WASHINGTON - We all know that Philadelphia's passion for the Flyers ranks among the strongest of any market in the NHL. But as popular as the team is, the culture of hockey in general here doesn't strike me as being the same as it is in other parts of the United States, especially New England and the upper Midwest.
A major reason for this, and perhaps the major reason for this, is the lack of college hockey in our region. Yes, we have the Phantoms, and they will be missed not only for their cheap tickets but their role in developing Flyers stars of the future.
But can you imagine what it would be like if the passion of a Big 5 game was transferred to the ice? Think of what it would be like to hear your school's band blasting your fight song after a goal is scored.
Sounds pretty cool, doesn't it?
We had it, once upon a time. Penn fielded a program until 1978, and the Class of 1923 rink you've seen on Walnut Street was built to house it. Villanova also had a varsity program until the early 1990's, but it didn't have much success. Nowadays, the closest team geographically is Princeton.
I've been told by friends who follow college hockey that we're missing out. So when I realized that I'd be visiting family here in D.C. on the same weekend as the Frozen Four, I decided to give it a try.
I was only able to make it to the championship game between Miami of Ohio and Boston University, but it didn't take long for my friends to be proven right.
The carnival atmosphere started in the afternoon, when many of the fans who would later be part of the sellout crowd at the game turned out for a free public skating session at the arena. Can you imagine playing a pickup game at Ford Field or the Superdome on Final Four weekend?
At the game itself, both schools had thousands of fans all over the arena. Just as impressive, though, was the wide range of fans from other schools all over the country who came for the occasion. Let's just say there are a lot more Division I programs in Minnesota than you might think.
Miami and BU both brought their bands, and again, think about what it would be like to watch a hockey game with a pep band instead of canned rock. Especially if that band plays one of the all-time great hockey songs, Brass Bonanza, as the Terriers' brass did during a first period timeout.
During the game, I went over to the big Boston University student section to get their perspective on things. I spotted a guy in a Phillies hat, and figured that would be a good place to start.
"Everybody loves it," said Mike Del Duke, a Gloucester Township, N.J. native and graduate of Paul VI. "The BU-BC rivalry, that's what it's all about. It's Rangers-Flyers on steroids."
Indeed, Boston's famed Beanpot tournament - comprising Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern and Harvard - is one of the closest things out there on the college sports landscape to the Big 5. Like our City Series, it has the ability to draw attention to college sports in a town that is even more pro-oriented than Philadelphia.
"You can just see that people leave their heart and soul out there," Del Duke said. "Sometimes it's more important to win the Beanpot than the Hockey East championship for some teams."
I finished by asking Del Duke, a senior at BU, whether he's more passionate about the Terriers or the Flyers at this point in his life.
"Right now, it's the national championship - you can't be any more passionate than this," he said. "I'd love to see the Flyers win the Stanley Cup, but right now my attention is focused on these guys - playoff beard and all."
Yes, Del Duke really was sporting a playoff beard.
As for matters on the ice, there was plenty of drama. Boston University took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but Miami tied the score in the second period and took a 2-1 lead with 6:38 left in regulation.
Then came the game's best goal, a wrist shot from between the circles by Miami's Trent Volgelhuber. Terriers goaltender Kieran Millan had no chance at it, and the RedHawks fans all over the arena erupted.
Seeking to turn the momentum around, Terriers coach Jack Parker pulled Millan for a sixth attacker with 3:32 left on the clock. A reporter next to me said that Parker once pulled his goalie with six minutes to go, and that it happens somewhat often. But in a national championship game? It seemed a pretty big risk.
There's a reason why Parker's been behind the bench for 36 years, though. His gamble paid off with 59.8 seconds left, when Zach Cohen shot the puck under the arm of Miami goaltender Cody Reichard to make it 3-2.
And then the miracle (though I suppose you can't really call many things miracles in hockey, can you): Nick Bonino got open and scored on a wrist shot with 17 seconds remaining. The Terriers faithful erupted, and despite being from one of the game's powerhouses it looked like a lot of the neutral fans rose with them.
Miami got one more chance in regulation, a breakaway with seven seconds left. Vogelhuber had a real good look, but he shot the puck right at Millan and off we went to overtime.
One of the old adages in hockey is that goals are much more likely to come in the first five minutes of a period. After that, the pace slows down and the game becomes a lot more about grit than speed.
So I admit that I was caught off-guard with just over eight minutes to go in the first overtime, when Terriers defenseman Colby Cohen got near the crease and fired a slapshot. The puck deflected off a Miami player and sailed into the net over Reicherd's shoulder.
Game over, and the BU players stormed the ice to celebrate their first national championship since 1995.
Now it just so happens that Cohen is a Villanova native and Radnor High graduate. Not only that, he was the only player on either team from the Philadelphia area - and he walked off the ice as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Some luck I have.
And some luck Cohen has: the goal came from his only shot of the game. When asked to describe how it happened, he said, "I closed my eyes and shot it, and here we are right now."
After the trophy ceremony, I caught up with Cohen in a rather pungent-smelling Terriers locker room.
"They've got to get some sort of program in Philadelphia," Cohen said. "For me personally, if there was a good program at home I would have been interested in it."
I doubt Cohen is alone in feeling that way.
The first step in building interest in college hockey in Philadelphia could be getting the Frozen Four to come to the Wachovia Center. Back in 2005, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference put in a bid for the 2009-2011 cycle that had Canisius and Niagara as joint hosts.
Philadelphia lost out, though. Washington got it this year, Detroit's Ford Field will host next year (insert one-liner about how bad it was for basketball), and 2011's in St. Paul, Minn.
The NCAA has also awarded the 2012 Frozen Four to Tampa, Fla. But you can't tell me that's a better hockey market than Philadelphia.
Any Division I program or conference can bid, not just those with varsity ice hockey. I know of at least one City Six school that had representatives in the building tonight, so perhaps what they saw could lead to a new push.
It's also worth noting that Hobey Baker, the man for whom college hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy is named, was a Philadephia native.
(That tip came from New York Daily News college hockey writer Elliot Olshansky, an old friend whose passion for the game was a big part of why I was so interested in checking it out.)
Before I wrap this thing up, I want to touch on one other element of what made the atmosphere so great tonight.
By its nature, basketball rarely produces the kind of explosive noise that comes from a hockey goal, or a soccer goal or even a touchdown. Scottie Reynolds' layup against Pittsburgh is as close as we came in this year's NCAA Tournament, but unless you get a true buzzer-beater it's not quite the same as a sport in which you get the singular moment of celebration.
There's plenty of tension and drama in basketball, of course. But there are so many points scored in 40 minutes that you don't find yourself waiting for and reacting to that moment in quite the same way as happens in hockey.
Certainly not the way the Verizon Center crowd did in sudden-death overtime when Cohen scored the game-winner.
It was a heck of an experience, and one that Philadelphia deserves to enjoy some time soon.