NCAA hockey crowned a new champion on Saturday night, and this time around it truly was a new one. Union College, the pride of Schenectady, New York, ousted the University of Minnesota, 7-4. The Dutchmen had one NHL draft pick to the Gophers’ fourteen, and their entire school could fit in a large U of M lecture hall. Even so, it wasn’t much of an upset: Union hadn’t lost a game since January, and had dispatched of another co-favorite, Boston College, in the semis. By the end, there was no doubt who deserved the crown.
As the old Nanne-ism goes, the team that controls the blue line wins the championship, and that was most certainly the case on Saturday night. The man of the hour was that lone Union draft pick, Shayne Gostisbehere, who was an absurd +7 on the night, and could do no wrong; even when he seemed to make an ill-advised pinch, the puck bounced his way. At a tournament in Philadelphia, the Flyers’ draft pick put on a show for his future employers, ruling all 200 feet of the ice sheet. Though it was a bit wobbly in front of its own net–eight goals is an awful lot to give up in a Frozen Four–the entire Dutchman defense was mobile and moved the puck well, with Mat Bodie and Sebastian Gringas also flashing into the fray on the offensive end. They supported each other well, and were rarely fooled by the dekes and pretty passing pulled out by the Gophers’ skill players. Their involvement left opposing defensemen in uncharted territory, and the mistakes followed from there.
Add in a prolific top line and just enough depth to sustain pressure across the board, and Union was just flat-out fun to watch play. So often, championships by less-heralded teams involve great goaltending and narrow survival, but Union did it the opposite way, taking it to the opposition with reckless abandon. They beat arguably the top two programs in the nation in back-to-back games, and their aggressive, up-tempo play is a reminder of how enjoyable hockey can be when puck movement takes priority. Herb Brooks would have been proud.
Being a good northern Minnesota boy, though, my favorite game of the three (all excellent) Frozen Four games was the North Dakota-Minnesota semifinal. While the Union games were fun because anything was possible, the collision between the longtime rivals just dripped with tension and anxiety, with the knowledge that just one little mistake could make all the difference. Yes, it was tentative at times, but the drama, slow build-up, and patient prodding in that sort of game all have their own alluring rhythm. The game-winning goal with 0.6 seconds to go was a study in little details, from the initial face-off win by Kyle Rau to North Dakota’s lackadaisical backchecking to Rau’s pass to onrushing defenseman Justin Holl. Rau and Holl twice faced off in Section 6AA championship games back in high school, but on Thursday night, the old rivals combined to launch their team to title game.
The Gopher defense was sharp against North Dakota, but it was their undoing against Union. Too often they seemed caught in no-man’s land, managing to give the Union defense clean shooting lanes while also failing to clear out the forwards in front of the net. For all the talent on the Gophers, their inexperience showed at times, and they weren’t nearly physical enough to slow down the Dutchmen. Goaltender Adam Wilcox was hung out to dry, and though the Gophers twice battled back to within one, they didn’t quite have the firepower to overwhelm Union in an up-tempo game. Give some of their young guns a few more years and they might get there, but in 2014, experience won out over touted youth.
One Minnesota veteran deserves credit for his effort throughout: Kyle Rau. As a Duluth East alumnus, I’ll never forgive him for 2011, but three years removed from that absurd double-ricochet, triple-overtime game-winner in the state title game, I’ll concede this: there is no player in the nation with more panache. He is a lippy, chippy instigator, always right at the center of the action, and he does all the little things right, from faceoff dominance to diligent defense. The Gopher captain was the heart and soul of his team, and if he returns for his senior year, the Gophers’ offensive depth will be second to none.
The loss is a bittersweet end to the Gopher season. Sure, they lost a lot off last season’s squad, and were a very young group. But they were also among the preseason favorites, and were the top-ranked team for most of the regular season. Pending a couple of possible early departures for the pro ranks, they don’t lose much that can’t be replaced, and should be loaded for another run next season. Still, college hockey is among the least predictable sports, and this program hasn’t been lacking in talent over the past ten years, which did not yield a single appearance in the title game. They may yet rue this wasted opportunity. It’s not easy being the Gophers; even though they attract as much front-line talent as anyone, the perpetual threat of early departure keeps them from ever building a Union-like group of seniors, with players always keeping one eye on their next career move. With the likes of Rau, Taylor Cammarata, and Justin Kloos—small players who don’t project quite as well to higher levels—Don Lucia may have finally found a recruiting strategy that lets him build off the previous year’s results, instead of perpetual reloading with yet another class of talented youngsters. Time will tell.
For now, though, the moment belongs to Union. This college hockey season was dominated by talk of realignment, with the giant Big Ten schools splitting off and forming their own conference with a big TV deal, while the rest of the western teams settled into new tiers based on their size and influence. It may yet prove the beginning of the end for some of the sport’s smaller programs, but in the short term, the parity is phenomenal, with a second straight title for the allegedly lowly Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Union’s win cuts against my own cynicism over the direction of the NCAA, which the results in the other major sports did little to assuage. Hockey is different. Here, a team with zero athletic scholarships can still win it all over the big-time powerhouses with enough experience, pluck, and Gostisbehere. It’s a reminder of what college sports were meant to be back in the golden age of amateurism, if that ever really existed. It’s hard to say just how much the landscape might change in a world of money-chasing conferences and unionized (small-u union) players and an unending rush to develop for the next level, but for the time being, college hockey is one of the nation’s best-kept sports secrets. May God continue to bless it.