Four sets of four teams meeting at four sites in four states to get the college hockey field down to the Frozen Four. This is a ritual that has played out every year since 2003, and became a normal set-your-watch-by-it part of March for sports fans.
Then 2020 happened, and everything changed, for the (much) worse. What was taken for granted — NCAA hockey regional weekend — seems like much more of a treat in 2021, even though things are far from business as usual. But there will be games this weekend, and great stories coming out of the four regional sites.
In addition to the shots and goals and saves and penalties, there is at least one great bit of history to watch at the regional sites in Colorado, Connecticut, New York and North Dakota. Here are our favorites from the four regional rinks:
Fargo — Mann, it’s good to be home
As a prep school boy from Connecticut, one would think that Michigan junior goalie Strauss Mann might have preferred a trip to the Bridgeport regional for the Wolverines. But for Mann and Michigan teammate Garrett Van Wyhe, Scheels Arena is the site of some of their first hockey glory.
As members of the Fargo Force in the 2017-18 season (along with Gophers forward Ben Meyers, Huskies defenseman Spencer Meier and Fighting Hawks forward Mark Senden, among others) Mann and Van Wyhe played key roles in the first USHL title to come to Fargo.
When he committed to Michigan prior to the 2018-19 season, Mann was one of the reasons Wolverines coach Mel Pearson decided to move on from Jack LaFontaine, who was one of the goalies on Michigan’s 2018 Frozen Four team. While Mann was having a decent freshman season for the Wolverines, LaFontaine went back to junior hockey in Penticton, British Columbia, then ended up with the Gophers where he backstopped four wins in five meetings with his old team this season.
Mann was the Big Ten’s top goalie as a sophomore, but his numbers have fallen off slightly this season. In what is expected to be a defensive battle with Minnesota Duluth in the regional opener, he will surely be tested back in his old junior hockey rink.
Albany — Fond memories for Jackson and York
The Frozen Four is a major sporting event these days, played exclusively in NHL-size buildings. That was not the case 20 years ago, for the last time. In an earlier era, the tournament was played in places like the DECC in Duluth (1981) and the original Ralph Englestad Arena in Grand Forks (1983). As the interest in college hockey grew, the host buildings grew accordingly. The 2000 and 2001 tournaments, played in Providence and Albany, respectively, were the last in minor league-size rinks.
In this part of the country, 2001 is most remembered for North Dakota coach Dean Blais pulling his goalie down 2-0 and with five minutes left in regulation. The gamble worked, and the then-Fighting Sioux tied the game to force overtime. But it was Boston College that hoisted the trophy, breaking a 52-year drought for the Eagles, and starting a run of four titles in 12 seasons for coach Jerry York.
Albany’s first turn as a Frozen Four host came in 1992, when a plucky Lake Superior State team under a young coach named Jeff Jackson beat Wisconsin in a controversy-filled finale for the second of three titles the Lakers would win in a seven-season span, and the first of two for Jackson.
There will be plenty of fond memories of Albany on both benches this weekend as Jackson’s Notre Dame team faces York’s Eagles in round one.
Bridgeport — Anchors on the attack, again
Speaking of Lake Superior State, that run of three titles in 1988, 1992 and 1994 (and nearly a fourth in 1993) had folks who watched college hockey in the 1990s thinking they would see that blue and gold team with the anchor on its jerseys every year forever. Then Jackson left to coach USA Hockey’s National Team Development program, and the Lake State program settled into a two decades of doldrums.
There was even some talk in the past decade or so that Lake State, which is in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and has fewer than 3,000 students, could close due to declining enrollment.
Well don’t look now, but the Lakers are back. Under Damon Whitten, who took over the program in 2014, Lake State won 23 games two seasons ago, and sits at 19 wins heading into their NCAA first round meeting with UMass on Friday evening. Last week, the Lakers beat Bemidji State and Northern Michigan in Mankato to win their first (and last, as they will join the new CCHA next season) WCHA playoff title.
“I was happy to see Lake State get back to the national tournament, but more importantly I was happy to see them win a championship in the WCHA,” Jackson said, admitting some nostalgia for his old employer. “I wish they were going to Albany with us, in a way.”
Loveland — Will the Mavs finally shed the monkey?
Plenty has happened in Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko’s life in the past 14 years, but if you mention it, he can still recall a painful headline from his time at St. Cloud State. The Huskies made six fruitless trips to the NCAA playoffs before they finally beat Northern Michigan in double overtime in 2010 for their first win in the national tournament. But in 2007, when they fell to Maine in Rochester, N.Y., in the first round, the headline in the next day’s St. Cloud Times was blunt. “0-for-7’s sake: Huskies falter,” it read.
A few hours to the south of the Granite City, there’s a similar streak of struggles playing out for Minnesota State University-Mankato, which faces Quinnipiac on Saturday in the West Regional’s first round. It will be the Mavericks’ seventh all-time game in the NCAA playoffs (at the Division I level), and they are still looking for their first win.
Two years ago, there was much grousing about the Mavs getting a “bad draw” as they went into the tournament as a top seed, but were “rewarded” by having to face Providence ... in Providence. The curse appeared to be at an end early, as MSU jumped out to a 3-0 lead on the Friars, only to surrender the game’s next half-dozen goals. And the beat goes on.
The Mavs’ hopes for a win or two in Loveland rest on the shoulders of goalie Dryden McKay, who has had eye-popping numbers all season, but has looked human a few times in the past month, in losses to Bemidji State and Northern Michigan. Still, the odds say the streak has to end sometime, right?
2021 NCAA men's hockey tournament
Fargo, N.D. (Friday, March 26-Saturday, March 27)
1. North Dakota (21-5-1) vs. 4. American International (15-3-0), 8:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN3)
2. Michigan (15-10-1) vs. 3. Minnesota Duluth (14-10-2), 3 p.m. Friday (ESPNU)
Saturday's championship, 5:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Bridgeport, Conn. (Friday, March26-Saturday, March 27)
1. Wisconsin (20-9-1) vs. 4. Bemidji State (15-9-3), noon Friday (ESPN2)
2. UMass (16-5-4) vs. 3. Lake Superior State (19-6-3), 5:30 p.m. Friday (ESPNU)
Saturday's championship, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)
Albany, N.Y. (Saturday, March 27-Sunday, March 28)
1. Boston College (17-5-1) vs. 4. Notre Dame (14-13-2), noon Saturday (ESPNEWS)
2. St. Cloud State (17-10-0) vs. 3. Boston University (10-4-1), 5:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNEWS)
Sunday's championship, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Loveland, Colo. (Saturday, March 27-Sunday, March 28)
1. Minnesota (23-6-0) vs. 4. Nebraska Omaha (14-10-1), 9 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)
2. MSU-Mankato (20-4-1) vs. 3. Quinnipiac (17-7-4), 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3)
Sunday's championship, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)