By Matt Wellens
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Growing up in Cohasset, Minn., a young Hunter Shepard was a fan of the Minnesota Gophers.
As an impressionable 7 and 8-year-old, he watched Minnesota players such as Adam Hauser of Bovey, Gino Guyer and Andy Sertich of Coleraine and Travis Weber of Hibbing lead the Gophers to back-to-back national championships in 2002 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul and in 2003 at then-HSBC Arena in Buffalo.
Now 16 years later as a 23-year-old junior All-American goaltender for Minnesota Duluth, Shepard is a win away from doing what his college hockey heroes did — in the same cities and buildings as them — when the Bulldogs (28-11-2) take on Massachusetts (31-9) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the final of the NCAA Frozen Four at what is now known as KeyBank Center.
Already the first national championship squad in 14 seasons to return the next year to the Frozen Four and NCAA title game, Shepard and the Bulldogs are trying to become the first to win consecutive titles since Denver did in 2004 and 2005 and the Gophers the two years before that.
“It would be really special,” Shepard said. “I grew up watching those Gophers teams, a lot of Iron Range guys — Adam Hauser, Gino Guyer, Andy Sertich, Travis Weber. That’s what I grew up watching and that’s part of the reason I wanted to play college hockey. To get to do these things is really special. I’m kind of getting to do the same stuff those guys did.”
What Shepard and his teammates are attempting rarely happen in NCAA Division I men’s hockey. Only four programs can claim to have won multiple championships in a row and it’s only happened on eight occasions.
Before the Pioneers and Gophers last decade, Boston University repeated in 1971 and ’72. Denver did it twice in the 1960s (60-61, 68-69) while Michigan won three straight from 1951-53 — the only time that has happened — and back-to-back titles again in ’55 and ’56.
For Bulldogs senior wing Billy Exell, the hero in Thursday’s 4-1 semifinal win over Providence and a three-time national championship game participant, history is far from what motivates him to win another national championship Saturday.
Exell watched the 2016-17 senior class at UMD — one that has sent three to the NHL — cap its college career with a loss in the national championship game in Chicago. A year ago in St. Paul, Karson Kuhlman and company went out with the victory of all victories.
Exell wants what last season’s seniors achieved.
“Seeing Karson last year, that’s how they wanted to end it,” Exell said. “To see how excited they were to have their last game be a successful one, it would just mean everything. We’ve set that goal for ourselves.”
The Minutemen — who feature this season’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner, sophomore defenseman Cale Makar, and Spencer Penrose Award winning coach, Greg Carvel — are seeking their first national championship in program history. This is UMass’ first NCAA title game appearance and just their second trip to the NCAA tournament.
Carvel would be the 11th coach to win the NCAA title and national coach of the year award in the same season, and eighth coach to win a national championship in his first NCAA tournament appearance.
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, now in his 19th season at UMD, is chasing much rarer air.
Currently one of 35 coaches to win an NCAA title and one of 20 to win two or more, a third national championship would tie Sandelin with the giants of the sport, such as Boston University’s Jack Parker, Michigan Tech legend John Macinnes, Wisconsin’s ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson, former RPI and Cornell coach Ned Harkness, John ‘Gino’ Gasparini — Sandelin’s former coach at North Dakota — and Minnesota’s Herb Brooks.
Only three coaches have four or more NCAA titles: Jerry York has won five with Boston College and Bowling Green; Murray Armstrong won five at Denver; and Michigan’s Vic Heyliger is the king with six.
Asked back in August about possibly tying Gasparini, Sandelin said he was just happy he tied his friend Dean Blais, who won two NCAA titles at North Dakota with Sandelin as an assistant coach. It was after the title in 2000 that UMD hired Sandelin.
An answer like that is what Shepard has come to expect from his coach. Sandelin isn’t one to get caught up on accolades and awards, the goalie said.
Senior captain Parker Mackay had a similar take. According to Mackay, Sandelin is always more happy for the players than he is for himself. It’s what drives Sandelin as a coach.
“He works throughout the season,” Mackay said. “He’s nonstop thinking about hockey, thinking about what we need to do to get better, pushing us to get better. He focuses so much on pushing us to be our best. That’s what makes him such a great coach. He puts so much time in at the rink, it would be a special thing and a special feeling for us to be able to put him in that company because he deserves it.”
NCAA Frozen Four
Saturday’s Championship: Minnesota Duluth (28-11-2) vs. Massachusetts (31-9), 7 p.m.
KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.