The phenomenon that has become the Frozen Four


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In 1948, the first national championship in men's hockey took place on a sheet of ice in the former riding stable of a grand hotel in the Colorado Rockies named the Broadmoor.

The rink was small, seating just a few thousand, and had box seats right up to the edge of the boards.

Wooden seats were dotted with patrons in tuxedos, and players -- without face shields or even helmets -- were close enough to hear.

It was as obscure as it was intimate, but a grand event that went on for 10 years, recalls former Michigan Coach Al Renfrew, 88, who was a left winger for the Wolverines in 1948.

"It's got a grand history, I'll tell you that much," said Renfrew, whose team won the first NCAA hockey championship. "It was a wonderful affair."

The setting has changed dramatically since those early days.

Today, the Frozen Four has evolved into a massive show that packs NHL arenas around the country from Minneapolis to Boston, from Denver to Tampa, Fla., last year.

Television audiences number in the millions, and rosters feature players expected to impact the NHL one day.

This weekend, Pittsburgh steps in as the newest host topping a long line of cities that will bring the college hockey world together to crown a new champion.

But the soul of the event, say its longtime followers, is still rooted in the same passion that rose from the ice 65 years ago.

"It's exciting. It's passionate hockey. It's the pride of the schools in the stands," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who played college hockey at St. Lawrence in the mid-1980s. "I've been to a lot of them. I remember 1990 when Wisconsin beat Colgate at Joe Lewis Arena. I remember waiting to go in, it was just jam-packed and a great experience."

The event was played at the Broadmoor for 10 years until other venues around the country expressed an interest being the host.

"I remember playing in the final four in the early [1960s]and at that time it was in Utica, N.Y." said Red Berenson, Michigan's current head coach. "It was Michigan, Michigan Tech, St. Lawrence and Clarkson. I can't even remember the rink or the crowd. It was a big deal for the players, but certainly not the event it's grown into today."

As the decades passed and games such as football and basketball became giants in college sport, hockey remained one where a smaller, less nationally known program could rise to the top.

Certainly there were the Michigans, with nine titles since 1948, the Boston Colleges, with five, including two in the past five years.

But there were also two wins by Rensselear, three by Lake Superior State, one each by Bowling Green, Minnesota-Duluth, and other athletic programs not exactly known as powerhouses in any sports.

Canisius, the small Jesuit school in Buffalo, N.Y., nearly upset top-ranked Quinnipiac in the first round of the NCAA tournament this year.

"The thing about hockey, when you look at records you don't see basketball records like 31-4," said Canisius president John Hurley. "You lose more often. The puck bounces one way. The tournament is a little more wide open."

Berenson, who played at Michigan then went to the NHL for 17 years, returned to college hockey in 1984 to see some drastic changes in the final.

"I remember when I just got back in '84 and Bowling Green had just won the national championships. Three years later it was Lake Superior, from a remote small town in Northern Michigan," said Berenson. "They were just a small school. During that time Harvard won it once. I remember them beating Minnesota at St. Paul. Maine won. North Dakota. That's the thing about hockey, it just seems like a small school can do it."

"And it caught on fast. I can't tell you why. But it seemed like the same fans would follow the event."

This year is a perfect example of how a smaller program can still make it, as Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and Massachusetts Lowell are all making a first Frozen Four appearance and Yale University -- which gives no scholarships in sports -- is making only a second since 1952.

"I know people are talking that the named schools didn't make it this year, but I think the right schools made it," said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. "We won our league championship. Lowell won their league championship. And Yale came out and kicked our league's butt this year. ... These are the right teams that made it this year.

"There isn't a Cinderella story. These are three programs that had tremendous seasons and were able to fight through these regions and get there."

Certainly Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold knows it is a difficult comparison to draw between hockey and other sports.

The reason? He pegs goaltending.

"You can't really compare hockey to basketball or women's basketball or football or some of the other big sports," said Pecknold. "And the reason why is goaltending is such an equalizer. It changes everything. ... You can outshoot a team 65-8 and lose that hockey game. In the game of basketball if you're that dominant you're going to win."

Tickets for the event have been sold out for months attracting many fans that make it a yearly rite of spring.

There will be fan festivals, collectibles bought and traded, brass trombones wailing and drums banging as school pep bands play from their corner of the rink.

The Hobey Baker will be awarded Friday, the day between the semifinals and final, and ESPN will air the title game Saturday.

It's a far cry from those early days said Renfrew, the former Michigan coach, who recalls teams were greeted to the Rocky Mountains with cowboy hats as they stepped onto the tarmac and slept in different wings of the Broadmoor.

"It's a great event, but not the same as it was," said Renfrew. "I played in that first one and we won. Then in 1964 we won when I was coach. I've seen it from both sides and it's a lot of fun."

mobilehome - frozenfour

Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published April 10, 2013 4:00 AM


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