To cheers, U women's hockey closing in on perfection

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2013 - 12:06 PM

Led by three of the nation’s best players, the Gophers have taken their loyalists and growing bandwagon on an extraordinary ride.

A perfect Gophers hockey season and an invitation to this weekend’s Women’s Frozen Four hung in suspense through three overtimes last Saturday, long enough that the man known affectionately as “Crazy Dave” finally had to sit down.

David Malerich has been to nearly every Gophers home game for 16 years, spending most of that time on his feet, cheering. But as he said, “The players weren’t the only ones exhausted.”

John Munson, who played bass guitar for the band Semisonic, couldn’t make the game at Ridder Arena but was glued to his phone, waiting for text updates from his wife. He heaved a sigh of relief when the Gophers finally prevailed over North Dakota 3-2 in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Led by three of the nation’s best players ­— Noora Raty, Amanda Kessel and Megan Bozek — the Gophers have taken their loyalists and growing bandwagon on an extraordinary ride. They are 39-0, with a 47-game winning streak dating to last season, heading into Friday’s 5 p.m. NCAA semifinal against Boston College at the U of M’s Ridder Arena.

Boston University plays Mercyhurst in the other semifinal, and the winners advance to Sunday’s title game.

The Gophers have a chance to become the first Division 1 women’s hockey team to finish a season undefeated. No men’s hockey team has done it since Cornell went 29-0 in 1970.

“I’m also a Gophers basketball die-hard, and their season has been so dismaying for longtime fans,” Munson said. “The women’s hockey team truly feels like the antidote I need so I don’t feel so bad.”

Fans flock despite challenges

It’s still an unsung story. While almost all the Gophers men’s hockey games are televised, only one women’s game has been on TV this season. Minnesota could make history this weekend, but the Women’s Frozen Four won’t be televised.

The Gophers’ success has driven an attendance spike. They averaged 932 fans at their first eight home games, then 2,375 fans over their next 13. Both Frozen Four sessions at the 3,400-seat Ridder Arena were sold out even before Saturday’s three-overtime scare in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Over the years, Gophers coach Brad Frost has called his program the best-kept secret in town. But he said several people have told him they were there Saturday and now plan to buy season tickets.

“I think that secret is getting out,” he said.

Win or lose this weekend, the Gophers know they’ll have at least one celebration. The winner of this year’s Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player, will be announced Saturday morning. All three finalists are Gophers — Kessel, Raty and Bozek.

Kessel is the NCAA’s leading scorer, with 44 goals and 53 assists. Raty leads the nation with a 0.88 goals against average. And Bozek is the nation’s second leading scoring defenseman, with 20 goals and 35 assists.

Those three were instrumental last year, when the Gophers won their first national championship since 2005. This year, they’ve helped Minnesota rewrite the NCAA record book. In women’s hockey, the previous longest unbeaten streak was Wisconsin’s 32-gamer, which ended in 2011.

Along for the ride

“Even though [the Gophers] won the national championship last year, absolutely nobody saw this coming,” said Malerich, who has been to 37 of the 47 games during the winning streak, including road trips to Minnesota Duluth, Ohio State and New Hampshire.

Malerich, 38, works as a data analyst at Best Buy’s corporate headquarters. He started attending women’s games in 1997, during the program’s inaugural season, when one of his high school classmates from Buffalo, Julie Otto, was a team captain.

Malerich has been a fixture at the team’s home games ever since.

“At least initially, it was strictly financial,” Malerich said. “I still love going to the men’s games, but why spend $25 to $30 to see a college hockey game, when you can see one that’s just about as good for $8.”

Malerich got the nickname “Crazy Dave” from the father of former Gopher Dagney Willey and later had it embroidered on a sweatshirt.

These days, Malerich wears a blue Finland scarf to games, honoring the team’s two Finnish players — Raty and Mira Jalosuo. The scarf was a gift from Raty’s father, who has been in town from Finland this month.

“The smallest thing we could do is give something back, even if it’s just a scarf, or say hi or chat a little bit,” Noora Raty said. “Those fans do so much for us. It almost feels like they could be part of the team.”

Freshman Hannah Brandt remembers feeling that same connection when she started attending Gophers games in elementary school. Now she’s the team’s second leading scorer behind Kessel, with 31 goals and 49 assists.

“[The players] were always signing autographs after the games and high-fiving us when they came out, so I make sure to do the same,” Brandt said. “I know how much it means to the little kids.”

Munson, 46, has two daughters, ages 5 and 10, who started playing hockey last year. He took them to a game, and the family was instantly hooked. He frequently tweets the team’s praises (@Munsongs) and mentions their success whenever he guest hosts on FM-89.3 The Current.

“To me, it’s a story of historic importance,” Munson said. “This may be the best women’s team there’s ever been.”

With two more wins, the Gophers can make it official.





 

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