PITTSBURGH — As college hockey programs go, St. Cloud State might not be one of the legacy institutions, like a Minnesota, a Michigan or a North Dakota.
The Huskies have been an NCAA Division I team for only 33 years, and along the way they've endured the "Gopher rejects" chants from opposing fans, especially those 65 miles to the southeast.
Another label derisively hung on SCSU by some Gophers fans is "Jan Brady State University," a comparison to the Huskies being the angst-filled middle daughter from "The Brady Bunch," always feeling overshadowed by the more popular "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia."
Well, it's 2021 folks, and things sure have turned. Jan Brady now is the homecoming queen, and she's about to command all the attention in the biggest dance of the year.
When St. Cloud State meets Massachusetts on Saturday night in the NCAA men's Frozen Four championship game at PPG Paints Arena, the Huskies will be the last of five Minnesota teams left standing. If they keep defying expectations, they'll return to the Granite City with a national championship trophy.
"Let's put it this way," Huskies coach Brett Larson said. "The first thing the guys did at the beginning of the year was to put up the top 20 rankings when they came out and we weren't in it. That's really been the motto of this team. We want to prove people wrong, right up until the last day."
St. Cloud State, in its second Frozen Four appearance, will be playing on the last day of the college hockey season because of its 5-4 victory over Minnesota State Mankato in a stirring semifinal on Thursday.
The Huskies (20-10) squandered a two-goal lead and fell behind 4-3. With Minnesota State seemingly poised for its first trip to the national final, the Huskies snatched it away with two goals, including Nolan Walker's deflection with 54 seconds remaining.
Huskies senior forward Will Hammer, a St. Cloud Cathedral graduate who scored the goal to put his team up 3-1 Thursday, is relishing these times.
"It's been special, obviously, being from St. Cloud and being a small part of helping us get here," he said. "… We've made it to the playoffs a couple times as that No. 1 seed. It's different this year with that underdog mentality, and we've stuck with it."
In Massachusetts (19-5-4), the Huskies will face their third Hockey East opponent of the NCAA tournament. They beat Boston University 6-2 and Boston College 4-1 in regional play, and now they face the Minutemen, who won the Hockey East tournament.
Larson expects to see a team that plays a lot like his Huskies.
"It's gonna be two teams with very similar game plans," he said. "They scored most of their goals within 2 feet of the net. They're driven to get there and are very aggressive offensively to get to the net. … For us, defending that area will be critical, and doing the same thing in their end as we did last night. We were able to get a few right in the grease pan."
Should the Huskies be successful in filling that grease pan again, there's a good chance they'll return home as national champions. Reaching the title game is something Larson believed was possible when he took the job three years ago after Bob Motzko left to coach the Gophers.
"The previous staff had done such a good job of building a great culture and bringing in great players and great people," Larson said. "I knew right away I was walking into something special. It's my job to keep it on the same tracks they'd already gotten it on. My thought was, 'I better not screw this up.' "
Far from it, and now the Huskies are one win from their ultimate goal of joining the elite group of national championship teams.
"The fun thing over the last 48 hours is to see how important this is to a lot of people and how important this program is to a lot of people," Larson said. "All I want to tell them is: We're playing for 'em. … I can't tell you what the result's gonna be, but the one thing I can guarantee is the staff and this group is going to leave it all on the ice tomorrow.''