Monday, April 14, 2014

Union reigns supreme, and no one player did it alone

It's a no brainer.

The little program that could, then did, Union College, finished atop the final poll for the 2013-14 Division I college hockey season after winning the first national championship in program history on Saturday night.

Having finished the season with a school-record 12 consecutive victories which fueled a 17-game unbeaten string (16-0-1) to end the year, the Dutchmen justified the faith of their supporters, the rhetoric of its writers and those who eventually jumped on the bandwagon to praise, and opened thousands of eyes across the country.

They also backed up the faith that USCHO placed in them, as voters pushed the Schenectady, NY-based school to the top of the rankings after sweeping through the ECAC playoffs and gaining the third-overall #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. There's also no question that Union deserved to be the only school which garnered any first-place votes, considering the scorching it left on their competition down the stretch.

First among equals due to the Frozen Four's location in Philadelphia, Flyers prospect and rising senior Shayne Gostisbehere ended his junior campaign and stoked the fires of those who wish to see him jump to the pros with a one-goal, two-assist, plus-7 tour de force in Saturday's 7-4 triumph over #2 Minnesota -- the program which Union chased for much of the season as the Gophers spent the most time of all the top teams in the #1 spot. Sure, at times the 20-year-old native of Florida seemed a bit too juiced up while dictating play on the ice, but it was a performance that came at the right time, for the right reasons, and in front of the right people.

And so we brace ourselves for the inevitable crush and panic after the young man hinted that he might not be just ready yet to leave the confines of Messa Rink.

Check out highlights and breakdown at the place which brought you the exciting conclusion to the season.

At least in the Delaware Valley, it's almost impossible to relate that "Ghost" was not the prime mover in the Dutchmen's memorable season and playoff course. In the title game alone, seven different players scored and goaltender Colin Stevens, who once threatened to post back-to-back-to-back shutouts towards the end of the regular season, allowed four goals but in channeling Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, made the saves when his team needed it the most.

Though it was played off as a duel between Gostisbehere and future Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau, Daniel Ciampini was the star of Thursday's early semifinal, as his first career hat trick proved just enough to deny BC in a 5-4 triumph. He added another marker during the Garnet Menace's late-first-period burst which turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead at intermission.

How about some words for head coach Rick Bennett? There was a stormy period at mid-season when the 46-year-old Providence College product came under fire for some unprofessional words and actions as Union and RPI engaged in a bench-clearing brawl on January 25 at the end of the annual Mayor's Cup contest. Bennett, who was shown on video pushing Engineers' counterpart Seth Appert, was hit with a two-game suspension by the school itself, and then given an additional two-game ban from the ECAC.

Since returning to the bench on February 14 against Ithaca, Union did not lose a game, finishing 13-0-1. That's real vindication.

He fashioned a team which finished second in the country in scoring (3.73 GPG entering Saturday's title contest) and fourth in defense (2.10 GAG until the same), while operating on a budget significantly less -- hundreds of thousands per year as opposed to million -- than either Boston College, Minnesota or North Dakota.

Union put up the most goals in one national final since Lake Superior State tacked on a nine-spot in a rout of Boston University in 1994, in a terminal contest which saw the most goals combined since Northern Michigan's 8-7 triple-OT triumph against BU three years earlier. The Dutchmen also bedeviled Adam Wilcox with 49 shots on goal and tied a season-high for goals in any game.

Outgoing senior captain Mat Bodie, also suspended for his role in inciting the fracas, put together the smoothest minus-3 performance many had seen, until his presence on the ice for the final two goals of the game made his supplemental stat line look a little better. He drove home the point of this year's team being the product of, and honoring those which came before:

"It's unbelievable the growth this program has taken over the past probably eight years," Bodie said. "I've only been here for four of them, but those championships for anyone that's ever had a hand in Union hockey because we wouldn't be here without all those players before us. We learned a lot from them, and they broke us into college hockey, and we're forever grateful for that."

Senior forward and leading scorer Daniel Carr notched at least one point in the final 11 games and 15 of the last 16. And then there's freshman defenseman Jeff Taylor, a player nobody talked about for any reason, coming up with an assist and ended up second to Gostisbehere with a plus-4.

The ECAC, left in the dust for most of the last 15 years by the ascension of Hockey East and the steady maginificence of the WCHA, can now claim back-to-back winners for the first time since Boston University did so in 1971-72. With five seniors and the expected departure of Gostisbehere no certainty, it appears Union will avoid to steep drop-off suffered by last year's finalists Yale and Quinnipiac.

I said it in our first online conversations, I relayed it to the man himself in person, but now it's time to say it publicly: Union beating BC was no upset. After two wins in consecutive Frozen Fours, the Dutchmen are in the Eagles' heads and it may be quite some time before that changes.

The dirty lowdown on the Frozen Four

You can call the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia a qualified success. Fans from the Upper Midwest and Northeast flooded the stadium complex for most of the three days surrounding the end of the tournament, and Saturday's final drew 18,472 to the arena placed on the former site of JFK Stadium.

Attendance for all three contests clocked in at 36,503. That's not a promising number for a sport which is now, for better or worse, being wedged into major venues in large NHL markets.  That two-day total marks the lowest combined total paying customers since the 2000 Frozen Four was contested in the much-smaller and pre-extensively renovated Providence Civic Center (34,452).

It's also two consecutive years that the championship was not sold out, though it was close. Kudos to the Gophers and Fighting Sioux fans who streamed into Thursday's late semifinal and gave the Wells Fargo Center seats the look of a December Flyers-Rangers contest, because the Union-BC semi looked like an early-season Flyers-Hurricanes tilt.

Though it's an easy swipe to target a game beginning at the thick of rush hour in a major Northeastern U.S. city as being a hindrance to the situation, there's just not enough combined interest from the two smaller schools plus other unaffiliated college hockey fans both locally and from other parts of the country to push attendance to respectable levels.

It's also important to note that Philadelphia does not have much of a past history with Division I hockey and the nearest program in-state (Penn State) is 3 1/2 hours away, while the closest one geographically sits in South Central New Jersey (Princeton). Philly is also not a warm-weather destination city this time of year.

Would it make sense for the Frozen Four to return here? Sure, but maybe not for another 10-12 years, until PSU gains a larger foothold in the Big Ten and if, somehow, a willing benefactor or prescient administration steps up and turns one of the city's six major universities onto the idea of sporting (or in the case of Penn, resurrecting) a D-I team.

Personal Reflections

Though it required more bulldogging than anything I've had to do in my professional career in quite some time, it was a true pleasure to return to Frozen Four coverage.

A gap of 14 years is way too long, and if it was going to happen again, it would be here in my hometown. I'd like to thank Mark Bedics, NCAA media relations liaison, for seeing the intent in my demeanor and seriousness in my eyes when I tracked him down Thursday afternoon and insisted I snag a credential even after the process had been curtailed. It wasn't just a line, but a mantra: I'm not here to cause trouble, I'm here to cover college hockey.

Nothing was going to deter me from sharing in the coverage and celebration of a sport where I probably should be making my bones, and even taking up as little space as possible along one wall of what is usually the press commissary for Flyers games was damn good enough. With apologies to all the first-timers and my young writers, I'm well aware of what the ice looks like from the upper press level. No Instagram needed, thank you.

Back in 2000, it was a perfect opening to what I hoped would be a long career covering the game of hockey, when I was able to leverage my standing as a senior at Boston College into a prominent role on its student-led radio station and then a slot as alternating play-by-play and color man for the Eagles' semifinal win over St. Lawrence and finals loss to North Dakota. The sting of seeing a dream dashed back then was replaced in the present with a sense of calmness and belonging.

The pain of seeing former classmates and soon-to-be-professionals fall just short of their goal was supplanted by the mild disappointment that my alma mater couldn't at least do me the honor of making it past the semifinals. But that's OK, because in 2014, I'm still living off the four NCAA titles that occurred in the interim. And, to my chagrin, BC alums and fans can't escape that maxim of not being able to have it all: either Johnny Gaudreau was going to win the Hobey Baker or BC was going to win it all. We'd take the second one in a heartbeat.

It is difficult to envision a career path that doesn't progress on some kind of ladder. You start small and build up, and eventually the NHL is the goal for the lucky few who stick with the vagaries of the business.

That's not how my career has gone, and in the college hockey world, the ladder either doesn't exist or covering things like the Frozen Four is the last stop and the ultimate recognition that you're worthy. If I had taken things on a literal path, college hockey is a step down after being credentialed in the NHL for the last nine years. But when adjusted to encompass the entirely of the game of hockey in all of its environs, I've been pretty lucky to keep my eyes open and the fires stoked.

If not for the protracted lockout last season, I never would have been able to attend four different levels of the sport: D-I college, ECHL, AHL and NHL, within a few months. This year, as I step away from supplemental game coverage as a way to get my name out there, bracketing my career with a second stop at the Frozen Four is better than I could have hoped for.

Next year and in the ones that follow, I look forward to relaxing, to talking up each of the seven conferences and the players featured within, forsaking the pressure of having to prove anything in the realm of social media when it's been apparent for a decade and a half in the real world.

Unless someone decides to pay me a dump-truck full of money to relocate and continue writing for a living. Then, it's on like Donkey Kong. 
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