PHILADELPHIA, PA — Championship hockey makes for some of the most exciting moments in the world of sports. The NHL is currently in the midst of its Stanley Cup Playoff series, consisting of drawn-out, seven-game rounds with intense game play and nailbiting action. The AHL‘s Calder Cup Playoffs is also running at full tilt, with equally exciting series coming out of the NHL’s farm teams. This weekend brings yet another round of championship play to the ice when the Memorial Cup take center stage in London, ON to determine the best team in the CHL.
For hockey fans across Canada, these are just a few of the major tournaments that highlight the hockey calendar. But there’s another tournament that takes place annually in North America that’s drawing a lot of attention from American fans and professional hockey scouts all over the world.
The NCAA Frozen Four Men’s Hockey Tournament pits the top four teams in Division I college hockey against each other to win the national title. “We’re not getting paid. We go out there and put our heart on the line. It’s 100% all heart out there. College hockey is a dynamic game. Guys are blocking shots that you probably wouldn’t see in pro and doing anything for their team just to raise a piece of wood at the end of the year,” says Union College defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.
College hockey might seem like small business to folks outside the U.S., but more and more of these teams are inspiring young American hockey players and helping to develop a growing hockey fan base in the United States. As the talent on these teams continues to evolve, many professional teams are directing their scouting eyes to the NCAA circuit.
This year’s tournament was held in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center, home base for the Philadelphia Flyers and the site of this year’s NHL Entry Draft. All Habs Hockey Magazine joined over one hundred fellow media members in South Philly to cover the event and get a bird’s eye view of some of the NHL’s up-and-comers.
The tournament kicked off with two semi-final games: Union vs Boston College and North Dakota vs Minnesota. Both games were intense and gave fans a fantastic preface to the championship game. Union College surprised many by defeating Boston College 5-4, handing them their first national semifinal loss since 2004, while Minnesota downed rival school North Dakota 2-1.
Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox breathed a sigh of relief when teammate Patrick Brown put one past North Dakota’s Zane Gothberg in the waning seconds of his game, with overtime practically imminent. “To have a turn of events there where we get a shorthanded goal with under a second left, I mean, I couldn’t have written a better story than that,” Wilcox stated.
Union’s right-winger Daniel Ciampini tallied his first career hat trick, helping to propel his team to their win. “A lot of success is to my linemates. They make it so easy for me to just stand back door and to have tap-ins. They work so hard getting the puck, I just have to be in open space and they’re great players and they made me better and I’ve enjoyed every second of playing with them.”
Head Coach Rick Bennett commended his squad for their hard work against a tough team. “I thought that was actually the best defensive corps we’ve faced of getting pucks through.” Captain Mat Bodie gave credit to his goaltender. “[Colin] Stevens has been great for us all year. He made some big saves for us. The biggest thing that he brings to our team is a calm demeanor back there. He’s never out of sync, and guys feed off that. And I think that’s not something you can really keep stats of, but it really helps our team and it really makes us go.”
That made for a great story heading into the championship game, Union’s first-ever appearance in the national title game. (In fact, the last time Union College played for a national title in ANY sport was in 1929 for men’s lacrosse.) The Minnesota Golden Gophers were ready to take control of the game and show Union why they were considered the underdog. Despite the final score of 7-4, this was a tightly played game and many viewers (live or on the national ESPN broadcast) agreed it was some of the most exciting hockey they had ever seen.
Union came out strong in the opening period, potting four goals to Minnesota’s two. “We felt we were in the game the whole game. Being down two goals is nothing – it’s the hardest lead to keep in hockey,” said Minnesota defenseman Brady Skjei. Down the hall, Union goaltender Colin Stevens said the locker room was optimistic after the first frame. “That was a crazy period, for sure. Going into the first intermission with a two-goal lead, it’s not a bad place to be at all. So we felt confident.”
Gostisbehere (who had a goal, two assists, and registered an unbelievable plus-7 for the game) concurred with his goaltender, but also knew to be cautious with their emotions. “Different period is a different game and you’ve got to adjust to it. It was pretty cool, we knew we had to stay calm and collected in the locker room, not get too hyped.” Shayne also said the team knew they were up against a talented opponent and needed to keep pushing. “They have great forwards – they’re fast, they’re deep, they’re always a threat, they use all five men in the zone. They’re always coming at you.”
Minnesota brought the game within one goal just over a minute into the second period. But the Union Dutchmen would not relinquish their lead, scoring three more in the final period. After the game, Gopher left-winger Sam Warning quietly analyzed what went wrong. “They got pucks and bodies to the blue paint and the house. This time of year that’s where games are won.”
In a loud and boisterous Union dressing room, Ciampini was all smiles as he described the winning moment. “Pretty excited right now! It’s a crazy feeling and I just don’t want it to end. At all.” Sophomore defenseman Sebastian Gingras (son of former Habs d-man Gaston Gingras) was equally emotional. “I’m feeling ecstatic! I mean, we’re so excited, we’ve put so much time into it.” He added, “We’re just happy that we could get it done now for the school, for all the fans over there, and for an amazing program.” Colin Stevens admitted that Minnesota proved to be a formidable opponent. “They’re pretty good at everything so, you know, it took a good game out of us tonight to beat them and we were able to do that.”
While many of the players who took to the Wells Fargo Center ice during the tournament will return to fight for the championship again next year, it’s also a bittersweet moment for seniors finishing their final hockey season. “They’re great leaders and we’re definitely happy we can send them off as champions,” expressed Gingras.
Win or lose, the experience of playing on the national stage is one that most of these young athletes will likely never forget. And for some, it’s just the beginning. Plenty of NHL scouts were in the arena for the Frozen Four, and it didn’t take long for them to make their presence known – some before the tournament had even concluded. So who will you see at the professional level next year? Here’s a look at some recent NHL additions from the Frozen Four:
- Daniel Carr (Left Wing, Union College): After winning the NCAA National Title at the Frozen Four, Carr was signed to a two-year entry-level contract by the Montreal Canadiens. (Read: Habs Sign Forwards Connor Crisp and Daniel Carr to Contracts)
- Johnny Gaudreau (Left Wing, Boston College): Winner of the 2014 Hobey Baker Award for the best overall player in the NCAA, drafted by the Calgary Flames 104th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Geaudreau signed an entry-level contract with the Flames the day after being eliminated in the Frozen Four and made his NHL debut appearance two days later against the Vancouver Canucks. He scored Calgary’s only goal of the game with his first shot on goal.
- Bill Arnold (Center, Boston College): Drafted by the Calgary Flames 108th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Arnold signed a two-year contract with the Flames the day after being eliminated in the Frozen Four and joined Geaudreau in making his NHL debut two days later against the Vancouver Canucks.
Shayne Gostisbehere (Defense, Union College): Named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four, Gostisbehere was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers 78th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He was signed to a three-year deal with the Flyers shortly after his Frozen Four victory and will start next season with the newly relocated Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL).
- Mat Bodie (Captain, Defense, Union College): This free agent signed to an entry-level contract with the New York Rangers shortly after winning the Frozen Four championship.
In addition to these athletes, a large number of participants in the Frozen Four have been drafted in recent years by an NHL team and are awaiting their opportunity to sign contracts. Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko has been pegged as a top prospect in next month’s NHL Entry Draft. (Read more about Demko from our interview with him at the 2013 All-American Prospects Game: Top Prospects Showcase Talent on Penguins’ Ice [with Photo Gallery])
Overall, Philadelphia seems primed to host large-scale events such as this one, with accolades regarding the success of the weekend coming from every direction:
“Awesome. A great turnout for the fans. Wow! I mean, 17,000 they said? That always makes it a lot more fun to play in,” said Brady Skjei, defenseman for the University of Minnesota.
Colin Stevens, the starting goaltender for Union College, agrees. “The fans were great all weekend and I can’t say enough about Philadelphia and the job they did with everything.”
Kristin Fasbender, NCAA Associate Director of Championship and Alliance stated, “This has been one of the best Frozen Four experiences ever. All the coaches from the teams competing have had nothing but positive things to say. Philadelphia is truly a hockey town.”
We’ll have more content related to the Frozen Four coming up soon, including a photo gallery and an interview with Sebastian Gingras, son of Canadiens alum Gaston Gingras!
Photo Credits: Amy Johnson