The team bus was still a few minutes away from Ridder Arena when the news cameras lined up along the red carpet Monday. It had been laid across the sidewalk between Fourth Street and the front steps of the arena, a welcome-home gesture for the NCAA women's hockey champions.

About a hundred fans had gathered outside the building, waiting to greet the Gophers a day after they beat Wisconsin in the title game in Duluth. When the bus came around the curve by TCF Bank Stadium, its horn blaring, even the construction crew across the street stopped work and came to the fence to watch. As the players spilled out onto the sidewalk, raising the trophy to an impromptu chorus of the Rouser, coach Brad Frost stepped to the side and took it all in.

His father, Don, would have loved the celebration. A day earlier, the nurses in his unit at a St. Paul hospital -- decked out in Gophers gear -- kept him updated on the championship game. Don Frost has been there since undergoing emergency surgery for bleeding on the brain earlier this month, as the Gophers were in the midst of the WCHA playoffs.

Frost and his players spoke frequently last weekend about the hardships the team endured this season. In addition to his father's illness, a player mourned the sudden death of a 24-year-old sister, and senior goalie Alyssa Grogan was told she would never play hockey again because of the lingering effects of a concussion.

All of them said those trials pulled them closer, building a sense of trust and love that played a major role in their success. It wasn't the easiest way to win a championship, but it was the most meaningful.

"My dad is one of our biggest fans,'' said Frost, who won his first title in his fifth year as head coach. "Talking to him last night after the game, he was pretty pumped. He's loving every minute of this.

"[The team] talked a lot about how adversity can bring you together. Our staff did a great job helping the players work through some tough things that 18- to 22-year-old girls shouldn't have to go through this early in their lives. But we have. So as great as it is to win a national championship, who these young women are off the ice makes me just as proud.''

The Gophers demonstrated impressive focus throughout the Frozen Four. Their talent-laden roster created high expectations inside and outside the program, and they viewed an NCAA title as a realistic goal from the day the season started.

They faced one moment of truth in October after a split at Bemidji State. A lackluster effort in a 2-1 loss led captains Sarah Erickson and Jen Schoullis to believe the team felt it could just show up and win. After talking with their fellow seniors -- and confirming their commitment to lead the way -- the two delivered a frank lecture that got the team back on track.

The off-ice troubles would not be mended as easily. Frost and his staff gave a steady stream of comfort and advice, while an already tight group of players took care of one another. Sharing the sorrows made their bonds grow deeper, and it gave them an emotional strength that carried over to their play.

"When one of us hurts, we all hurt,'' said Erickson, who scored two goals in the title game. "We knew that any time you needed a friend, you could call any one of your teammates and talk any time. We care for each other with so much intensity. And this is a team where people want success not only for yourself but even more for your teammates. Teams like that can go a long way.''

Frost's father fell ill on the day the Gophers played North Dakota in the WCHA tournament semifinals. The players and their families ministered to him as he had to them. Despite some difficulties with his vision and speech, Frost said, his dad is continuing to recover.

The Gophers ended the season with eight consecutive victories and lost only once in their final 18 games. They may not remember those details in the years to come, but they won't forget the sisterhood that carried them to a long-awaited championship.

"Other years, maybe we collapsed under pressure,'' Erickson said. "We had different kinds of pressure this year, more intense kinds. And we've gone above and beyond what we'd ever done before. This is a very special team.''

Rachel Blount •