From 2001 through 2013, the convergence of Upper Midwest fans, mid-March and the Xcel Energy Center made for a college hockey party like no other — the WCHA Final Five. Crowds that grew to nearly 20,000 would pack the St. Paul arena, not to mention fill the restaurants and pubs along West 7th Street.
But then came the Big Ten, which to many fans is the Grinch who stole Minnesota’s college hockey Christmas by yanking the Gophers and Wisconsin out of the WCHA to join Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State of the CCHA with Division I newcomer Penn State to form the Big Ten Hockey Conference. The move prompted WCHA programs North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Colorado College and Nebraska Omaha to form a new league — the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — and add Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan from the defunct CCHA.
Five years later, college hockey could see a resurgence in St. Paul when the NCHC holds its Frozen Faceoff at the Xcel Center this weekend for the first time after a four-year run at Target Center. North Dakota, with its large, well-traveling fan base, faces top-ranked St. Cloud State in Friday’s 4 p.m. semifinal, and Minnesota Duluth meets defending national champion Denver at 7:30 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s NCAA final.
“We’re very excited,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “Obviously, the big change is going back to St. Paul, and there’s a lot of excitement around it. Of course, with North Dakota and Duluth making it, it’s got a little Midwest feel like the old days.”
That Midwest feel should help sell tickets. Michael Weisman, NCHC director of communications, said the league through Tuesday had sold approximately 7,000 tickets for both Friday’s semifinals and Saturday’s third-place and championship games, a figure well ahead of the pace of previous years. Weisman expects a solid walk-up sale, and NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton said he anticipates attendance will surpass what the NCHC drew at Target Center, where it averaged 10,177 per session and had a high mark of 11,653 in 2015 for the Saturday session.
“I expect very good crowds,” he said.
Building it back up
Though the Frozen Faceoff likely won’t reach the top levels that the WCHA Final Five did — in eight of 13 years the Final Five averaged more than 15,000 for the five-session event, with both a high average of 17,780 and a single-session best of 19,435 in 2007 — the NCHC should bring more folks to St. Paul than did the Big Ten tournament in its two visits to the X and the revamped WCHA tourney in its one stop.
In 2014, the first Big Ten tournament drew an announced average of 8,522 at Xcel Center. Two years later, it had fallen to 5,295. In Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, the average was 5,381 in 2015 and 3,926 last year. And remember, those are announced figures, not turnstile counts. Observers have estimated the actual attendance as half or less of what was listed.
The new WCHA tourney struggled, too, drawing an average of 7,524 in 2015 at Xcel. With such low numbers, both the Big Ten and WCHA scrapped their single-arena tournaments for a three-week event with on-campus hosts. That led to Fenton and the NCHC signing a five-year contract to play in St. Paul.
A lot on the line
The on-ice product this weekend should be pretty good, too. St. Cloud State, led by Hobey Baker Award finalist Jimmy Schuldt, a defenseman, has been the No. 1 team in the country for most of the second half of the season, and the Huskies are trying to secure the top overall seed for the NCAA tournament in search of their first national title. Their opponent, North Dakota, likely needs to win at least one game to make the NCAA field, two years after it won its eighth national championship.
“Our guys like that challenge,” Fighting Hawks coach Brad Berry said. “It’s going to be tough competition down there; you have four very good NCHC teams. But at the same token, we know that in order to keep our season alive, we have to have success. … This time of year it’s a one-game shot, and anything can happen.”
In the other semifinal, Denver, another eight-time NCAA champion, faces Minnesota Duluth, which won its lone national title at Xcel in 2011 and is trying to cement an NCAA berth. The Pioneers, who have their own Hobey Baker candidate in forward Henrik Borgstrom, have beaten the Bulldogs eight of the past nine times, including five in a row by one goal.
“This team always scares us, and maybe the reason that we’ve had success is that we prepare at a high level and respect them so much,” Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. “When you play scared of losing, you play the game the right way. And that’s the biggest compliment I can give Scott Sandelin, his staff and the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.”
Sandelin and his Bulldogs will try to repeat as conference tournament champions. He’s happy the opportunity will come in St. Paul.
“We’ve had some good memories there,” he said. “We won a WCHA playoff championship there, we won a national championship there, we won a North Star Cup there. It’s a fun building to be in. It’s a good hockey building, and it’s very familiar to our fans from the old league.”
Fenton, a Litchfield, Minn., native, sees another advantage of the move.
“And, oh by the way, it’s St. Patrick’s Day in St. Paul on Saturday,” he said. “That adds to the festivities.”