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.