Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Frozen Four begins tonight!

(Can you tell the Columbus Blue Jackets are out of the playoff hunt?  Yet another digression before the season is done...)

One of the unique aspects of hockey as compared to my other favorite sport, football, is the talent development system.  In football there is NCAA team sport and then the National Football League (with unaffiliated "minor leagues" like the United Football League as well).  Hockey, on the other hand, has a whole sequence of minor and junior hockey levels, which can take a youngster from ages 1 (yes, ONE) through 20.  Above and beyond that, you have minor professional hockey like the ECHL, the CHL and the AHL.

Then there's college hockey.  College hockey apparently is not as big a deal in Canada, where Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) hockey seems to be treated more like a club-level activity.  You can't make that statement about the 58 schools fielding teams in NCAA Division I Men's Hockey, though, as these kids are pretty darned serious about their games...and their grades.  The back and forth recruiting (poaching?) between the major junior leagues and the NCAA is really something, which should give readers a level of understanding of the quality of some NCAA programs.

There are some legit players coming out of the NCAA.  Columbus and Blue Jackets fans only have to look up the street from Nationwide Arena to see the Ohio State hockey program, which was the home of the CBJ's R.J. Umberger and the Canucks' Ryan Kessler for a spell.  In addition, D-1 programs based in Ohio can be found at Miami University and Bowling Green State University.  Beyond that, CBJ fans also probably have noticed that Boston College's Can Atkinson (nominee for the Hobey Baker Award, the NCAA's "hockey Heisman") and RPI's Allen York both just signed contracts with the Blue Jackets within the past couple of weeks and are already playing big minutes with the AHL Springfield Falcons.

And whereas the Major Junior leagues have their Memorial Cup tournament to crown a champion, the NCAA has The Frozen Four.  And The Frozen Four starts tonight in St. Paul, Minnesota!

Much like the NCAA basketball Final Four, we've gone through a couple rounds of tournament play and are now down to the final weekend.  Four teams will square off tonight in the hopes of reaching the finals:
  • Minnesota-Duluth (24-10-6) v. Notre Dame (25-13-5), 5PM, ESPN2 (Preview - Matchups)
  • North Dakota (32-8-3) v. Michigan (28-10-4), 8:30PM, ESPN2 (Preview - Matchups)
Might we see a Notre Dame-Michigan Frozen Four final
on Saturday night?
The final will be played on Saturday night at 7PM on ESPN.  For lots and lots of Frozen four coverage, check out College Hockey News.

If you've read this blog for any period of time, you know that I'm a Notre Dame alum...so guessing my team in the Frozen Four is a pretty easy task.  The Irish are a bit of an underdog from what I can see, with 12 freshmen on the squad this year.  But boy, the kids can play!

I don't know much about the other programs, but Michigan's hockey program is legendary under coach Red Berenson and exiled CBJer Mike Commodore's North Dakota Fighting Sioux is also a perennial contender in the west and probably the favorite among the four remaining teams.  Minnesota-Duluth?  Got me.

If you have nothing else going on tonight and can't bear to watch NHL teams jostling for playoff position when you know your Blue Jackets will be on the first tee on Sunday morning, why not tune in tonight and see some college hockey?  It's a fast-paced game - perhaps faster than the NHL and much less brutal - and can be very exciting to watch.

Enjoy the Frozen Four!  (And GO IRISH!)

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