PITTSBURGH — First, here was the really good news: The NCAA was able to have a Frozen Four. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to limit so many things and with outbreaks on teams, let's be honest — getting those three games in was a major undertaking.
That said, this was not the first time that the Frozen Four was held in Pittsburgh and I was at the Frozen Four when it was held there last in 2013. I was thinking about why was it such a different event. The reasons are pretty obvious, but if you were not at either of those Frozen Fours, let me give you some of the details in a 2021 vs. 2013 format.
Practice day Wednesday
The semifinal games are played on Thursdays and the championship on Saturday at the Frozen Four. On Wednesdays, all four teams practice followed by press conferences and there's typically a banquet that all four teams attend.
UMass-Lowell, Yale, St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac each have practices and each team has a press conference following their practices with 2-3 players and the team's head coach answering questions from a table with microphones. After the end of the press conference, the locker rooms are open for the press to talk to anyone on the team. So reporters can either talk to the players provided for the press conference and/or go and talk to anyone else on the team and work on other stories.
The press and public are allowed to attend all of the practices and across the street from the arena is Frozen Fest, which includes live music, games and food. The banquet takes place at Heinz Field with players and staff wearing suits. The Elite 90 Award is also handed out to the player with the top grade-point average at the Frozen Four. The Huskies' Brooks Bertsch won the Elite 90.
Inside the arena, there is a large working press area, multiple apparel stands with Frozen Four merchandise and concessions.
Minnesota Duluth, Massachusetts, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State University-Mankato have their practices. Each team has a press conference with the head coach and two players available via Zoom. The press and public are not allowed to attend practices. There is no banquet. St. Cloud State's Chase Brand receives the Elite 90 Award on the ice at the tail end of practice.
There are no pep rallies and there is no Frozen Fest. The area where Frozen Fest was held in 2013 was a parking lot full of cars.
Each of the four teams has different bars and restaurants for their fans to congregate. There are pep rallies for each of the teams across the street from the arena with pep bands, cheerleaders and speakers for the fans as part of Frozen Fest. When the teams arrive at the arena, there are pep bands, cheerleaders and fans to greet them and a red carpet that they walk on to get inside.
I'm sure there were others, but Cafe Fifth near the arena was where most of the pregame festivities occurred for St. Cloud State fans who gathered, though there were some fans of other teams also there. Again, no pep bands, cheerleaders or fans and no red carpet for the teams when they got to the arena.
Awards on Friday
Now, awards were announced on Friday during both years. But how they were announced and events that were available was in sharp contrast.
There was no Mike Richter Award (that started in 2014) given to the top goalie, but the All-America teams were announced in the morning via press release. After two remaining teams held practices and press conferences, players from those teams and the three Hobey Baker Award finalists signed autographs for fans in the concourse.
There was a large carpet put on the ice in the arena, a podium and backdrop were up with a microphone. The event was broadcast live on the NHL Network and then there was a press conference with the winner, St. Cloud State's Drew LeBlanc.
Practices for the two remaining teams are held and the same style of Zoom press conferences are held with no press or public allowed to attend. The Hobey Baker and Richter awards are done via Zoom on NHL Network.
On championship Saturday in 2013, basically all of the events and things that happened during the semifinals happened again. The same can be said for 2021, which means very little was going on besides the game. Also in 2021, there was one apparel stand that I saw in the concourse and limited concessions available.
In 2013, attendance for the Frozen Four was 53,040. In 2021, attendance was 7,623. The NCAA was allowing a maximum of 4,500 fans per day inside the 18,387-seat NHL venue.
None of this is an indictment on the teams, the NCAA or Robert Morris University, the host institution in Pittsburgh.
Because of the pandemic and the stringent testing for the team members, this was the way things had to be done. The hockey didn't suffer. There were two great games in the semifinals and Huskies coach Brett Larson said he loved hearing the buzz of the crowd and the atmosphere even during the national anthem of the championship game.
But people are going to ask me what it was like at the 2021 Frozen Four. For fans and observers, it was a very different experience and let's hope we get back to the pomp and circumstance at the 2022 Frozen Four in Boston.