On the team bus, once an improbable comeback was safely in the record books, a freshman on the Gophers women’s hockey team quietly approached senior co-captain Bethany Brausen.
“She said, ‘Were you scared?’ Brausen recalled about the Gophers’ needing and getting two goals in the final 2:02 last Saturday at St. Cloud State to secure their 61st consecutive victory. “I told her I wasn’t scared — scared’s not the right word. But we were a little nervous. How can you not be?”
History hangs in the balance every time the Gophers get on the ice. Their winning streak is the longest in major college hockey, men’s or women’s.
Gophers coach Brad Frost says he “hardly ever” talks of the streak with his team or anyone else for that matter. But in those closing minutes at St. Cloud, reality flashed through his mind.
“I did think about it, real briefly, like, ‘Oh, man, we haven’t been in this position for such a long time,” Frost said.
Frost and his players this week admitted they can’t pretend the streak doesn’t exist or block it from their daily thoughts.
“Yeah, I’d say there’s a lot of bit of pressure, actually,” Brausen said. “To say that there’s not [pressure] would be a little naïve, I think.”
North Dakota, with an 8-1-1 record this season and a triple overtime loss to the Gophers in last year’s NCAA playoff quarterfinals, comes to Ridder Arena for two games this weekend. Even bitter rivals marvel at the streak.
“It’s super impressive,” North Dakota coach Brian Idalski said. “We’ve already lost [wins] this year I felt we shouldn’t have let get away. [The Gophers] haven’t done that for almost two full years, over a span of three years. They find a way to win, game in and game out.”
Not alone in history books
There have been longer college streaks. Penn State’s volleyball team won 109 consecutive matches between 2007 and 2010. The North Carolina women’s soccer team won 92 in a row (1990-94). The Connecticut women’s basketball team won 90 consecutive games (2008-10). The UCLA men’s basketball team won 88 straight games (1971-74).
But hockey is among few sports where one player — a hot goaltender — can drive wins. Baseball, with ace pitchers, is the most similar. Somewhere, sometime, a hockey team is going to run into a goalie having an incredible night, just like baseball teams are going to have to match up against an overpowering pitcher.
The longest previous winning streak in major college hockey was 30 by two men’s teams: Cornell University (1969-70) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1984-85); the longest by a women’s team was 21 by Harvard in 2008. The longest winning streak in major college baseball is 34 games, by Florida Atlantic (1999) and Texas (1977).
“It is amazing that a hockey team can stay undefeated that long when so many variables can be the difference in a win or loss,” said Lou Nanne, a former NHL player and general manager. “It is more surprising when it is accomplished at one of the highest levels of competition in their sport.”
Even the low-key Frost admits to being impressed, saying “the streak is hard to fathom.”
Getting their due
When it comes to national attention, women’s hockey is at the lower end of college sports. But the Gophers are, slowly but surely, gaining attention.
ESPN has publicized the streak. Gophers women’s basketball star Rachel Banham has tweeted about it. The New York Times has written about it. Local media outlets are amping up their coverage.
“Obviously, I’m aware of [the streak], because it’s all over the media every time we win a game,” said freshman Dani Cameranesi, who scored the tying goal against St. Cloud State. “The only reason I know the streak right now [is 61] is because of ESPN.”
Fans, too, have taken note of the team’s achievement. The average attendance for home games at 3,400-seat Ridder Arena was 838 in 2010-11. The final six home games last season each attracted more than 2,000 fans. This year’s average attendance is 1,928.
“It’s great exposure [for women’s hockey],” North Dakota’s Idalski said. “We’re actually disappointed it’s taken people this long to get noticed.”
And the streak figures to have tangible benefits for the future for Frost and his team. Success breeds success, and that includes recruiting, where Frost says his goal is to keep the best Minnesota high school players at home and supplement the in-state talent with elite players from elsewhere.
“The publicity brought to our program has been great, because now more Canadians and Europeans are hearing about our program,” Frost said.
How long can the streak go? Frost said he never anticipated being 12-0 this season, because the team lost so many star players from last year, including goalie Noora Raty to graduation and top-scorer Amanda Kessel to the U.S. Olympic team.
No matter. The Gophers just keep on winning.
Their greatest strength might be a confidence that has increased in proportion to the streak.
“So much of any sport is just dictated by your mind, and what you think you can and cannot do, and all those kinds of things,” Brausen said.
Which is why, as the clock was ticking down at St. Cloud State, senior co-captain Baylee Gillanders said the collective mind-set was “Who wants to get the next goal? Who’s going to make that big play?”
And somehow, again, they found a way to do just that.
“It’s awesome being part of the streak, great because history is being made,” Gillanders said. “But it is nerve-racking. [The streak] is in the back of your mind, because you see it everywhere. No one wants to lose.”
Dennis Brackin • 612-673-1740