When Larry Sander went to his first Frozen Four in 1984, he noticed that some fans wore pins commemorating the college hockey championship events they had attended. To be frank, Dr. Sander, a young family physician living in Orrville, Ohio, thought that seemed a pretty stupid thing to do.
Thursday afternoon, he sat in the lobby of the Cambria Suites, Downtown, his hair now mostly white, and was sporting a bright green vest and a bright green bowler hat adorned by hundreds of pins representing many of the nearly 30 Frozen Fours he has been to since that first one in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Back then, Dr. Sander's game attire blended in. He was cheering on his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, and so he wore Fighting Sioux gear. Thursday, his garb made sense only if you understood what it means to be a diehard college hockey fan.
"I should point out that normally he's a quite rational person," said Margaret Sander, his wife.
"She's suggesting that this is not rational," Dr. Sander deadpanned.
Rationality, clearly, is not the goal, especially when you consider that North Dakota's ice hockey team was home Thursday in Grand Forks, N.D., watching the Frozen Four on TV just like every team not named Yale, Massachusetts Lowell, St. Cloud State (Minn.) and Quinnipiac (Conn.). But the Sanders' school not making the Frozen Four did not stop them from coming to Consol Energy Center, nor did it dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of other fans whose teams' fates twisted cruelly at season's end.
The Frozen Four, Pittsburghers learned Thursday, is about more than cheering your favorite team. It's a chance to celebrate the sweet existence of college hockey, a sport that plays out in old barns across the country with limited ego compared to professional sports and college athletics' main revenue generators, football and men's basketball.
At this "Cinderella" Frozen Four -- Yale beat Massachusetts Lowell, 3-2, in overtime, and Quinnipiac defeated St. Cloud State, 4-1, in the late game in the national semifinals -- fans proudly donned the sweaters of traditional powers like Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Boston University and Boston College while rooting for the little guys to put on a show.
The NCAA, realizing that college hockey had cultivated a legion of fans loyal enough to attend the Frozen Four each year regardless of the teams or location, began in 2002 awarding ticketing priority to fans who had bought tickets to the event in previous years.
An individual's priority level is determined by the number of Frozen Fours he or she has attended, beginning with the 1997 championship in Milwaukee, and ending with the most recent championship. Ticket purchasers are given one priority point for each year.
This year, the NCAA took it a step further, allowing the diehards to select their exact seats based on their priority.
That meant that Bruce Freniere and his buddies from Boston University were in good shape to get a primo spot in Consol Energy Center. They have been to every Frozen Four since 1990 and many before that. But when Mr. Freniere went to the ticket website at the designated time, thousands of seats were already gone.
"That's the core group," said Sonny Chan, one of Mr. Freniere's friends. "You're fighting them."
They fight for seats and then bury the hatchet over beers all weekend, talking college hockey and catching up with familiar faces from Frozen Fours past.
"You see them at the bars and hotels, from North Dakota or Wisconsin or Michigan, and you recognize them," Mr. Freniere said.
For the BU crew, who are all in their late-50s, the annual Frozen Four trip is an excuse to get together, now that there are no more bachelor parties or weddings to unite the group from college.
"We're that age," Mr. Chan said. "Bruce is in Atlanta, I'm in Connecticut, we don't get to see each other too often. The wives are really good about it. They know it's going to happen."
Mr. Freniere added, "This used to be an exercise in proving that sleep was a habit that could be broken, but we're the ones that have been broken now."
As Mr. Freniere and Mr. Chan reminisced about their younger days, Ed Moller, a BU friend, approached. He has gone to every Frozen Four since 1993 -- mainly because it's an expenditure his wife can get behind.
"We don't have to mortgage our homes to go see this," Mr. Moller said. "We know that every year we apply to get a ticket we're going to get one."
Tom Bore, a Maine fan who lives in The Villages, Fla., is attending his 26th Frozen Four in a row with his wife, Diane. Before he fell for college hockey, he attended two basketball Final Fours, but neither of those events compared to the 1988 Frozen Four in Lake Placid.
"It was the excitement of meeting all the fans, all in their colors," Mr. Bore said. "You don't see that in basketball."
Larry Sander has also been to a Final Four. He agrees that there is just something different about hockey's version.
"It's much friendlier," Dr. Sander said. "If you look at all the sweaters that are on, you'll get 25 teams, but only four are here."
The Sanders met at North Dakota in 1966. They cheered for the hockey team together for many years before deciding to attend the 1984 Frozen Four. Before they knew it, they were hooked.
"It's kind of like a reunion, in a way," Mrs. Sander said. "A reunion of like minds."
For all of the Frozen Four faithful, there have been times when their loyalty to the event has been tested. For Dr. Sander, that moment came in 2001.
They had planned to take their daughter, Melanie, on a Caribbean cruise for her 16th birthday in early April. But when North Dakota made the Frozen Four in Albany, N.Y. -- the same weekend as the cruise -- Dr. Sander became consumed with getting a guarantee that the cruise ship would have the ability to broadcast the games.
"I got so tired of it," Mrs. Sander said, "so he stayed home from the ship."
Dr. Sander went with Mrs. Sander's mother, also a North Dakota fan, to the Frozen Four. Mrs. Sander went with their daughter to Aruba and Curacao. After the trip, Mrs. Sander's preference said everything about her family's love affair with college hockey's big event.
"I'm not a cruise person," Mrs. Sander said. "I kind of wished I was at the Frozen Four."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published April 12, 2013 4:00 AM