Rubin: Reflections and Lessons Learned from College Hockey 2011

By Dan Rubin

When Boston College won the Hockey East Association championship, I asked Joe Whitney and Cam Atkinson a fair, basic question in the postgame press conference:

Since the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, they have won the Beanpot, Hockey East, and NCAA championships.  Then you come back this year and win Beanpot and now Hockey East.  How do you manage to stay within yourself with the rising expectations on the team that you are expected to make another deep run?

Whitney replied very basically that they can’t look at the step ahead before they overcome the obstacle in front of them [paraphrasing, of course].  They had to take it, as he said, “one trophy at a time.”

That line will stick with me personally forever because I realize now how hard it really is to win as much hardware as BC did.  Based on rules and technicalities, the Eagles were sent to St. Louis for their regional bracket. And they promptly lost their first game against Colorado College.

As an east coast college hockey person, I never paid much attention to the western teams.  Maybe it was brute arrogance on my part, but based on the last few years, I never thought the east coast dominance would be challenged.  The best eastern teams were some of the best in the nation, and, with the exception of RPI, I figured any team from an eastern conference could and would win.

Well such is the topsy-turvy way of college hockey.

The dust settles tonight on the 2010-2011 college hockey season.  When either Michigan or Minnesota-Duluth hoists the championship trophy, it will provide an exclamation point on a season that resurrected the western teams and showed us that college hockey is ready for a great decade of competition ahead.

Here are some of the storylines we’re looking at tonight:

Storyline #1 – How Did We Get Here?

This Frozen Four provided some of the best upsets I’ve seen in recent history.  Thanks to the way the NCAA scheduled the brackets (based on rules and technicalities), the best teams had decided disadvantages against lower seeds, with the exception of North Dakota.  Indeed, the Midwest Regional was set up so the Fighting Sioux could crush opposition; and they did.  North Dakota won both their regional games by an aggregate 12-1 count.  They dropped six on Denver, and then promptly saw Shawn Hunwick stop each of their 40 shots in the national semifinal in front of a sellout crowd as Michigan shocked them.

I had North Dakota tabbed as the national champion after BC went down.  This team was just plain solid all-around, ranked #1 in the national polls despite a #3 ranking in the computer.  But they ran into the hot team at the right time when Michigan clobbered them.

Those Wolverines are an enigma.  They played themselves right out of a #1-seed in the CCHA Tournament, ceding that position to Miami.  But maybe that was good news for Michigan, since Miami was forced to go east and play UNH in Manchester, which resulted in a Wildcat win.  The Wolverines, meanwhile, won a hard-fought overtime game over Nebraska-Omaha before taking care of Colorado.

Duluth took care of the ECAC, beating Union and Yale on the road to the Frozen Four.  What was even more impressive than that was the way they did it.  They outmuscled the Dutchmen in a shutout win, and then watched the Bulldogs self-implode like a drummer from Spinal Tap in the regional finals.  They then knocked off a Notre Dame team that got to the Frozen Four in equally surprising fashion.

Those Irish had won two games that were essentially road games, winning in Manchester, NH over Merrimack [34 miles away] and UNH [36 miles away].  Their goaltender, Mike Johnson was a wall, and I’m tabbing him as the name you’ll most likely see at some point in the NHL in the next few years.

In a year typified by shocking wins on the basketball bracket’s side, hockey provided some equal thrills.

Storyline #2 – Michigan at Minnesota-Duluth

I bring up the point about Notre Dame winning “road games” because the Wolverines will deal with the same in the national title game.  All four teams traveled great for the Frozen Four, and both games on Thursday were sellouts.  But Duluth is only 150 miles [that’s 2.5 hours in Minnesota highway speak, as opposed to Massachusetts… which puts you in New York] from St. Paul.  They averaged 6,000 people per game in a home arena holding 6,800.  If you don’t think Bulldog fans will make the drive to the Twin Cities, you’re crazy, especially where the first two games were sellouts.

Michigan went [6-2] on neutral ice and [16-2-1] on home ice.  When playing true road games, the Wolverines went [7-6-3].  Don’t discount the fact that this game is being played in Minnesota against a team from Minnesota.

Storyline #3 – Tickets?  Selling tickets?

That last point brings me to this point – this is the year that attendance figures soared for college hockey.  The sport is generating more interest than ever before, and they did so in the wake of a Frozen Four last year that was utterly disastrous.

It was a great idea to move the national championship weekend to a football field last year.  The state of Michigan hosted the infamous Michigan-Michigan State game on a football field that sold out to the tune of 75,000+ people.  The NCAA, capitalizing on that popularity, granted its Frozen Four last year to Ford Field, thinking the right matchup could generate a ton of interest.

Instead, the Frozen Four resulted in the football field being divided in half with temporary seating and end zone bleachers.  Yes, the games drew over 30,000 people, which is a national tournament record for hockey.  But it did not translate well on television, and the games were blowouts.  In addition, the field seemed utterly cavernous, since 30,000 is only half of the actual capacity.  There were plenty of empty seats as a result.  And the games just weren’t that great, even though I was thrilled Boston College won the crown.

This year, the national championship weekend moved back to an NHL arena.  It also generated the right matchups, just as the 2009 weekend did when BU made its mad-dash comeback for the ages on Miami to win the crown.  When it makes great television, it makes for an increase in popularity.

Storyline #4 – Tupac > Biggie

As an east coast hockey fan, I tend to think that my teams have the best support in the nation.  I tend to be very arrogant about the quality of Massachusetts hockey, from the high school level on up.  I look at my high school, Malden Catholic, which won the Super 8 state championship behind a first line going to BC, BU, and UNH.  I think that we have the best hockey from youth leagues on up in the nation.

But MC finished the season ranked #14 in the nation… behind 13 schools from Minnesota.  I would’ve put that MC team against any team, anywhere, for any game.  I still would.

But it was very humbling to hear that Minnesota high school hockey is that much more popular and that much more talented.  And now, with the way this Frozen Four has shaken out, it’s time to admit it – the west coast is back.  This was the first time since the mid 2000s that no eastern team made the Frozen Four, and it breaks a string where the last three national champions came from Hockey East [and, more importantly, from Commonwealth Ave].  It’s forced me to admit that the west coast is back, and it’s made me, [albeit begrudgingly] state that this year belongs to the western conferences.

This will be the west’s finest hour, with the national weekend coming from its two power conferences, and the announcement coming in the past couple of weeks that Big Ten Hockey is on the way.  A conference is about to form with some of the best programs in the nation’s history, and the college hockey landscape is about to change.  Hockey East’s supremacy is definitely being challenged right now, and it’s place as the greatest conference in college hockey is going to have a great argument when a conference forms from Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and the newly-debuting Penn State.

Storyline #5 – Who’s Going To Win?

I’m picking Minnesota-Duluth basically by pulling their name out of a hat.  But the real winner of the weekend is the hockey fan, who can look to the next decade with a wide-eyed look that will provide some of the best action in the nation.

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