our winding route out of the arena.

Looking back on it a few days later, my first Frozen Four did have a lot to offer. I got to meet some new people, see jerseys that a rarely see, watch a complete dud of a game, watch a last-second thriller and get to spend time with my family in an arena we were very familiar with, but for an event we’d never seen before. I may not be in Buffalo, the next FF site, in 2019, but I know I’ll get back to the Frozen Four again someday.

Hopefully, it won’t take me another 15 years to do it.

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