HAMDEN, CONN. – Celebration photos cover the hallway walls outside the locker room at Ridder Arena, reminding the Gophers from the first practice in September onward what’s expected every March.
Minnesota won NCAA women’s hockey titles in 2004 and 2005 before going through a frustrating period that preceded the Gophers’ championships in 2012 and 2013.
On Sunday, against an upstart Clarkson team, Brad Frost’s juggernaut will try to make it three NCAA titles in a row — something no Gophers team has done in any sport since Bernie Bierman led the football team to championships in 1934, 1935 and 1936.
These players planned ahead, too, bringing white jerseys to wear throughout the Women’s Frozen Four. They won their 2012 title in maroon and their 2013 title in gold.
“I think their hope is to win it in white so it looks pretty nice on the wall, going with the three different colors,” Frost said.
Gophers senior Kelly Terry acknowledged this was part of the planning discussion and just shook her head.
“I can’t believe we’re fortunate to even be thinking about this,” Terry said. “To be going for a three-peat is quite surreal.”
The Gophers started this run with an upset over Wisconsin in the 2012 championship game in Duluth. Last season, Minnesota went 41-0 and capped the first perfect season in Division I women’s hockey history with a 6-3 victory over Boston University at Ridder Arena.
Now, the Gophers (38-1-1) have come to the TD Bank Sports Center, on Quinnipiac’s picturesque campus, looking to complete their sport’s first three-peat since Minnesota Duluth’s from 2001 to ’03.
History is on the Gophers’ side. Since the NCAA started crowning champions in 2001, every winner has come from the WCHA. Minnesota Duluth has five titles; Wisconsin and Minnesota have four apiece.
Clarkson, a private school of about 3,500 students from Potsdam, N.Y., has never won an NCAA title in any sport. That includes championship-game losses in 1966 and 1970 in men’s hockey. So it won’t be a surprise if most fans inside the 3,386-seat arena are pulling for the Golden Knights.
“We’re not backing down [just] because it’s Minnesota,” Clarkson forward Vanessa Gagnon said. “We’re going to be even more into it. They’re going to get a hell of a good game.”
A.J. Mleczko, a former Harvard star who was part of the NBC broadcast team at the Sochi Olympics, said she doesn’t think Minnesota’s recent run of dominance has been bad for the sport.
“Maybe you’re comparing it to the U.S. and Canada at the Olympics — you want somebody else to break in to help spread the game,” she said. “But I think right now, the [college] game’s healthy. Look at the Frozen Four here. Three of these teams didn’t have programs when I graduated, and that was 1999.”
Wisconsin and Mercyhurst weren’t part of the NCAA until the 1999-2000 season, and Clarkson didn’t come aboard until four years later. There are now 35 schools playing D-I women’s hockey and 59 on the men’s side.
The Clarkson women’s team ranked fourth behind Minnesota, Cornell and Wisconsin in this season’s final USCHO.com poll. The Golden Knights (30-5-5) defeated Mercyhurst 5-1 in Friday’s semifinal, getting two assists from Jamie Lee Rattray, who was honored Saturday with the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player.
In her speech, Rattray said it would have been crazy three years ago to suggest Clarkson could be getting ready for this championship game. The Golden Knights went 14-17-6 her freshman year. Her first two college games were against the Gophers; Clarkson lost 5-0 and 3-0.
“Last year, I think going into this game, it would have definitely been David and Goliath,” Rattray said. “I think it’s easy to be intimidated. They’ve won two national championships in a row. So I think the big goal is just to play our game. That’s what’s made us successful this year.”
The Gophers had their record-shattering 62-game winning streak stopped Nov. 17 against North Dakota, and Frost said that allowed everyone to exhale. Since then, they are 25-0-1, including Friday’s 5-3 comeback victory over Wisconsin.
“Sometimes I think we take for granted what they’ve done because they’ve made it look, at times, so easy and effortless,” Gophers athletics director Norwood Teague said. “But I know behind the scenes, Brad and his staff and the kids have worked extremely hard, more than we’ll ever know. And they deserve everything they’re getting.”
Pretty soon, they might get an updated hallway mural, too. So their white jerseys are ready.