The man in the St. Cloud State University jacket sitting at the hotel bar in Pittsburgh leaned over Wednesday evening and made a confession. "Ka-winna Wa-keena Coo-weepak I don't know how the hell it goes!" He was referring to Quinnipiac University, the top-seeded hockey team that St. Cloud will face Thursday night in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four. And he wasn't the only one who felt a little bit lost. "Where is St. Cloud State, anyway?" I overheard someone say earlier this week as she looked up at the giant banners in Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center that named this year's four national championship contenders (Yale, UMass-Lowell, Quinnipiac, and St. Cloud State).
For the record, it's pronounced "KWIN-ni-pee-ack, and St. Cloud State is in Minnesota, but you can't blame either of these folks for not knowing. It's not uncommon for a relative unknown to work its way into the final rounds of the NCAA tournament; Ferris State and Union were part of last season's Frozen Four, while Bemidji State made it in 2009. But what's unusual this year is that none of college hockey's typical powerhouses will be there alongside any newcomers.
When the Frozen Four begins Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, it will do so without Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, or Wisconsin in the mix, the first time they haven't served those spirits here since 1969. There's a 100 percent chance that the school that wins the tournament on Saturday night will be hoisting its first trophy. Not only have zero of the four remaining teams ever won an NCAA title, three of them are appearing in the Frozen Four for the very first time. The exception-that's-not-even-really-an-exception would be Yale, one of four teams invited by a committee to the tournament in 1952. "I wasn't born yet," Bulldogs coach Keith Allain remarked. (Dave Fischer of USA Hockey, who moderated the press conferences, made note that in those days a gallon of gas cost 20 cents and the average price of a house was $228.)
"I think everyone here is in kind of uncharted waters," said St. Cloud State forward Drew LeBlanc, one of three finalists for the annual Hobey Baker Award that is given to the top player in college hockey. (Another finalist, Quinnipiac's Eric Hartzell, will be protecting the net against LeBlanc and his teammates Thursday night, while idle Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau completes the Hobey Hat Trick.)
"I think the first wow factor I had this weekend was the police escort going to the airport," said UMass-Lowell's Chad Ruhwedel. "I'd never experienced that before. You get there pretty quick. We were a little early for our flight." For St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, the plane itself was the highlight. "I think taking a charter flight is the coolest," he said. "They come right into St. Cloud and pick you up!"
Their wonder hung in stark contrast to the almost militaristic trophies-or-bust mentality of last year's champion Boston College team. But it's almost fitting that BC and the rest of the usual suspects all missed the cut this time around. There's more parity now within college hockey than there has been in quite some time. (The ECAC has long been derided as the "EZ-AC," and yet it has sent two teams to the Frozen Four this year in Yale and Quinnipiac; another ECAC team, Union, knocked off BC.) And this season marked the end of a nostalgic era: Next season, college hockey's conferences will be significantly realigned.
Still, being "really excited to be here" — as umpteen student-athletes described themselves and their teams on Wednesday afternoon — won't be much solace to the two teams whose journeys will come to an end before the championship game. "Every time we don't get to compete for a national championship is a disappointment in our eyes," said Yale captain Andrew Miller. (Yale hasn't competed for a national championship in over half a century.) "We're not going to focus on a national championship," said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, not wanting to get ahead of himself. "We need to focus on St. Cloud. Everyone in the Quinnipiac community is looking at us, and everyone in the college hockey world is looking at us."
With that in mind, here are a few things to look out for.
UMass-Lowell vs. Yale
4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Even in an unexpected field of Frozen Four contenders, Yale stands out as perhaps the most surprising team to have made it this far. Their glory year was supposed to be 2010-11, when the team was seeded first overall in the tournament but fell in the regionals. And after a disastrous showing at the ECAC tournament in Atlantic City in which Yale lost two games by a cumulative 8-0, the Bulldogs needed help just to make it into the Round of 16. They got it when Notre Dame beat Michigan in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association finals, a game that was so nerve-racking that multiple players said they hadn't been able to bear watching it. "I stayed so far away from it," Miller said, shaking his head at the memory.
In the NCAA regionals, the Bulldogs surprised just about everyone except themselves with back-to-back wins over Minnesota (the no. 1–ranked team in college hockey for much of the season) and perennial contender North Dakota. Kenny Agostino, who had woken up the day before their Minnesota game to learn that his rights had been traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Calgary Flames in the Jerome Iginla trade, earned a goal and an assist against the Gophers and sealed the UND win with an empty-netter.
Considering that as recently as 2007 the entire hockey program at UMass-Lowell was in danger of being cut — and that it was only two years ago that the team finished in the Hockey East basement with just four wins — the program's turnaround to get to the Frozen Four has been impressive indeed. Credit second-year coach Norm Bazin, a former Lowell player himself, for a good deal of the progress. Bazin, who was nearly killed by a drunk driver in 2003 while headed to a recruiting trip (his injuries included a severed aorta, which winds up being fatal around 90 percent of the time), earned Hockey East Coach of the Year honors this season as well as the Spencer Penrose Award, which is voted on by peers.
"When coach came in and he brought in his coaching staff, the sense of professionalism kind of seeped down to all of us," said Lowell's Joseph Pendenza. Two-time team captain Riley Wetmore added that the team had really bought in to Bazin's system.
"It doesn't matter if you're a freshman or senior, coach is going to hold you accountable," Wetmore said. "It is the same thing in the locker room. I had a freshman come up to me — I was doing something wrong — and it's how it's been all year and, it works for our team."
Part of this buy-in is a commitment to patient team defense, which starts in net with goalie Connor Hellebuyck. The freshman netminder led the country in goals-against average (1.31) as well as save percentage (.953) this season. "He's kind of boring to watch at times because he's always in the right position and he is such a good goaltender," Wetmore said.
Prediction: First, a confession: One of these teams is my alma mater and I want them to win soooo badly. (Shush about journalistic objectivity: This is college hockey, for starters, and also Yale pretty much never gets this close to national championships unless the sport is crew, squash, or fencing.) But I don't think they will. Yale's strength this season, besides consistent play from goalie Jeff Malcolm, has been its fast, effective transition game — while UMass-Lowell is a team well equipped (and patient enough) to shut it down. 5-2 Lowell. (This shouldn't count as a reverse jinx because I actually believe it!)
St. Cloud State vs. Quinnipiac
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Remember that horrible bone-through-the-skin injury suffered by Louisville's Kevin Ware the other day? (Sorry, you were probably trying to forget.) St. Cloud State's Drew LeBlanc went through pretty much the same thing in November of 2011 after his skate caught some choppy ice. A senior and the team captain, LeBlanc missed the rest of the season and had to decide whether to go after an NHL deal upon healing or redshirt and return to St. Cloud State as a rare fifth-year senior. He chose the latter. Now, he's seventh in the nation in scoring, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Player of the Year, on the short list for the Hobey Baker Award — which I think he'll likely win — and his team is two games away from a national championship. Not bad. (Oh, he does all this while student teaching in his spare time.)
Still, he remains a bit envious of his teammate Ben Hanowski.
"I'm jealous," LeBlanc joked Wednesday. "I kind of want to be traded for a Hall of Famer. I think it would be kind of cool." Just like Yale's Agostino, Hanowski was a part of the Iginla trade right on the eve of the NCAA regional tournament.
LeBlanc and Hanowski — along with defensemen like Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno — helped lead St. Cloud to a share of the MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the WCHA's regular-season champions. While the Huskies lost in the conference tournament, they defeated Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) in the NCAA regional to advance to the program's first Frozen Four. And they're doing it in Geico caveman style: Many guys on the team have been growing out their hair for the better part of a year to participate in Locks of Love. Get ready for some good flow out on the ice. (One radio host remarked, "I don't know how big the Amish community is going to be around the city of Pittsburgh, but I think there are going to be a lot of Husky fans this weekend.")
Of all the teams in the Frozen Four, the highest expectations may be on Quinnipiac, which rattled off a 21-game unbeaten streak in the middle of the season and earned the NCAA tournament's top seed. Like Yale, the Bobcats had a brutal time at the ECAC tournament in Atlantic City, but Quinnipiac rebounded in the NCAA regionals with a comeback win over Canisius. Sophomore Matthew Peca's hat trick in just over three minutes of play against Union set a record for the fastest in NCAA tournament history and all but assured Quinnipiac's place in the Frozen Four.
It's been quite a journey for coach Rand Pecknold, who has been at the school for almost two decades — he almost left for a job at UMass, but decided to remain in Connecticut — and has seen the growth not just of the hockey program but of the university around it. "We had, my first year, roughly 2,000 applications," Peckhold said, "and then this year we should break 20,000."
He credited much of the growth to an increased focus on the athletic program. "It's the Doug Flutie rule," he said. "He throws that pass, and Boston College's applications go through the roof the next few years."
The game will feature two Hobey Baker candidates in LeBlanc and Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell, a Minnesota-born kid whose mom was "one of five finalists for Minnesota Miss Basketball" and dad was a former University of Minnesota hockey captain who was recruited by Herb Brooks. A freewheeling and friendly guy, he is nevertheless described by Pecknold as "our rock." To understand his impact — as well as the depth and diversity of the Quinnipiac offense — know this: Quinnipiac's highest scorer, Peca, ranks 15th in his own conference.
Prediction: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The St. Cloud Huskies were second only to Minnesota this season in team offense, scoring an average of 3.41 goals per game, but they'll have their work cut out for them against Hartzell. If he plays as he's capable of doing, the Bobcats will be difficult to beat. 3-1 Quinnipiac.