The holiday tournament season has always provided an interesting dichotomy for college hockey teams and fans.
On the one hand, these events are simply fun, a timeout from the regular schedule, getting some games in -- at neutral locations in many cases -- against teams which don't normally play each other. Top teams are often missing key players because they are with Team USA at the annual World Junior Tournament. Minnesota, for example, is missing four players for its own Dodge Holiday Classic.
At the same time, these games are enormously important because of the way college hockey selects its field for the NCAA tournament. For the majority of teams, these are the last non-league games, and because there are relatively few non-league games overall the non-league games take on enormous significance.
For teams such as Michigan, who will participate in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, a holiday tournament coinciding with the World Junior Tournament is a blessing and a curse.
"It's a tribute to Michigan that our players are being chosen," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. The Wolverines have three players on Team USA, plus one, Carl Hagelin, playing for Sweden. "On the other hand, we miss them. But that's no excuse. We have our goalies, we have our leaders, our seniors, and a lot of returning players."
Aside from the classic tournaments in usual places, this year brings not one, but two tournaments in Florida. The Florida College Classic was started by Craig Brush, a Cornell grad who owns the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League. As a result, Cornell is there yearly and will be joined by Massachusetts-Lowell, Maine and Clarkson. Then there's the newer Lightning College Hockey Classic, hosted by the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa made a push to host the Frozen Four and will in 2012. To ramp up a fanbase, the city will host an annual holiday tournament, with Notre Dame as its signature team. Joining the Irish are Rensselaer, Colorado College and Massachusetts.
The schedule has been light the last two weeks, but we'll go with Miami, which came off an idle week to pound Rensselaer twice on the road, 7-3 and 5-1, to regain its No. 1 ranking. Miami played without star Nathan Davis again. Davis is suffering back spasms and missed the first portion of the season after getting a shoulder injury in the first game. Ryan Jones paced Miami scoring his 15th and 16th goals.
Freshman Carter Camper had three goals for the RedHawks last week, helping fill the void left by Davis' absence.
So Kyle Okposo has left Minnesota in midseason for the New York Islanders, a shocking move in one sense, since it happens so rarely and isn't exactly encouraged by anyone -- even agents and NHL teams. On the other hand, given Okposo's inclination to turn pro last summer, and his displeasure with the current situation in Minnesota, perhaps it wasn't so surprising. It's an ironic twist that he chose to "defect" as Team USA headed to the Czech Republic for the World Juniors. Didn't Czech players once use tournaments in North America as cover for clandestine defections?
But Okposo has not been the same since last year's World Junior tournament. He started out his college career like a house of fire. In fact, he was the Gophers' most valuable player last year during the first half, when Minnesota looked unbeatable. But after a less-than-stellar World Juniors, he came back and his production tailed off dramatically.
This year, with so many players having left Minnesota, and Mike Carmen academically ineligible for the first semester, Okposo was shuffled to center. And his production suffered as a result. He had just one goal in his first nine games -- though it should be said that he's had six in the past nine games.
No one is quite sure why Okposo, the No. 7 overall pick by the Islanders in 2006, returned to Minnesota in the first place, given how much he seemed to long for the pros. But since he did, his midseason departure is unseemly.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia hinted the Islanders were pushing this on Okposo as Islanders tough guy Chris Simon was just suspended for 30 games. But, while the Islanders would want Okposo out of school sooner than later if they were concerned about his progress, it's not like he's going to be playing on the Island right now. Isles general manager Garth Snow was a four-year player at Maine, and respects the college game.
"There's a character issue involved," said one NHL agent. "Why would the Islanders want to encourage a player from skipping out on his team like that in the middle of the year?"
There are certainly questions to be answered.
The WCHA recently had to send a letter of apology to St. Cloud State after a referee blew a call that helped lead to the Huskies' loss to Denver. Denver's Kyle Ostrow fell into the net behind goalie Jase Weslosky, and then Jesse Martin came in and scored. The play was reviewed to see if the puck went in, but the referees never acknowledged the potential interference of the player sitting in the net. Denver went on to win 3-2. These kinds of things shouldn't happen, but credit to the WCHA for standing up for it.
Boston College's Nathan Gerbe has built a reputation as a tough, fire-bug of a player, with a lot of talent. At just 5-foot-5, he's a key cog for the Eagles, and last week, scored four goals in a game against Harvard. Unfortunately, he also owns a reputation as a cheap-shot artist. In certain circles, such as among Boston University fans, Gerbe is "credited" with breaking David van derk Gulik's hand last year. And recently, BU defenseman Colby Cohen suffered a broken finger, supposedly from a Gerbe slash. He's also been known to draw penalties in notoriously sneaky ways, and Hockey East actually suspended him for a game earlier this season for an accumulation of incidents which were not specified -- supposedly, a history butt-ending.
The Great Lakes Invitational is a storied holiday tournament, but this year's has a little more juice than usual. The games are Dec. 28-29 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Michigan, which hasn't won the tournament in 10 years, is flying high at 16-2. Michigan State is the defending NCAA and GLI champs and is 12-3-2. Michigan Tech, doormats in this tournament is recent years (the last GLI tournament win was 1980), is playing as well as it has in more than a decade, despite a recent slump. Providence is the token outsider, and comes in having won three straight games, although the Friars have been idle since Dec. 7.
"We feel like we've had a good first half," Berenson said. "We've answered a lot of questions and our record is a lot better than most people would've expected, me included. The GLI has been a big a challenge. We won in 10 years in a row and haven't been able to win it since.
"It's a tournament environment in an NHL rink. It's something you expect in the NCAAs. ... So you've got to be ready."
Adam Wodon is the Managing Editor for College Hockey News. He has covered college hockey as a writer and broadcaster for 19 years.