groups rarely croon about college hockey. But in the WCHA, where
this summer of discontent couldn’t end quickly enough, many
fans might be thinking that Bananarama had their team in mind when
those lyrics were first sung. A little more than six months after
Minnesota and North Dakota battled for the Broadmoor Trophy in one
of the most entertaining playoff championship games in league history,
the 10 squads that take to the ice look much different than they
did last March. A few of them look much different than they did
While fans can
steel themselves for the departure of seniors when the team’s
final game is played in March or April, most are not quite as prepared
to deal with the unexpected departure of sophomores and juniors
in early September. But when a league blessed with an abundance
of young talent catches the eyes of NHL officials and aggressive
agents, a rash of pre-lockout panic signings can occur. That’s
precisely what happened to several of the WCHA’s contenders
over the course of the summer and early fall, with eight prominent
underclassmen and the league’s most successful coach saying
“auf wiedersehen.” Many fans searching for familiar
names on the WCHA’s 2004-05 rosters may be left scratching
rash of early departures left Bernd Brückler among a short
list of established stars in the WCHA.
a good debate to be had about which team took the worst hit of the
early-signing spree. Minnesota can make a good case, with three
prominent underclassmen gone in forward Thomas Vanek and defensemen
Keith Ballard and Jake Taylor. North Dakota may have lost the most
offense, with two Hobey finalists (Brandon Bochenski and Zach Parise)
leaving early. Add to those transactions ex-coach Dean Blais’
decision to move to Columbus rather than work toward getting his
team to the Frozen Four in Columbus and the unusually cold summer
in Grand Forks may have seemed just a bit chillier.
lost a big name (and a big part of its defensive corps) when Badgers
defenseman Ryan Suter bolted to Nashville a few weeks ago. And former
St. Cloud State defenseman Tim Conboy had a busy off-season, as
he was cut by the team for a rules violation, then signed a contract
with San Jose, then got arrested when drugs were allegedly found
in his car during a traffic stop.
the team that stands to suffer the most from early departures is
Alaska Anchorage, which saw its two top scorers leave school early,
for different reasons. The team had barely returned from its first-ever
Final Five appearance when Curtis Glencross signed a pact with Anaheim.
Then, sometime over the summer, Chris Fournier decided to walk away
from his second college hockey program (he had transferred to UAA
after a season at North Dakota). The cruel summer in Anchorage may
be followed by an even crueler winter.
What does it
all mean? The optimist will note that it’s a testament to
the league’s talent. The pessimist will say that WCHA hockey
this season will be more about who’s not on the roster than
who’s playing. Incidentally, that looks to be the theme in
the NHL this year too.
will underscore the age-old notion that talent wins games, but experienced
talent wins championships. With that in mind, we’re not the
only pundits pointing out that Minnesota Duluth has 11 seniors who
played in the Frozen Four last year on its roster.
Just a few blocks
from Mariucci Arena (site of the next NCAA West Regional) there’s
a fabulous Asian eatery called the Village Wok, where each table
has Chinese zodiac placemats proclaiming 2005 as the year of the
rooster. But if the WCHA is going to claim its fourth consecutive
NCAA crown, it may look more like the year of the ‘Dog.
College Tigers. While some WCHA teams blast Linkin Park’s
blood-pumping tunes during warm-ups, it might be appropriate to
hear the band’s more downbeat number “In The End”
playing inside Colorado Springs World Arena. For a team plagued
by missed opportunities the past two seasons, the lyrics, “I
tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t
even matter,” seem to fit recent CC teams well. The Tigers
won the MacNaughton Cup and brought the Hobey to the Rockies two
seasons ago, only to fall short of the Frozen Four. Last season’s
promise of a WCHA repeat was derailed almost from the start by a
rash of injuries and off-ice distractions. The end result was the
first playoff road trip for the school in a decade. This time Tigers
line up for another run with their health restored and loads of
talent at all of the key positions (including the league’s
most proven goalie tandem in Matt Zaba and Curtis McElhinney). And
the schedule-makers have them taking just one trip outside of Colorado
in the first two months of the season, setting the table for a fast
FOR A FALL
Anchorage Seawolves. Last March, WCHA fans may have witnessed
the shortest-running feel-good story in college hockey history.
After rebounding from a one-win season two years ago and finishing
eighth last year, the Seawolves were the talk of the league playoffs,
upsetting third-seed Wisconsin in Madison for the first two WCHA
playoff wins in school history. John Hill’s crew advanced
to the Final Five where they were unexpected fan favorites versus
Colorado College, and beat the Tigers before an adoring crowd of
12,000-plus. Then, the gold rush abruptly ended. Hill and company
begin the current season having lost their top two goalies and their
top three scorers. Adding injury to that insult is the recent suspension
(and arrest) of defenseman Lee Green after the deposed team captain
allegedly punched and broke the jaw of teammate Brett Arcand-Kootenay
in a locker room fracas. Winters are rarely easy in the Last Frontier,
where the sun barely makes an appearance for months at a time. But
Seawolf fans who finally got a small taste of the good life last
spring must wonder if it’s supposed to be this bleak and dark
in the summer and fall.
goalies. Give us three reasons why they’ll raise
a national championship banner in Magness Arena on Oct. 23, and
you cannot use the word “Berkhoel” in any of your responses.
… OK, we’re waiting. … Still waiting. …
Give up? We don’t blame you. While DU’s undefeated trip
through the NCAA tournament was not a one-man effort, the physical
and psychological barrier that Adam Berkhoel erected between the
Pioneer pipes in late March and early April was all but insurmountable.
The new season means opportunity and the oppressive weight of high
expectations from hungry hockey fans in a town suddenly bereft of
its popular NHL team. Sophomore Glenn Fisher saw action in nine
games as a rookie (with five starts and four relief appearances
in rare games where Berkhoel wasn’t sharp) but his .872 save
percentage has raised some concerns. Freshman Peter Mannino had
the best stats in the USHL last year and, like Fisher, puts his
6-foot-1 frame to good use. One or both of them stepping up will
be required if the Pioneers want to stay relevant in the NCAA playoff
ACT TO FOLLOW
defenseman Chris Harrington. The top Gopher defenseman
from 2002 (Jordan Leopold) won the Hobey and played for the Stanley
Cup last spring. The top Gopher defenseman from 2003 (Paul Martin)
was on the YoungStars team at the NHL All-Star Game last winter.
The top Gopher defenseman from 2004 (Keith Ballard) just signed
a big money NHL contract. This leaves the Gopher blue line squarely
in the hands of a kid previously best known for his Dad’s
Olympic gold medal. “I guess it’s my turn,” says
Harrington. While some players skate all summer, this optimistic
youth got away from the ice in the warmer months, then came back
to campus fully prepared to face the pressure that comes with the
job. “If you look at it one way, it’s overwhelming,”
says Harrington. “If you look at it another way, it’s
a huge opportunity. But I learned a lot from Leo and Paul and Keith,
and I learned from them that it’s rare to get this opportunity,
so you’ve got to take full advantage of it.”
returning player in the nation had more goals per game than
Chris Conner last season (0.66, 25 in 38 GP).
Conner, Michigan Tech forward. Even if you take good notes
during a lecture class, you’re bound to have some questions
for the instructor when it’s done. It’s the same way
after watching Professor Conner on the ice for 60 minutes. Among
the questions commonly produced by the Houghton Hurricane:
1) How does
a guy that size (a non-threatening 5-foot-8, 175) cause that much
trouble for the sizable defensemen he faces?
2) How did a suburban Detroit kid with that much talent escape the
scouts from Michigan and Michigan State?
3) After causing more trouble than any player on a last-place team
is worth, what is he capable of with a more complimentary cast of
characters at his side?
To recap, the
Huskies’ race to the WCHA cellar last year came despite Conner
notching 18 points in his first seven games, leading the nation
in short-handed goals, and getting prominent play on ESPN after
a jaw-dropping goal versus Michigan State. If Jamie Russell can
counter the checking lines that limited Conner’s production
late last season, Tech should have its second Hobey finalist in
Zajac, North Dakota forward. Stop us if you’ve heard
this before, but another hockey season is approaching, and there
are hockey people raving about a North Dakota freshman. The heir
apparent to Brandon Bochenski, Zach Parise and Brady Murray as the
“next big thing in Grand Forks” comes to the western
shore of the Red River from just a bit downstream (Winnipeg) and
is already drawing raves from WCHA coaches before he has so much
as taken a shift. “He’s a great hockey player,”
says Minnesota State, Mankato coach Troy Jutting, who scouted Zajac
last year while the 6-2 forward was skating for Salmon Arm in the
British Columbia Hockey League. “He combines size and skill
with intelligent leadership. There’s always a kid or two in
our league that you look at coming in and you expect great things.
He’s that guy this year.” If Zajac’s numbers from
last season (112 points in 59 games) are any indication of what
he’ll do in the WCHA, Sioux fans may get to keep the MacNaughton
Cup for another year.
Jones, North Dakota defenseman. Maybe it’s his nondescript
name (although Joe Smith managed to get a lot of hype during his
college hoops career). Maybe it’s the fact that most defensemen
naturally get overlooked in a game where the spotlight shines on
goalies and goal-scorers. Maybe any non-forward would struggle to
get noticed on a team that featured the likes of Parise, Bochenski
and Murray. Whatever the case, the finest North Dakota rearguard
ever to come out of Lisle, Ill., has spent three seasons making
opponents pay for underestimating his impact in games. On a team
with a propensity for huge defenseman, Jones’ 6-0 frame puts
him on the smallish side of the Sioux roster. The seven goals he
scored last season were a career high for a player one coach describes
as “a rock-solid defensive defenseman,” but Jones clearly
brings to the rink an element that can’t be measured. “He’s
not a flashy player, and he might not get the spotlight often,”
says Sioux coach Dave Hakstol. “But when you watch what he
does during games, he’s as important as anyone we have on
the black cat left Colorado Springs? While ups and downs
are part of life and definitely part of college hockey, Colorado
College players and fans dealt with about a decade worth of trials
and tribulations in 2003-04. A season ago, the distraction of having
some at the NCAA want to prevent Division III schools (like CC)
from offering D-I scholarships was just an appetizer. The main course
included significant injury (star forward Brett Sterling missed
a month with a broken hand), a near-tragic accident (assistant coach
Norm Bazin is still recovering from a November 2003 car crash that
left him hospitalized for months) and the indignity of having to
watch arch-rivals win the NCAA title. When Alaska Anchorage ended
the Tigers’ season at the Final Five in March, one could nearly
feel a sense of relief among the physically and emotionally drained
CC squad. Just for the sake of levity, here’s hoping someone
cranks “Getting Better” by the Beatles over the locker
room stereo while the Tigers get ready for their first official
practice this season.
the window of opportunity closed for St. Cloud State? While
a second consecutive sixth-place finish in the WCHA (after four
consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament) shouldn’t be a reason
to panic, most in the know are predicting a third straight season
of the Huskies going on the road for the playoffs. And even the
most ardent optimist will be hard-pressed to find a silver lining
in the Huskies’ 0-4 record during those four trips to the
NCAAs. While a new season always brings renewed hope to the raucous
fans at the National Hockey Center, the team’s 0-7-1 streak
to end 2003-04 and some off-ice trouble has led to plenty of grumbling
that another sub-par season may produce plenty of empty seats.
there be a championship banner hoisted to the rafters of the DECC
anytime soon? Last season was clearly a breakout year for
coach Scott Sandelin and his Minnesota Duluth squad. Most notably,
the Hobey Baker and Spencer Penrose awards got to spend the summer
on Lake Superior. Combine that with a 5-1-0 record versus arch-rival
Minnesota and an April trip to the Frozen Four, and Bulldog fans
are invigorated again (it was a busy summer for the folks who sell
UMD season tickets). But the “glass is half empty” crowd
will point out that the Bulldogs went 0-for-3 in the race for the
WCHA regular season title, the WCHA Final Five title, and the NCAA
title. With 11 seniors on the team and one of the better returning
goalies in the nation, it’s feeling like a “now-or-never”
season in the Twin Ports.
Five things you can take to the bank in the WCHA this season
1. Despite the
damage caused since Jeb Bush enrolled the Sunshine State in the
“Hurricane of the Week” club, there will still
be a strong contingent of central Minnesota hockey fans making their
way to Estero, Fla., between Christmas and New Year’s.
St. Cloud State’s inclusion in this year’s Everblades
College Classic (along with Maine, Boston College and Cornell) marks
the first appearance by a WCHA team in the Sun Belt’s finest
college hockey gathering, and has many Husky fans planning to spend
a few December days under the gently swaying palms.
hear a rousing rendition of “In Heaven There Is No Beer”
sung by the visiting fans at least once or twice inside Mariucci
Arena this season. The WCHA schedule-makers have deemed
that for the first time in more than 40 years, the Minnesota Golden
Gophers will not visit Minnesota Duluth in the regular season, meaning
that Bulldog fans by the busload will be making the trek to Minneapolis
on Jan. 28-29 for the only scheduled meetings between these arch-rivals.
The loud and boisterous members of the UMD Penalty Box (official
motto: “Win or Lose, We Booze”) have been tirelessly
combing the Internet, snapping up every available ticket for that
two-gamer in hopes of ensuring that the Bulldogs don’t feel
totally alone in the big city.
a hard-fought Minnesota State, Mankato game this year, a few of
the Mavericks’ freshmen will go out for beers – legally.
Smarting from last season’s ninth-place finish, MSU coach
Troy Jutting has brought in perhaps the oldest group of rookies
in WCHA history. Of the seven newest Mavericks, six had used up
all of their junior hockey eligibility at the end of last season,
and four of them will be 21 before Thanksgiving. They come to a
team which led the WCHA in penalties last season and had the second-worst
penalty kill in the league – two items Jutting has placed
in a file labeled “must improve” for the Mavericks to
fare better in 2004-05.
few visiting teams will have fun away from the rink on their annual
trip to Madison, and will have very little fun inside the
Kohl Center. It was a busy winter for Mike Eaves, who won a gold
medal for Team USA at the World Juniors, then lifted his Badgers
from eighth place two years ago to within an overtime goal of the
Frozen Four last March. Most encouraging for his bosses within the
Wisconsin athletic department may be the sellout crowds of 15,000-plus
that became a common occurrence at Bucky’s home rink late
last season. While they’re not planning a championship parade
down State Street just yet, the Badgers have enough offensive and
defensive depth to again make Madison the place opposing fans love
and opposing teams loathe.
5. NHL hockey
or not this season, the WCHA will guarantee that at least
a few great games will be played at the Xcel Energy Center
in 2004-05. For fans in the capital city of the self-proclaimed
“State of Hockey” the season won’t be a total
wash. While the Wild may not play a game, Minnesota and Denver will
visit St. Paul on Oct. 8 and determine which of the last two NCAA
champs will get early bragging rights. And after last season’s
record-setting WCHA Final Five which saw a classic see-saw battle
for the Broadmoor Trophy between generations-old rivals Minnesota
and North Dakota, tickets for the expected 2005 rematch are going
fast. Knowing the pre- and post-game revelry habits of some college
hockey fans, that weekend alone may make up for all of the lost
NHL-related bar business in downtown St. Paul.
20 lettermen returning from a Frozen Four team, it looks like
the ‘Dogs could have their day.
wins championships, and with the likes of Brückler, Gilbert
and Likens in Madison, Bucky’s got a good shot at one.
Tigers may have the most balanced individual talent in the nation,
and designs on keeping the NCAA title in-state.
Hakstol’s been handed the keys to a real hot rod. Keep
it on the road, and it could be another fun ride for Sioux fans.
deep freshman class holds the key to providing enough scoring
for the Gophers to be competitive every night.
a fairy tale run to the NCAA title, the Pioneers need any remaining
championship hangover to wear off quickly.
a dozen fresh faces in Houghton mean a few new people feeding
pucks to Chris Conner.
defensive mistakes will be key if the Mavs are to be competitive.
is on the way for the Huskies. But, sadly, Bobby Goepfert’s
eligibility is still a year away.
flirting with the spotlight last March, the youthful Seawolves
may face a harsh reality this winter.