(Ed. Note: Yesterday we presented a bandwagoner's guide to the NCAA men's ice hockey tournament, which featured basic info and easy access points for casual fans. In Part 2 of our NCAA hockey championships preview, Puck Daddy weekly columnist The Two-Line Pass offers a few things for the die-heard college puckheads to look out for in this year's tourney.)
The reason I'm a hockey fan at all is college hockey.
The first hockey game I ever went to that really captured my interest in the sport was a game in 1993 or 1994 between UMass Lowell and Boston University that Lowell won in a shootout. The people were packed around the glass so tight and eight deep that, had a fire broken out, we would all have surely perished.
But ever since that game, I've been a college hockey junkie. I've been to more college games than I care to count (probably around 50 a year, appalling as that may be), and I have been to pretty much every Frozen Four since I've had the financial means to go on my own.
In doing so, I've become somewhat of an expert on the subject of the NCAA tournament and have been asked to put together this list of the top 10 things college hockey nerds (like me) can expect to see in this year's tournament.
10. The confused locals.
Because a lot of the most recent Frozen Fours have been held in non-traditional college hockey markets, you'll begin to see fans of the local team showing up wearing their NHL jerseys. Which is fine.
This started, I think, when Columbus hosted in 2005. There was a pretty decent amount of people wearing Rick Nash jerseys and almost certainly checking their programs to see why, exactly, David Vyborny wasn't out there.
9. That one weirdo from Alaska-Fairbanks.
You see a lot of different colleges represented at the Frozen Four every year. Many of these fans are reppin' for teams that had next to no shot of making the tournament. You'll always see a group of people rocking AIC jerseys, or Robert Morris hats, or even Merrimack T-shirts.
And then there's always one guy, from like, Michigan Tech, walking around the host city by himself and wearing the full get-up. And you see that guy EVERYWHERE. Go to the zoo on the off-day? There he is feeding some seals. Go to a restaurant down the street from your hotel? He's drinking heavily and eating three plates of mozzarella sticks at once. And at the actual games? He's ALWAYS sitting next to you, talking your ear off about how his team has an outside chance to make it there next year.
No they don't, you creep. Stop following me.
8. A BC repea... no, never mind.
Poor Eagles. They sure were awful this year.
7. Poor sportsmanship.
Fans of most conferences will generally root for their fellow Hockey East or CCHA teams until they come in direct conflict. "If it can't be Vermont, what the hell? Go BU!" That kind of thing. But I don't know what it is about WCHA fans that makes them hate everyone in the country that isn't them. You've never seen people more pleased with a bounce that goes against the Sioux or the Pios than a Minnesota or Wisconsin fan. Everyone else can be civil, but not the WCHA.
6. New blood.
Every year it seems like you get the same 16 teams. But not this year. No Wisconsin, no Minnesota (!), no Maine, no Colorado College, no Michigan State. Instead, you have a number of teams who will actually be happy to be there instead of bored with the whole goddamn thing. Almost a quarter of these teams haven't been to the tournament in over a decade. Yale's waited since 1998, Vermont hasn't danced since '97, and Northeastern has been watching at home since '94. That desperation will make for some good games before they all get bounced in the first round.
5. ESPN's coverage.
As part of ESPN's "Yeah, I guess we'll broadcast this and the Division 3 bowling championship so we can also do the football and basketball title games" coverage, hockey fans have a lot to look forward to...
A) Barry Melrose. He watches college hockey four days a year. One is the first day of regionals. Two is the second day of regionals. Three is the first day of the Frozen Four. Four is the second day of the Frozen Four. He couldn't tell Matt Gilroy from Matt Frattin, but hey, people who might be flipping past ESPN might have heard of him. Get him on TV.
B) The human interest story. Every year there's some kid on some team and he's from Siberia or something, and his mom and dad has sold everything they own, including their eldest daughter (who in their country is actually considered property and not a person), and flown 172 hours on a plane not unlike the one at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark to get to the semifinal game. Even better is if someone's dad just died the day before by falling into a vat of acid, but didn't survive it like a comic book villain. That pulls in viewers every time.
C) Getting split screened. We know you LOVE college hockey guys, but don't you think this highlight of Tony Stewart punching a fan in the face at Darlington is a LIIIIITTLE more important than the final eight seconds of your silly one-goal championship game?
It's nice to be pandered to.
4. Going pro in something OTHER THAN SPORTS
If you've ever been to a Frozen Four, you know what you can expect during commercial breaks: Some gorgeous girls' volleyball player from Illinois State with a 4.84 GPA talking about how she might love her sport, but she's going to become a doctor for dogs with hurt feelings in sub-Saharan Africa instead. Like most NCAA athletes.
And that's a nice story. The first time. Over the course of the weekend, you'll see her on the Jumbotron telling you this same thing roughly 500 times. And by the end you'll wish that not only did sub-Saharan Africa not exist, but also the volleyball player, Illinois State and the idea of helping others.
3. Finally, some gorgeous locales for the regionals.
The days of going to hole-in-the-wall trash heap cities like Albany, Grand Forks, Worcester and Grand Rapids are behind us. This year, we can look forward to catching the regionals in vibrant Bridgeport, Conn., beautiful downtown Manchester, N.H., sunny Minneapolis, Minn., and... oh, hell, we ARE going to Grand Rapids this year?
2. The annual UNH meltdown.*
Like the sun rising in the east and grass continuing its greenness unabated, you can always count on an epic NCAA collapse by the Wildcats. I believe it's actually what powers the clocks at NORAD. Words cannot express the joy I derive from seeing a previously very good UNH team going Chernobyl on national television.
What's my favorite UNH implosion, you ask? Well it'd be tough to top the 7-2 loss in the 2002 semifinal to archrival Maine, but I will always have fond memories of the night Tom Vanek lit Mike Ayers up like Times Square on New Year's Eve on the way to a 5-1 loss in '03. That one was so funny because game was 1-1 until 8:14 of the third period, then the Gophers scored four in 10:17. Hysterical. It even inspired this picture:
It also inspired Ayers to throw a water bottle at his defenseman, Tyson Teplitsky, during a timeout late in the game. That's why seeing UNH lose in embarrassing fashion is the absolute best.
*Disclaimer: UNH isn't actually all that good this year, so their demoralizing loss won't be quite so amusing.
1. A hell of a weekend in D.C.
You will ALWAYS have a good time on a Frozen Four trip. It's three straight days of drinking heavily, watching exciting hockey, making fun of all the mutants from USCHO walking around and drinking heavily.
The fact that the Frozen Four isn't in some Midwestern burgh this year, but rather one of the best cities in America? Even better. Just try not to get too sauced up and start yelling at the statue in the Jefferson Memorial about how much you hate the Wolverines.