Attention, sports fans. Do you still feel manipulated by that convergence of corporate, collegiate and cliché-spouting America known as March Madness? Are you so infuriated with the talk of salary caps and luxury taxes in the infernally locked-out NHL that you wouldn't care if the Nashville team changed its name to the Creditors? ¬∂ Man, do we have a tournament for you. ¬∂ The NCAA hockey semifinals and finals, a.k.a. the Frozen Four, provide the crowning moments of a tournament that inspires no office pools, no bracketologists, no TV commentators cashing in with dopey commercials, no deification of coaches and no games in domes. It's hockey with no union, no fighting, no red line, no obstruction (well, O.K., a little obstruction). Watching Colorado College versus Denver and Minnesota versus North Dakota on Thursday, with the winners playing for the title on Saturday night, you can root for walk-ons instead of fearing the specter of replacement players. This is as organic as sports gets in the scholarship world: compelling and free-flowing and a little chaotic. Even in some years when the NHL is staging its two-month run for the Cup, the Frozen Four is the most unadulterated fun that hockey offers.
"The basketball tournament, that's all deals and corporate," says Ryan Potulny, a Minnesota center. "This is purer. This is all about the game. My brother [former Golden Gophers forward Grant Potulny, now in the Ottawa Senators system] says pro hockey is all about playing for your job. Out here we're just buddies working hard, still playing for the fun of it."
The Frozen Four has always had a cult following, and we mean cult respectfully, not in an eyes-glazin', Kool-Aid drinkin' way. No matter the teams or the venue--this year, the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio--Frozen Four fans pack arenas, clad in the jerseys of their schools. This is a hockey holiday with all the accoutrements: blaring student bands and dueling fight songs and local traditions, such as North Dakota fans substituting "Sioooooooux" for "brave" at the end of the national anthem. (Remember, viewers, that's not booing.) "It's the type of event that the minute you get home," says Fighting Sioux defenseman Matt Greene, "the first thing you do is make sure you get tickets for next year."
Maybe you get lucky and get semifinal matchups like the ones this Thursday. In a clash of depth versus dash, defending national champion Denver meets Rocky Mountain rival Colorado College, which features a pair of fabulous, bite-sized Hobey Baker Award finalists in 5'9", 163-pound center Marty Sertich and 5'8", 175-pound left wing Brett Sterling. Then, in a game matching universities that share a state border but not a lot of affection, the go-for-broke Gophers meet the shut-down defense of North Dakota. "These are unbelievable rivalry games," Minnesota coach Don Lucia says. "If this were the [basketball] Final Four, it'd be like Duke versus North Carolina and Louisville versus Kentucky."
Actually, given the Frozen Four teams' conference affiliations, the second game would be more like Wake Forest versus North Carolina State. For the first time in the 58-year history of the Frozen Four, all the semifinalists are from one conference: the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The WCHA has become the monster of college hockey, its teams having won five of the past eight national titles and produced three straight Hobey Baker winners. The balance of power has drifted west--this is the first Frozen Four without a Hockey East representative since 1992--in part because of a renewed commitment on the part of WCHA institutions to their hockey programs as well as many new rinks, especially the palatial Ralph Engelstad Arena in North Dakota. "That might be the best facility in the country," Denver coach George Gwozdecky says. "Not college facility. Any facility."
Denver won last year's title with a feral commitment to shot-blocking, but defense is almost the exception in the college game. Without a red line, defensemen often attempt 100-foot stretch passes to kick-start attacks. The blunders and exuberance of youth also lead to breakdowns, which lead to goals. The college game added even more flow this season because the NCAA cracked down on obstruction, a move accepted without the moaning (and backtracking) that invariably greets such measures in the NHL. "That's because at the college level," says Greene, the Sioux captain, "there's nobody making $8 million a year to complain. There are no individuals in college hockey. No household names. So it's about the team adjusting, not the individual."
The team. Not the brackets or the money or the union, but the team. Nice concept.
THE SKINNY ON THE SKATERS
HOW THEY PLAY This is the fastest, most skilled and smallest club of the four. They make up for a lack of size with feistiness. Sixth-year coach Scott Owens's forwards do their share of backchecking.
PLAYERS TO WATCHLinemates Marty Sertich (above) and Brett Sterling are two of the three finalists--along with Cornell goalie David McKee--for the Hobey Baker Award, which will be announced on Friday. Center Sertich is an elusive playmaker (team-high 37 assists) with superb vision and sweet hands, a true hockey artiste. (The black-rimmed glasses he wears off the ice heighten the effect.) Left wing Sterling is a powder keg, a pure scorer (NCAA-leading 34 goals) who will mix it up in high-traffic areas.
NEED TO KNOW Scott Polaski, the big right wing on Sertich's line, is a nephew of Olympic speed skating champion and 1994 SI Sportswoman of the Year Bonnie Blair.
HOW THEY PLAY The superbly balanced Pioneers are not as defensive-minded as the Denver team that blocked 27 shots in a 1--0 victory over Maine in last year's title game, but they remain adept at getting into shooting lanes. They also have shown a willingness to open up offensively and forecheck with a purpose.
PLAYERS TO WATCH Matt Carle (above, foreground) is a second-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks and the best two-way defenseman in the country. Brett Skinner is a high-risk but brilliant offensive defenseman. The blueliners quarterback a punishing power play that features puck movement and an ability to get point shots to the net. Also watch for freshman second-line center Paul Stastny, son of NHL great Peter Stastny.
NEED TO KNOW Senior tri-captains Matt Laatsch, Nick Larson and Kevin Ulanski all entered the program as walk-ons.
HOW THEY PLAY With an NHL-sized defensive corps and strong, grinding forwards, the Fighting Sioux are relentlessly physical. North Dakota wears out teams, winning most puck battles along the boards. Unless they are protecting a late lead, the Sioux will use a hounding two-man forecheck.
PLAYERS TO WATCH Travis Zajac, a first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, is the leading goal scorer (17) and top face-off man. Jordan Parise (above) is not the country's most elegant goalie, but he is ultracompetitive and carries an unbeaten streak of 11 games, plus a .946 save percentage in his past 10, into the Frozen Four. Parise has a tendency to overhandle the puck, however, and ill-timed wandering could hurt the Sioux.
NEED TO KNOW North Dakota's alltime .702 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament (33--14) is the best of any school that has played at least 15 postseason games.
HOW THEY PLAY The Golden Gophers are a skilled, strong skating club with a wide-open style ideal for their 200-by-100-foot home rink. But the Frozen Four is being played on an NHL-regulation 200-by-85 surface, and this season Minnesota was 7--5 on small ice.
PLAYERS TO WATCHThe team was one of three in the NCAA to have three players score 40 or more points this season: right wing Danny Irmen (above right, 43 points) center Ryan Potulny (41 points), who are tied for the team lead with 24 goals, and left wing Tyler Hirsch (44 points).
NEED TO KNOW Although its recruiting is still focused in-state (21 of 26 players are Minnesotans), The U, as natives call it, routinely cherry-picks players beyond its borders. Potulny and Irmen are North Dakotans, and goalie Kellen Briggs is from Colorado Springs, home of Colorado College.