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The preliminaries are upon us. No, not Easter, which is far more than a preliminary. The NCAA basketball championship is one of the monster sports events in the country, as they gather for Saturday semifinals and the Monday night championship.
Those of us in Hockey Heaven can relax and enjoy the pagaentry before we get back to business next week, when the NCAA Frozen Four returns to Saint Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, and it is a surprising foursome in a season of surprises and four dramatic regionals.
In Duluth, of course, we fondly recall the 2011 tournament at the same place, when UMD knocked off Notre Dame in the semifinals, then beat Michigan in an overtime thriller for the Bulldogs only NCAA men’s championship.
Michigan and Notre Dame are both coming to this party, too, but they run smack into each other in next Thursday’s second semifinal, after UMD takes on a surprising Ohio State outfit in the first game. The title will be decided on Saturday.
Intense as those games will be, there is nothing but respect among the four coaches, who share praise for each other, and have rich working relationships from the recent past times in Minnesota to recall.
Jeff Jackson of Notre Dame is the grand master, and the only non-Minnesotan in the field, having orchestrated Lake Superior State through the CCHA and on to NCAA glory before leaving to direct the U.S. development program. When he came back to coach Notre Dame, I told him he was welcome as one of the most thorough coaches in the game, because college hockey needed him more than he needed college hockey. In their first year in the Big Ten, the non-Big Ten Fighting Irish ran away with the league title fighting St. Cloud State for the national No. 1 seed. Notre Dame won the East regional by beating Michigan Tech 4-3 in overtime, and Providence 2-1 in the final half-minute, as if to stress the parity in college hockey.
“I’m not surprised we have three Big Ten teams in the Frozen Four,” said Jackson. “We could have had four,” meaning Minnesota’s near miss at the hands of UMD in the Pairwise. “Scott Sandelin is one of the best coaches — if not one of the top two or three — because it’s a very delicate thing to lose seniors and also lose a lot of guys who sign, and you’re not sure who’s going to be back, and still stay on top. Duluth has done it better than anyone. Steve Rohlik is another great young coach who plays the game the right way. I’ve known him since he coached with Scott. I thought Ohio State was the best team we played all year, and I voted for Steve as coach of the year. And Mel Pearson’s Michigan team played us four tough games and got better as the year went on.”
Mel Pearson of Michigan grew up in Edina and played on the St. Paul Civic Center ice in the state tournament and first witnessed the glass sideboards of that facility when his dad, also Mel Pearson, skated for the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the World Hockey Association, keeping his curly hair down with a headband. Mel Jr. played at Michigan Tech, then went off to Michigan as assistant to Red Berenson for 23 years, waiting the annual decision that Red would retire. When he didn’t, Pearson went back to his alma mater and rebuilt Michigan Tech into a college hockey force. It seemed that the only job that could lure Pearson away was Michigan, and when Berenson finally retired, Pearson returned to Ann Arbor. It didn’t take long. After being picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten, Michigan came on to finish third behind Notre Dame and Ohio State, then beat Northeastern 3-2, and Boston University 6-3 to win the Northeast region.
“We have a great group of players who didn’t believe the predictions that we’d finish sixth,” said Pearson. “I felt like we did a pretty good job at Tech, but it was fun coming back to Ann Arbor, where I’d been for 23 years. I grew up in Minnesota and I always enjoy getting back. If not the best, it’s one of the two or three best places to put on the Frozen Four. It took a while before these guys to figure out that this guy from the U.P. could do the job. We know Notre Dame has no weaknesses; they’re built from the defensive side and you have to work hard to create chances.”
Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik, a purebred Minnesotan who was a state tournament star at Hill-Murray, and a college star who was a true leader on a Wisconsin NCAA championship team before getting the chance to move into coaching at Hill-Murray when he was only 23. Rohlik went to Nebraska-Omaha where Mike Kemp hired him to help start the Mavericks program, then he joined Scott Sandelin and assisted UMD, where he and Brett Larson were a two-pronged recruiting tandem that led up to and included that NCAA championship team. After another stop as associate coach with aclose friend and fellow former Badger captain Mark Osiecki at Wisconsin, Rohlik got the chance to take over at Ohio State. In his fifth year now, Rohlik has put together a team that rose up from the ranks in a Big Ten that used to have Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State as dominators and beat all of them to place second to Notre Dame. In the Midwest regional, the Buckeyes beat Princeton and then shockey the hockey world with a 5-1 whipping of defending NCAA champion Denver.
“We played solid against one of the best teams in the country,” Rohlik said of the victory over Denver. “We competed and we were relentless, and everybody bought in to work extremely hard. I’m not surprised that three Big Ten teams are in the Frozen Four, because every weekend you’ve got to prepare for what you think might be the best in the country. Now we play another unbelievable team in UMD. I had some unbelievable years at Duluth, and I consider Scott and Brett both good friends, and I remember people warning us that UMD was too small and we couldn’t win there. That’s all we needed to go forward.”
In this company of three Big Ten teams, UMD is the lone team from the NCHC, which is made up of eight teams that all believe their league is superior. Scott Sandelin, Hibbing native and former North Dakota defenseman, took the Bulldogs through the NCAA regionals to get to the Frozen Four last year, but lost 3-2 to Denver in the championship game. Losing five defensemen, goaltender Hunter Miska, and four of their top five scoring forwards, this figured to be a rebuilding year. But Sandelin guided the Bulldogs to a third-place finish behind St. Cloud State and Denver, then fell flat in losing to both Denver — for the fifth time this season — and North Dakota in the NCHC playoffs at Xcel. But in the West regional at Sioux Falls, the NCAA’s top seeded St. Cloud State was ambushed by Air Force, while UMD rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the third period to beat Minnesota State-Mankato 3-2 in overtime, then jumped ahead of Air Force 2-0 and held off the Falcons 2-1 to win the regional. Not bad, for a rebuilding team.
“We know Ohio State is a good hockey team,” said Sandelin. “We saw that last year at Fargo, where we were lucky to get off to a good start, because they were, I thought, the better team over the last 40 minutes. We beat them in overtime to get to the Frozen Four, but they’ve got a team that is patient on defense, and they’ve got big bodies who can play fast and get to the net to score. Steve is a fiery, very passionate guy and I loved his intensity level.”
In the final Pairwise rating, Notre Dame was No. 2, Ohio State No. 4, Michigan No. 8, and UMD No. 12. So for Bulldog fans who love the dark maroon jerseys, UMD will be wearing the darks with the bright gold Bulldog head on the chest for as long as they keep playing.