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Tradition-rich Frozen Four aims for national attention

DENVER -- Andrew Orpik is only 22, but the junior forward for Boston College can still remember when the Frozen Four had the feel of a backwater event.

"When my brother played for BC in the Frozen Four, it was in Albany [New York, in 2001]," says Orpik, whose brother, Brooks, now plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "Nothing against Albany, but here we are in Denver, in the Pepsi Center. Growing up you see that hockey isn't the major sport, you see how its gets only one little section in the back of Sports Illustrated. But you can see now how the Frozen Four is getting bigger and bigger."

Make no mistake: the Frozen Four is not the Final Four. Denver is not overrun with fans as San Antonio was a week ago. You can still get a seat in a restaurant without waiting an hour or scalp a ticket without missing a mortgage payment. With the exception of the rabid North Dakota fans, who migrate south to the Frozen Four each year like a boisterous flock of green geese, Frozen Four attendees are a tame brood. But there is something to be said for a familial and friendly vibe. The Final Four can feel like a corporate junket, with sponsors and job-hunting coaches prowling every lobby. The Frozen Four feels like a large family reunion.

On Thursday, kids posed for pictures with the championship trophy in Section 142 of the Pepsi Center, taking as long as needed to get the perfect shot. Earlier, children and parents lined up to touch the Hobey Baker Award, which sat on a table off the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. There are kids everywhere, most sporting the sweater of his or her favorite school. It is one of the events signature images.

Among the 18,544 fans at the games, Thursday was a solid percentage with no allegiance to Boston College, North Dakota, Michigan or Notre Dame. They showed up at the Pepsi Center wearing the jerseys of Ohio State, Minnesota, Denver, Colorado College, and that was just fans in a single row of seats. Imagine a fan showing up for the Final Four at the Alamodome wearing a Syracuse jersey and rooting only for pretty play. That is what happens at the Frozen Four.

The NCAA has wisely moved to protect this tradition. The ticket lottery is weighted toward applicants who have attended previous Frozen Fours. If you attended the last dozen Frozen Fours, you are tabbed "Priority 12" by the NCAA and assured to get a seat. "It rewards the people who were there in Providence and Albany," says Mark Medics, associate director of media coordination and championships. "And it helps create this atmosphere."

Hockey aficionados have long understood the charms of the event, but this Frozen Four, with the unconventional final pairing of powerhouse Boston College and newbie Notre Dame, may mark its arrival as a national happening, worthy of stay-home-from-work frenzy that accompanies the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Tossing the Irish into the mix elevates interest in the game beyond the usual hockey enclaves.

The game itself is an interesting variation on the rivalry between the two schools. The Eagles have long played spoiler to the Irish's football dreams. Now Notre Dame gets a chance to return the favor in Boston College's dominant sport. The Irish are significantly less talented. Their best player is freshman defenseman Ian Cole. Boston College is quicker and, in Nathan Gerbe, has perhaps the top player in the nation.

Notre Dame, in the role of likeable underdog, is difficult to digest. But coach Jeff Jackson took over a downtrodden program that won five games in 2004-05, the year before he arrived in South Bend. The Irish play in an atrocious venue, with miniscule locker rooms no better than what you'll find at your local rink. Before Jackson was hired, there was little reason for local fans or students to pay attention to the team.

"I had students ask me if we were Division I," Irish captain Mark Van Guilder said.

Notre Dame was the last team into the tournament and the first No. 4 seed to make the Frozen Four. If the Irish were to upset the Eagles, it would be comparable to Boston College's upset of then-No. 1 Notre Dame football team in 1993.

It might have benefited the NCAA's coffers (and local vendors) to have North Dakota and its rabid fan base stick around for another game. And, a Boston College/Michigan matchup in the final would likely have supplied prettier hockey. But everyone loves an underdog, even if the underdog is a school that never lacks for exposure.

"It's the time of year when everyone jumps on the bandwagon and you want to make sure the bandwagon doesn't roll over," says Jackson.

Next season, the Frozen Four will be staged in Washington, D.C. It is a non-traditional site with no proven college hockey program nearby. It will be hosted by the Naval Academy, where hockey is only a club sport. But the NCAA believes the event has moved past regional ties, and the following year it will be staged at Ford Field. The NCAA is not calling it "a test" but it is exactly that. Men's basketball has moved to larger venues, can hockey make the same jump? By 2010, we will know the answer.

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