Monday, December 22, 2014

Frozen Four leaves lasting memories in Philadelphia

The Frozen Four lived up to the billing, with two semifinals that gave us lots of drama and a championship game was a wild display of all-out attack.

Frozen Four leaves lasting memories in Philadelphia

I was ready for Philadelphia to host the Frozen Four from the moment the city was first awarded the event back in 2010.

Those of you who've been reading my blog for a long time might remember that I covered the 2009 edition when it was in D.C. It was one of the most fun college sports spectacles I've seen in person.

We finally got to host the spectacle ourselves this past weekend, and it lived up to the billing. The two semifinals gave us lots of drama, and the championship game was a wild display of all-out attack from both teams.

I'll remember a lot of things from the weekend. First, the performances of two blossoming stars: Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau and Union's Shayne Gostisbehere. The two met in what turned out to be Gaudreau's last game before leaving college for the NHL.

Even though the Eagles lost the game, Gaudreau's talents were clear for all to see. He recorded one goal and two assists, and nearly tied the game on a breakaway in the dying seconds.

Gostisbehere, meanwhile, surely left Flyers fans salivating over his potential. Playing for the first time on the ice he'll call home as a pro, the Frozen Four's Most Outstanding Player had a goal, four assists and just one penalty over the two games.

In the final, he recorded a plus-seven stat line. One reason for that astonishing number: an incredible sliding block late in the third period that broke up a Minnesota attack and launched Union towards the game-deciding goal.

The play is at the 1:35 mark of this video. I could watch it many times over and still be impressed.

But the weekend's signature on-ice moment didn't involve Gaudreau or Gostisbehere. It was the unbelievable ending to the North Dakota-Minnesota semifinal.

For 59 minutes and 59.4 seconds, the latest chapter of one of college hockey's great rivalries hadn't really lived up to the hype. We all expected something big, since the two teams didn't meet in the regular season for the first time in 67 years. Instead, we got a snoozer, and the many fans of both schools in the building stayed relatively quiet.

Just when everyone assumed the game was going to overtime, though ... it didn't.

I've seen basketball buzzer-beaters, walk-off home runs and stoppage-time soccer goals in person, but I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that.

It would have been easy for North Dakota's fans to be as crushed as the players were after the final horn sounded.

They didn't, though. A lot of the green-clad faithful stayed in town for the whole weekend. I saw quite a few fans around Center City on Friday, and again on Saturday afternoon as the Wells Fargo Center was opened up for a free public ice skating session.

College basketball and college football have a lot of tight-knit communities. Some are big and some are small. In college hockey, though, the entire sport is one big community, and this year we finally got to see that community come to us.

I've never been to a basketball Final Four. I'm sure it's a great spectacle, with fans from lots of different schools sporting their colors. But playing the games in huge football stadium takes away from the fun of it, and not just because most people can barely see the players.

Even from the top of the Wells Fargo Center's hockey press box, I could see fans around the arena from almost every school in Division I - Michigan, Boston University, Ferris State, you name it.

Alas, it's an experience Philadelphia won't get to have again soon. I'm sure the Frozen Four will come back some day, but the region's lack of a Division I college hockey team means the experience will remain ephemeral.

Maybe Penn State pushing its program into the Big Ten will help. The team has a giant fan base in a state that loves the sport, and lots of money behind it to become successful.

If the Nittany Lions keep playing a game at the Wells Fargo Center every year, it will help to build a connection between the region's growing high school hockey community and the college game.

Princeton also has a Division I team, and in terms of driving time it's the closest to the region. But Old Nassau doesn't resonate here the way State College does, and probably never will.

(You could say the same thing about the teams in New York and Connnecticut that are closer to Philadelphia in terms of mileage than Penn State is.)

The real answer would be for Penn to bring back the varsity program it eliminated in the 1970s, or for another city schools to launch a team from scratch. But that almost surely won't happen, given the high costs of operations and travel.

Penn resurrecting its program would be the most likely scenario, because it already has an arena. I'm sure the Class of 1923 Ice Rink is familiar to many of you, whether you've skated there for fun or passed it on the way to the Palestra.

Many local club and recreational teams call the arena home. It even gets used by some visiting NHL teams as a practice facility. But the venue really isn't up to the necessary standard for varsity hockey. It would need new locker rooms, concessions and press box wiring, and that's just for starters. I'd bet the cost would run well into eight figures.

So we're left to dream of what could be, and to listen to stories from elsewhere.

On the day before the semifinals, I asked Minnesota coach Don Lucia and Boston College coach Jerry York to explain to Philadelphia what it's missing.

In addition to running powerhouse programs, the two legendary coaches live in arguably the nation's two most hockey-mad regions. The Twin Cities and New England live and breathe hockey at every level: grassroots, high school, college and pro.

Lucia spoke at length on the subject, and included a reference to his own past ties to Philadelphia:

I was drafted by the Flyers back in 1978, but like any good man you have to know your limitations, so I got into coaching instead. I also had a buddy that I grew up with that played at the University of Pennsylvania. It was after his freshman year that they ended up dropping the program. He stayed here, and I'm looking forward to actually seeing him this weekend.

The great thing about Minnesota, especially with the Wild coming back, is that we do encompass from the youth hockey, the grass roots and its unique in Minnesota, is that you do play for your local youth team and youth players grow up and end up playing for their local high school team.

So our system in Minnesota is based like every other scholastic basketball and football where you're growing up in your community and you play for your high school. You have the opportunity. There is junior hockey in the state of Minnesota. We all know we have a number of tremendous college teams at the Division I level, and certainly at the Division III level as well, and the NHL.

I think that everybody kind of gets along with each other. The NHL and the wild have done a tremendous job with the grass roots and promoting all of hockey. We have our hockey day in Minnesota, and that's one of the things that's really tremendous. You look at the state of Pennsylvania now. We've added Penn State and formulated in the Big Ten, which is great.

I was just talking to [University of Vermont coach] Kevin Sneddon, and he mentioned that Penn State played Vermont here, and they had 17 thousands people. But certainly I grew up watching plenty of pro hockey to know how big and how passionate the Flyer fans are.

York was bullish on the Nittany Lions' potential to boost college hockey's profile in the Keystone State:

I think Penn State's going to bring that to the state, and certainly Robert Morris. So we're on the cusp of more expansion. I think Penn State making that commitment is going to really help a few other schools in this area really think seriously about hockey.

But I think it was or used to be a real unique experience to the northeast and Minnesota, and it's expanding so much now throughout the country. I think the NHL by moving into states like Arizona and California and Florida, you know, our starting goaltender this year, Thatcher [Demko, BC's star goaltender] is from San Diego. We have a forward from Naples, Florida, so it's just expanding so much now.

The recruiting process where the players are, it's inevitable that we're going to have more Penn States commit to college hockey. It's a combination of football and basketball and soccer. We're all combined. It's very physical. It's a hard sport, but it's also got some fluidity to it, some creativity to it.

We're not the National Hockey League, which you're so familiar with, we're a step below that, but certainly on the college campuses, it's very, very attractive. The schools that participate in hockey, I think there are 50 at the Division I level. I'm very glad they're involved in this process.

So thanks for the memories, Frozen Four. Here's hoping we won't have to wait too long to make some more of them.

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Jonathan Tannenwald Sports Producer
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Jonathan Tannenwald Sports Producer
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