The record-shattering winning streak was over, but the applause wouldn’t end. Gophers hockey captain Bethany Brausen couldn’t get over the noise pouring down from the crowd of 3,105 at Ridder Arena.
On Nov. 17, her team’s comeback had fallen short in a 3-2 loss to North Dakota. A 62-game winning streak that included two NCAA titles and a perfect season was history.
But all the expected sadness and dejection soon dissipated. The pressure was gone — for the players, coaches, fans — and it turned into a celebration. The cheers kept coming, reaching a crescendo as the Gophers did a ceremonial stick salute at mid-ice.
“When I saw how happy people were at the end … I think that’s when I knew how big it was,” Brausen said.
It was big enough to capture the whole state’s attention, especially during March, when the Gophers survived two overtime scares in the NCAA tournament to complete a magical 41-0 season.
When the Star Tribune went to pick its 2013 Sportsperson of the Year, the staff knew this was a team worth honoring. But it was tough picking an individual from a group bursting with talent.
Never before had one team produced all three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, which goes to the top player in women’s college hockey. The Gophers not only had the award’s winner in 100-point scorer Amanda Kessel, but they also boasted the nation’s top goaltender, Noora Raty, and best defenseman, Megan Bozek.
Then there’s coach Brad Frost, who won his second NCAA title in 2013 and has this year’s team off to a 19-1 start. This season’s Gophers barely have skipped a beat even with five players from last year’s team training for the Olympics — Kessel, Bozek and defenseman Lee Stecklein for Team USA, and Raty and defenseman Mira Jalosuo for Finland.
“I think you need to give a shout-out to Brad Frost and his assistant coaches,” University President Eric Kaler said. “It’s just remarkable to have a winning streak that long. I joke there’s nothing that I can do 62 times without screwing it up, especially in hockey.”
For the Star Tribune, this Sportsperson of the Year dilemma was reminiscent of 2006, when the Twins had an MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young winner (Johan Santana) and batting champion (Joe Mauer). That award went to the entire Twins organization.
It remained the only time since the award debuted in 1998 that more than one individual was honored — until this year, with Frost’s Gophers.
One bad break and poof goes the streak
Frost used to call his team “the best-kept secret in town.” Last season, coming off their first NCAA title since 2005, the Gophers drew an average of 801 fans for their first seven home games.
This season, in their first seven home games, that average has more than tripled, to 2,471. Of course, some pretty special things happened in between those windows of time.
Frost still goes back to the first speech he gave his players last season, when he insisted that at some point they would lose a game. He wanted them focused on the process, not the results.
They won their last eight games en route to the 2012 NCAA title, and by last Christmas the winning streak stood at 28. But even then, a perfect season seemed far-fetched.
“I don’t think the players even believed we could do it,” Raty said. “Maybe until the playoffs started, when we realized we had to go undefeated to win another championship.”
By February, the Gophers surpassed the longest unbeaten streaks in NCAA women’s (32 games for Wisconsin) and men’s hockey history (38 games for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). And they weren’t just winning. Heading into the NCAA tournament, they had outscored their opponents 204-29.
“I’ve never seen a group of athletes dominate like they dominated,” Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague said. “I would always see the body language of other teams change when they really started rolling in games.”
But along the way, there were reminders that kept the Gophers hungry and humble. They survived a 3-2 overtime scare at Bemidji State in mid-February, with the winning goal coming from Jalosuo.
The Gophers had flown under the radar for so long that any loss last season would have cost them publicity. A 40-1 finish would have been notable, but 41-0 made them legends.
“Our streak could have ended with one more shot,” Bozek said. “It’s one bad bounce, one penalty. Even when you’re stronger than a given team, on paper, any given day anyone could have beaten us with hard work if we were getting too ahead of ourselves or putting too much pressure on ourselves.”
The road to the title ends at Ridder
The schedule presented an advantage, since the Gophers got to play their final eight games at home. This happened because the WCHA Final Face-off and NCAA Frozen Four had both been awarded to Minneapolis.
On March 9, when the Gophers defeated North Dakota 2-0 for the WCHA playoff title, it marked their sixth consecutive shutout victory. Injuries had slowed Kessel’s production, but Raty and the team’s defense looked invincible.
Still, when the eight-team NCAA tournament pairings were announced, the Gophers coaches weren’t thrilled. They had drawn North Dakota again in the quarterfinals. Having already gone 5-0 against a team that included current U.S. Olympians Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, the Gophers needed to make it 6-0 in order to reach the Frozen Four.
“I just felt if North Dakota would have beaten us, they would have gone on to win the national championship,” Frost said. “And so the pressure finally hit us because for the first time if we would have lost, there wouldn’t have been a game the next day.”
The Gophers found themselves locked in a 2-2 tie with North Dakota for nearly three full overtimes. In sudden death, nobody faces more pressure than the goaltenders, but Raty was the coolest person at Ridder Arena.
“I wasn’t going to end my senior year by letting in a bad bounce or a bad goal,” she said.
What went through her mind?
“I remember at one point I was absolutely starving,” Raty said. “I don’t eat much before games or during games. I wanted us to score so I could go eat.”
Finally, 118 minutes and 51 seconds after the opening faceoff, Kelly Terry tapped home a rebound, sending the Gophers to the Frozen Four.
Six days later, the Gophers were right back on the brink of elimination. In the NCAA semifinals, they trailed Boston College 1-0 heading into the third period and went to overtime again, tied 2-2.
“We were joking in the locker room, ‘Well, we’ve been here before,’ ” Frost said.
Less than two minutes into the extra session, junior center Sarah Davis made a slick move in front of the net and waited for what felt like an eternity before finally shooting home the game-winner.
“I think every emotion was present there,” Bozek said. “There were people crying, laughing, smiling, just thinking that we were going back to the championship game.”
After being held without a point in the semifinals, Kessel looked like her old self in the title game, notching two goals and two assists in the 6-3 victory over Boston University.
During the celebration, Frost kept looking up at the crowd. Scalpers outside Ridder Arena were getting $65 per ticket, more than 10 times face value.
“It felt like fans were hanging from the rafters,” Frost said. “It was incredible how many people they got into that 3,400-seat facility.”
And now the page turns
It was tough to see the game if you weren’t there, since it wasn’t televised. The only live video came courtesy of NCAA.com. In that sense, women’s hockey still has a long way to go.
Frost is serving on a committee that is focused on getting future NCAA championship games on television. Meanwhile, his team is right back atop the national rankings at the halfway point of a new season.
“I feel like we have a blueprint for success in the way we do things and the way we treat our student-athletes,” Frost said. “But we’re so much younger, and Noora Raty isn’t in net, and Megan Bozek isn’t anchoring the blue line, and Amanda Kessel isn’t scoring 100 points.
“What’s interesting about this team is, even though it’s different, we now have many other kids stepping up and providing great leadership.”
The day the streak ended, Bozek watched on a computer, sitting alongside the Lamoureux twins — her North Dakota rivals and U.S. Olympic teammates, who spent one season with the Gophers before transferring. Bozek said she wasn’t surprised to see this year’s Gophers keep the streak alive for an additional 13 games.
“They have leaders in every class, whether it’s freshman Dani Cameranesi or Hannah Brandt, the sophomore with 100 points,” Bozek said. “The talent, the skill, it’s there for them. The new streak started the day after that.”
Indeed, since then the Gophers have rolled off a six-game winning streak. Attendance hasn’t suffered.
“When they finally lost, in a weird way I felt like I was finally able to breathe again at their games,” said John Munson, a local musician who has become one of the team’s biggest fans.
Frost’s team remains focused on a three-peat. And if that sounds tough, so did finishing 41-0 last season.
“I thought it was impossible,” Kessel said. “We made the impossible possible.”