years ago in Anaheim (of all places), WCHA fans were hanging
their heads and lamenting the fact that the nation's oldest
established permanent floating college hockey conference
had gone two years without a team in the Frozen Four. There
was talk that the once-great league was no more.
about a resurrection. WCHA teams have claimed two of the
last three NCAA titles, and finished second (in overtime)
in the third. It's a good bet that there will be a Western
team or two in Western New York for the 2003 Frozen Four.
St. Cloud State
national champ Minnesota lost the nation’s top defenseman
and top player in Hobey winner Jordan Leopold. Ironically,
defense is where the Gophers look most solid this year,
with potential superstars Paul Martin and Keith Ballard
on rearguard duty. They’ll score goals in bunches,
and only need to answer a big question between the pipes
in order to contend for league and national trophies again.
which claimed the league title last year, has most of its
team intact and looks to make another run. After winning
the league’s regular season and playoff titles, then
falling 20 minutes short of the Frozen Four, the Pioneers
are surely thinking “unfinished business” this
coach Mike Eaves is the all-time leading scorer in Wisconsin
hockey history. If he could don a sweater, his Badgers would
be the league’s favorite. Instead he inherits a talented
team that underachieved in the last of Jeff Sauer’s
20 seasons in Madison. Goaltending and defense are solid.
But Eaves’ team might struggle due to the fact that
the two best forwards named “Eaves” (Mike’s
sons Ben and Patrick) play for Boston College.
out the upper reaches of the league should be North Dakota
(which brings in a load of young talent in hopes of erasing
the nightmare of last season) and upstart Alaska Anchorage,
which was one-upped by in-state rival Alaska Fairbanks (of
the CCHA) last year. Second-year coach John Hill had the
Seawolves in the hunt for home ice in the playoffs until
late in the season last year. It says here that they'll
take the next step in 2002-03.
Hill knows how to build something from nothing.
He saw it done first as a player for Alaska Anchorage when
the Seawolves went from a club team to a real competitor
on the NCAA scene. He saw it next as Don Lucia's assistant
at Colorado College, where he helped turn a moribund program
back into a national power in a span of 10 months.
expecting miracles at UAA, where the recruiting challenges
are immense, but Hill's program showed some encouraging
signs of growth last year, winning some big games at home.
goalie Chris King was stellar as a rookie, then suffered
a sophomore slump. He will split time with fellow junior
Kevin Reiter (who had worse stats but more wins than King
last season). Their play, and the ability of freshmen to
contribute points, might be enough to lift UAA into the
league's upper echelon for the first time in its decade
as a league member. Another key to success are re-establishing
the jaunt to Alaska as a trip nobody wants to make (due
to more than just the long flight) and improving on last
season's dismal 3-14-1 road mark.
FOR A FALL
a cold spring in Central Minnesota, and fall is looking
chilly as well, at least inside the National Hockey Center
for St. Cloud State.
a late-season collapse during which they went 3-6 in their
final month, April began with the Huskies' first-ever Hobey
finalist, junior forward Mark Hartigan, leaving a year early
to become an Atlanta Thrasher. September began with word
that two of SCSU's veteran defenders (senior Derek Eastman
and junior Joel Peterson) will miss the season due to academic
troubles. Two more blueliners (juniors Ryan LaMere and Jason
Reimers) will be out until November. LaMere is recovering
from shoulder surgery, and Reimers is sitting out after
transferring from Wisconsin.
like the Huskies (who have made a league-best three straight
trips to the NCAAs) could spend March chasing home ice instead
of chasing the MacNaughton Cup.
reminded of that scene at the end of "Real Genius"
when the evil prof is threatening to flunk Chris Knight
(Val Kilmer) out of Pacific Tech and Chris replies, "OK,
I'll go talk to the dean, and my work on the laser alone
ought to merit a degree."
easy to feel the same way about Don Lucia.
Forget the Gophers winning the 2002 NCAA title (believe
me, plenty of fans in St. Cloud, Duluth and Grand Forks
are trying hard to forget it) and take away the formerly
great hair. You're left with a guy who was able to win (when
nobody else had) at Alaska-Fairbanks and a guy who was able
to win big (when nobody else, not even the legendary Jeff
Sauer, had for decades) at Colorado College.
to that the fact that he's realistic enough to know when
it's time to take a break – underscored by Lucia taking
himself off the coaching staff for a world tournament in
Scandinavia last May so he could spend more off-season time
with his wife and family.
me crazy, but when this guy retires (with a few more NCAA
titles under his belt to be sure) I could see statues of
him erected outside Mariucci Arena (which needs a little
something monument-like in front) and Colorado Springs World
Arena (which wouldn't exist if Lucia hadn't resurrected
the CC program in the 1990s).
ON THE HOT SEAT
he's won four league titles and two national crowns in less
than a decade with the Sioux. But when your sugar daddy
drops $100-some million on a rink, and you respond by tying
for sixth in the WCHA, there's some work that needs to be
done. Normally-rabid Sioux fans get a little restless when
their team is a combined 0-6-1 at home versus Minnesota,
MSU-Mankato and Alaska Anchorage, as Dean Blais's
troops were last season.
to that the rumblings from some (possibly jealous) rival
coaches that Blais is stockpiling the top young talent,
and you're looking at what could be a watershed year for
the North Dakota program.
in the league's top half might be enough to quickly get
Blais back into the good graces of the NoDak fans and benefactors.
Another year without home playoff games in the Palace on
the Prairie and blizzards might not be the only storms in
ACT TO FOLLOW
spelling and pronouncing his name wasn't enough of a challenge,
Denver goaltender Wade Dubielewicz (for
the record, it's DOOB-uhl-wits) will have a heavy workload
replicating the past performances of – himself. A
senior, Dubielewicz was Mr. Everything between the Pioneer
pipes last year, winning 20 games and putting up ridiculously
impressive numbers (1.72 GAA, .943 SV%) that make him statistically
the top returning netminder in the nation. The results of
his final college campaign will determine whether he's remembered
alongside Hobey winner Robb Stauber or is a candidate for
the Jim Carey One-Year Wonder Award.
College's Peter Sejna -- the speedy kid
from that renowned hockey hotbed of Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia
-- lit up the league as a freshman, then handled the “sophomore
jinx” thusly: 26 goals, 24 assists, 50 points. The
Tigers' run was stopped a game shy of the Frozen Four a
year ago, but it wasn’t due to offensive failings.
Sejna’s biggest challenge as a junior might be loneliness,
with fellow 50-point man Matt Cullen departed for the greener
pastures of pro hockey. The Tigers are primed to take a
step back this year (after huge personnel losses at forward
and in goal). But if Sejna comes to play every night, he
could be the league’s first Hobey winner on a seventh-place
team since Minnesota-Duluth’s Chris Marinucci in 1994.
particularly big (6-0, 190) or fast, Matt Koalska
has been the definition of “sparkplug” for the
Gophers in his two seasons on campus. He hails from the
St. Paul city youth hockey programs that produced guys with
names like “Sauer” and “Brooks”
then supposedly quit cranking out hockey talent a decade
ago. He’s so anonymous that the team media guide his
freshman year listed his first name as “Mark.”
He responded to the slight by lighting up Notre Dame in
the first college game at the Xcel Energy Center. With scoring
stars like Jeff Taffe and Johnny Pohl no longer wearing
the big “M,” it’s a golden opportunity
for this unsung junior to be a team, and league, leader.
story: The Twin Cities born-and-bred Zach Parise
committed to be a Fighting Sioux just prior to the start
of the 2001-02 season. Former Gopher coach Glen Sonmor (who
now provides colorful assessments of the WCHA officials’
skills and knowledge during Minnesota radio broadcasts)
was so shocked that he actually drove an hour or so visit
to Parise (who was toiling for Shattuck-St. Mary’s
School in Faribault, Minn., at the time) to try to convince
the kid into a change of heart. Sonmor’s Jedi mind
tricks were no match for the lure of a chance to live in
sunny and scenic Grand Forks, and Parise brings his outstanding
offensive talents (chronicled in Sports Illustrated last
season) to a North Dakota squad desperate for goals. Zach
is the son of former Minnesota North Star J.P. Parise. The
bet here is that the sight of “PARISE” on the
back of a green and white sweater will still produce a few
smiles for hockey fans in Minnesota (especially those who
live near the North Dakota border).
IT DOWN – Six things you can take to the bank in the
WCHA this season:
won't just be Badger fans rooting for Wisconsin junior defenseman
Dan Boeser to recover from his current bout with follicular
B cell lymphoma. The junior spent September undergoing 20
radiation therapies, and vowing to be in uniform on Bucky's
blue line for the team's Oct. 11 opener with RPI.
will be very few empty seats when the Golden Gophers open
the season by returning to the site of their national championship
(St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center) to open the season versus
Ohio State on Oct. 12. No, it won’t be as loud as
when Grant Potulny’s overtime goal gave Minnesota
the NCAA crown last April. It might never be that loud again.
Italy will not play before any capacity crowds during its
five-game December tour of the league. Note to Commissioner
Bruce McLeod: Please, no more of these meaningless international
games. Fans just don't care to see the Byrnas Tigers, Swiss
Selects or St. Petersburg Red Army like they used to. Instead,
give the kids a longer holiday break. With seasons stretching
from late September to mid April, another week of R&R
would be good for the troops.
at least one occasion, that stunning and stirring laser
light show that accompanies the introduction of the Fighting
Sioux before games at Ralph Engelstad Arena will momentarily
make fans forget that just outside the etched-glass doors
there’s a blowing snow advisory and the wind chill
is 43 below zero. That stuff happens like clockwork every
January in Grand Forks.
than one Minnesota-Duluth fan (yes, there is more than one
out there) will have December 28 circled in red on their
kitchen wall calendar. That's the day that highly-regarded
forward T.J. Caig becomes eligible (the NCAA has ruled that
he must sit out the first semester of the school year) and
will be in the lineup when UMD hosts Union at the DECC.
There hasn’t been a rookie debut this anticipated
in Duluth since Bobby Hull’s son (I believe his name
first donned #29 for the Bulldogs in 1984.
will win its first outright MacNaughton Cup in more than
a decade (the Gophers last stood alone atop the WCHA in
1992). But the western team most likely to remain standing
in Buffalo when the Frozen Four is concluded is (drum roll
please) … that crew from the Front Range with that
cool-looking red-tailed hawk on their shoulders. George
Gwozdecky will finally prove that on occasion, nice guys
do indeed finish first.
YOU AT TOURNEY TIME
Denver, Wisconsin, North Dakota