As the athletic director at Quinnipiac University, Jack McDonald, spends an inordinate amount of time fielding questions most of his peers don't have to answer.
How do you pronounce Quinnipiac? With the emphasis on "Quinn." Where is that? Connecticut. Where in Connecticut? Hamden. Where is Hamden in Connecticut? In the south, by New Haven. These are the same questions Mr. McDonald's wife asked him 18 years ago when he decided to take this job, and they haven't stopped.
Mr. McDonald hopes there will be fewer of them in the future, and there is good reason for optimism. The QUINN-ipiac Bobcats are one of four hockey teams with surprising names that will be playing today in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinal round at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center. And as Mr. McDonald looked down at the ice Wednesday afternoon while the Bobcats went through their open practice, he couldn't shake the goose bumps.
Practices, press conferences usher in Frozen Four
The PG's Jenn Menendez provides an overview of the Frozen Four as the NCAA hockey championship takes over Consol Energy Center. (Video by Steve Mellon; 4/10/2013)
Fans speak up for their Frozen Four favorites
Collegiate hockey fans are invading Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four at Consol Energy Center. A number of them attending open practices today were quick to express their loyalties. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/10/2013)
"Look at the Quinnipiac logos all over the place," said Mr. McDonald, who ushered the school from Division II to Division I. "I can't believe it."
No matter where one looks around the arena tonight, disbelief will be the dominant emotion. The players and coaches at Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State University (Minn.), the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Yale University may not view themselves as underdogs, especially after knocking off the big boys to get here, but their collective visit to college hockey's grandest stage is unexpected -- even to those who got to watch their respective journeys up close.
"The greatest thing about sports," Mr. McDonald said, "is that it's unscripted. Spike Lee said it best. You can read a book or watch a movie and have a pretty good sense of what's going to happen. When you watch an athletic event, you have no clue what's going to happen, no clue how the season is going to end.
"This Cinderella story, this Frozen Four, this is why the American public loves sports. There are four teams here, and someone's going to be a national champion for the first time."
St. Cloud State Help from a legend
Herb Brooks knew a thing or two about Cinderella stories. He had coached the U.S. Olympic hockey team to its stunning upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, known as the "Miracle on Ice," and so in 1987 it was no daunting task when he arrived at little-known St. Cloud State to coach their Division III squad.
Brooks loved hockey in his native state, having coached the University of Minnesota to three national championships in the 1970s. He believed that the state should have more than just two Division I programs (Minnesota-Duluth was the other), and he was willing to spend a year in St. Cloud, an hour northwest of the twin cities, trying to speed the school's desired transition to D-I.
"If you were a Minnesota kid, you wanted to play for Herb," said Mike Brodzinski, a captain on that '87 team. "When you walked into the locker room and there he was, you couldn't believe it was really him."
That season, Brooks coached out of a 10-feet-by-10-feet office in the St. Cloud city rink, where the peewee leagues played their games. He pushed that group like he would have an Olympic or NHL team, and they made the D-III national semifinals. Watching him closely then was Bob Motzko, a young student assistant coach who had played at St. Cloud State.
"There was a rumor floating around that he was there to be a figurehead," Mr. Motzko said, "but he coached that team to win."
Brooks' recommendation helped Mr. Motzko get his first head coaching job. Mr. Motzko is now the coach of St. Cloud State, which will play in its first Frozen Four after beating traditional powers Notre Dame and Miami-Ohio last weekend.
And Mr. Brodzinski? His son, Jonny, a freshman, leads the team in goals scored.
Brooks, who later coached the Penguins, died in a car crash on Aug. 11, 2003.
"My son wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to play [big-time hockey] at St. Cloud State if Herbie didn't come here," Mr. Brodzinski said. "Herbie put the process in motion faster because of who he is."
Massachusetts Lowell Moving out from the shadows
Every winter since the 1952-53 season, four Boston-area schools have played in the annual Beanpot tournament. Boston University, Boston College, Harvard University and Northeastern University occupy those spots in the center of the area's college hockey scene.
BU and BC each have five national championships, Harvard one. Thirty miles northwest of Beantown, Massachusetts Lowell has been largely forgotten. The River Hawks won three NCAA titles as a Division II program before joining Division I in 1984 but have mostly taken their lumps playing against the best of the Hockey East Conference.
This season, Lowell finally got payback, beating BU in the Hockey East tournament final to win the league and secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Boston University, they've been one of our great tormentors," said Bob Ellis, the team's radio broadcaster the last 29 years. "In a lot of ways, the steps that got us here this year have been exorcising the demons."
And now, those demons will be rooting for the River Hawks.
"Everyone who's a collegiate hockey fan in Massachusetts is cheering for the River Hawks, and that feels good," said Marty Meehan, Massachusetts Lowell's chancellor.
Lowell as a town was once at the forefront of America's industrial revolution, with countless textile mills churning along the Merrimack River. It has fallen on hard times in recent decades, but the growth of the university is a key to helping Lowell recover. Mr. Meehan said the university plans to open seven new buildings in the next four years, and the hockey team's success can only increase the momentum.
For the River Hawks, two games away from a national championship, life is completely different from three decades ago.
"We're expanding our reach in terms of fan base and reputation," said Mr. Meehan, a Massachusetts Lowell graduate. "We think it's going to be this way for many years to come."
Yale An unconventional underdog story
Unlike its trio of hockey counterparts in Pittsburgh, Yale University is no rags-to-riches tale. The school's endowment is around $20 billion, and five U.S. presidents have been graduates. It is a place for the nation's best and brightest and, often, most wealthy.
But, in sports, Yale plays in the Ivy League, where it is not allowed to offer athletic scholarships. Its athletes apply for school and financial aid just like every other student, which is a highbrow concept in the murky waters of modern college athletics.
Still, Yale has made four of the last five NCAA tournaments, and the Bulldogs come to Pittsburgh with a well-sized chip on their shoulder to prove that a team from the Ivy League can hang at the highest level.
"I'm sure they all think that we're just a bunch of smart kids when we go out there," Yale freshman Ryan Obuchowski said.
Of course, they are smarter than the average Bulldog. Freshman Stu Wilson, for instance, is interested in majoring in political science. This semester, he is taking introductory French; "Development Under Fire," a political science class that looks at the "effects of aid in settings such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia and The Philippines"; "Galaxies of the Universe," an Astronomy class; and "Black Atlantic," an African-American Studies class.
In "Development Under Fire," Mr. Wilson had a paper due Wednesday at 5 p.m. He completed it in his Pittsburgh hotel room Tuesday night.
"It's definitely challenging balancing everything," he said.
Mr. Wilson has had to miss his French class a few times because of hockey. The French department only allows five absences before it begins to affect a student's grade. But surely a hockey player representing his school in the Frozen Four would get a break?
Mr. Wilson's graduate instructor in French, Yale doctoral student Colin Foss, wouldn't answer that. But he did reveal that he forced Mr. Wilson to have a conversation in French about the Bulldogs' wins over North Dakota and Minnesota last weekend.
"When Stu talks about hockey," Mr. Foss said, "he uses new vocabulary words."
Even at Yale, there's room for a Cinderella story.