Hermantown’s Drew LeBlanc leads St. Cloud State into the Final Five as captain, scoring leader, WCHA Player of the Year, first team all-WCHA, and fourth-year all-Academic standout. -John Gilbert photo
Hermantown’s Drew LeBlanc leads St. Cloud State into the Final Five as captain, scoring leader, WCHA Player of the Year, first team all-WCHA, and fourth-year all-Academic standout. -John Gilbert photo


We will wait until next week, after this weekend’s WCHA Final Five, to pay tribute to the best college hockey tournament in the land. Even if you count the NCAA Frozen Four. This will be the last Final Five -- the final Final Five -- for the WCHA as we know it.
   There are six teams in the Final Five, but only five games, which allows the league to keep the popular name. Of the six, Minnesota and Wisconsin are hoping to head for the NCAA tournament next week but then are headed for the Big Ten’s new hockey conference next year. St. Cloud State, North Dakota, and Colorado College are also hoping to win and advance to the NCAA, but for certain, they are going to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference next fall. Only Minnesota State-Mankato among the Final Five entries will be remaining in the WCHA, which obviously will be undergoing major surgey before next season.
   Next year at this time, the new NCHA -- UMD, St. Cloud, North Dakota, Miami of Ohio, Western Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver and Colorado College -- will play their whatever-it’ll-be-called tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis, while the Big Ten Conference -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State -- will play their tournament at Xcel Center. Both will run head-to-head on the same weekend.
   And all the teams in those two leagues will not care a bit where the remaining teams that make up the WCHA will be playing their tournament. That will be a sad evolution for a league that has been the best college hockey league every year it has existed. But we can worry about that later. For now, let’s get on over to Xcel Center and enjoy the WCHA Final Five for all it’s worth, through Friday semifinals and on to Saturday night’s championship game, with Fan Fest, and all the carnival atmosphere that fans from North Dakota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud, Mankato and Minnesota can stir up.
    Savor it. Remember it. Take photos with your cell phone. Because it’s going away.

What a weekend!

   If you’re a sports fan in the Northland, it’s a good time to pop a silo-full of popcorn and park it next to your recliner, and focus in on the big flat-screen for a little satellite broadcast watching. That is, if you can’t make it down to the Twin Cities to watch some of the happenings live.
    Pick your favorite: The WCHA Final Five at Saint Paul’s Xcel Energy Center; the state high school boys basketball tournament at Williams Arena and Target Center; the women’s NCAA Frozen Four at Ridder Arena; the surging Minnesota Wild, on the road but coming home for a Saturday matinee; and, on TV only, the University of Minnesota’s basketball team, which is off in Texas to play UCLA in the massive NCAA men’s tournament. The NCAA likes to call its over-hyped, all-consuming basketball tournament “March Madness,” but we know that the real March Madness is going on right there in River City -- also known as the Twin Cities. Let’s count down the attractions, from the bottom up:
    •        ESPN, which will carry so many basketball games along with every other network, had an impromptu survey, nationwide, in which voters said Minnesota stood the best chance of springing an upset in the first round. Those fans undoubtedly heard of Minnesota beating Indiana, but had no idea of the totally inept shooting and ball-handling perpetrated by the Golden Gophers in virtually all games before and since that magnificent performance. If the Bruins have a couple guys who can run, jump, pass and shoot, the Gophers could be in for a quick exit. On the other hand, Minnesota is the most dangerous kind of tournament foe -- a team with considerable skill that is prone to junior-high type mistakes and missed shots, but can, on occasion, get it all together for a good half. And maybe two.
    •      The Wild can’t play better than they did at Vancouver, in what was the final game between the two as division rivals, before sanity finally returns to the NHL and geographic realignment will put the Wild in with natural rivals like Chicago, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and other Midwestern teams. True, the infusion of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter  have meant a world of difference to the Wild. But the addition of rookies like Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker also has made a huge impact. Zucker and Coyle are both 21, and Brodin is only 19.  Remember when the non-hockey types were claiming that Suter was playing poorly because he was getting paid a lot and didn’t score? Calmly and quietly, Suter has done his thing, playing a lot and partnering with Brodin -- a key reason that Brodin appears to be remarkably error-free despite loads of ice-time as Suter’s partner. That leaves key returnees like Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, and others with room to perform without the pressure to carry the team. And Matt Cullen, former St. Cloud State and Moorhead High School star, is playing like he’s 26 instead of 36. With Niklas Backstrom hotter than a pistol in goal, and a smothering team defense that has become more than just opportunists on offense, the Wild could make a bid for season and playoff heroics.
    •      The Gopher women, riding a 39-0 season into the Frozen Four at their home rink Friday and Sunday, should win it. Amanda Kessel and her freshman linemates will score, but watch Megan Bozek, who is a female Paul Coffey back on defense, and Noora Raty, the record-breaking goaltender from Finland. Sure, Boston College will be a tough semifinal foe, and the winner of Mercyhurst and Boston University will provide a worthy final opponent, but when the NCAA decided to save a buck and rank North Dakota No. 8, just so UND could be seeded at Minnesota last Saturday night, it was an atrocity. Recall back on December 8-9, BU came to AMSOIL Arena and UMD played the Terriers to a 2-2 tie, outshooting BU 30-22. The next night they played a stellar 0-0 standoff, with UMD outshooting BU 39-19. Both great games, but my feeling is that North Dakota could have beaten BU, BC, or Mercyhurst, and had UND been sent off to play any of them, then UND would be in the Frozen Four. Instead, they played an amazing triple-overtime classic at Minnesota, with the Gophers winning 3-2 when Mira Jaluso got a shot and Rachel Bona scored on the rebound at 18:51. That means the teams played 118 minutes and 51 seconds, or a mere 1:09 short of playing two entire games back-to-back.
    •      The boys high school basketball tournament gives the Northland three hopes, although they’ve probably already played by the time you read this. We have Lakeview Christian Academy in Class A, where the more games the Lions play, the more Anders Broman will score, setting the all-time career scoring record up there far enough to perhaps never be broken. In AA, Esko got to state with a Section 7 final victory that will live within those boys all their lives. Here’s the scenario: Esko sees a 10-point lead vanish and Mora goes right past the Eskomos for a 62-60 leadm which becomes 63-60 on a free throw with 8.6 seconds left. Esko’s top gun, Casey Staniger, scored his 25th point on a free throw to cut it to 63-61, then he purposely missed the second shot, and in the melee that followed, Mora knocked the ball out of bounds with 1.1 seconds showing. Decision time. I would want Staniger in position for the last desperation shot, but he is the best passer, and he was sent to pass the ball in to Kory Deadrick inside to try to tie the game. But Deadrick’s path was blocked. With 1.1 seconds to go, Staniger passed to the open kid, ninth-grader Jaxon Turner, who had-not-taken-a-single-shot all game! Staniger, at the top of the key, turned and fired, and the ball went in at the buzzer -- a 3-pointer that gave Esko a 64-63 victory. Even the script of Hoosiers couldn’t top that one. The third Northland hope is Grand Rapids, in AAA. The Thunderhawks are hitting on all cylinders, and have a shot to do some serious damage at state.
    •      The Final Five gives Northland fans one major player to focus on -- Drew LeBlanc of Hermantown, the captain and redshirt senior leader of the St. Cloud State Huskies. They’ll be in the 2 p.m. semifinal on Friday, having won their first WCHA season title in their last season in the league. LeBlanc, who suffered a compound fracture to his leg in the 10th game last season. Coach Bob Motzko said that LeBlanc, who had trained hard for a big senior season and passed up the chance to sign a pro contract, came to practice the following Monday in a wheelchair. It took seven months to recover, and when he got the chance for a redshirt repeat of the senior year he had been deprived of, LeBlanc jumped at it. He is the fourth-leading scorer in the WCHA, but more important, his consuming team-first attitude has made him the WCHA Player of the Year, and first-team forward on the all-WCHA team. Going into the Final Five with 13-37--50, he jumped at the opportunity to play with two freshmen, and promptly helped Jonny Brodzinski of Blaine and Kalle Kossila of Finland to matching 32-point seasons. Brodzinski has 21-11--32, and Kossila 15-27--32. Brodzinski, a heavy-shooting former teammate of Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad, scored his 21 goals so far with a WCHA-leading 20 of them NOT on the power play.