In one corner, you have three teams from the Big Ten hockey conference, a fifth-year league whose formation delivered a seismic shift to the sport — expanding Division I hockey to Penn State but also ending traditions, dampening long-standing rivalries and creating angst, especially in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
In the other corner, you have Minnesota Duluth, the NCAA runner-up last year and a proud member of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the superleague that was formed when the Big Ten took Minnesota and Wisconsin out of the WCHA and one that has produced the past two NCAA champions and eight of the 20 Frozen Four teams since 2014.
On Thursday at the NCAA Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota Duluth (23-16-3) will face Ohio State (26-9-5) in the first semifinal, with the Bulldogs trying to win their second national title and aiming to make sure Saturday’s championship won’t be an all-Big Ten matchup. In the second semifinal Thursday, Michigan (22-14-3) meets conference rival Notre Dame (27-9-2).
The national championship, of course, will be at stake on Saturday. So, too, will be conference pride.
“They’ve earned their way in here, just like our league did the previous three years,” Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said of the Big Ten trio. “And we’re fortunate as a member of the NCHC to be here. And we’re going to relish the opportunity to play.”
The first four years of Big Ten hockey saw only the Gophers in 2014 reach the Frozen Four, while the NCHC flexed its muscles as North Dakota won the title in 2016 and Denver beat Minnesota Duluth in the final last year. However, the addition of Notre Dame to the Big Ten this season, along with the ascension of Ohio State under coach Steve Rohlik and a quick rebuilding job at Michigan by Mel Pearson, has tilted the ice a bit. If one of those three emerges as champion, it will be the first NCAA title by a current Big Ten team since Michigan State in 2007, when the Spartans were in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“It’s huge for the league,” Michigan senior forward Tony Calderone said of the three Big Ten teams in St. Paul. “I’ve been here for four years, and the Big Ten wasn’t nearly as good in my first three. It’s been incredible to see the improvement over the years.”
Rising with the Irish
The Big Ten’s rise has coincided with Notre Dame, a Frozen Four team last year as a Hockey East member, coming on board. The Fighting Irish had a 16-game winning streak this season, won their first 13 Big Ten games and enter the Frozen Four as the highest remaining seed, No. 2 overall after winning the East Regional. Though Notre Dame had some hiccups in the second half of the season that included four losses in five games, they recovered at the right time.
Fighting Irish defenseman Jordan Gross, a senior from Maple Grove, says the Big Ten schedule sharpened his team.
“No matter who we were playing in conference, it was a really tough series,” he said. “… There’s not a bad team in the Big Ten, and it shows with three out of the four in the Frozen Four.”
Added Ohio State senior forward Mason Jobst: “Going into the regional playing Princeton we hadn’t played a lot of ECAC teams, so you have to hope you’ve been prepared by your league. And as you can see, I think the Big Ten did a pretty good job.”
Changing the narrative
To say the formation of the Big Ten received a tepid reception in Minnesota is an understatement. Gophers fans, especially, haven’t warmed to the move out of the WCHA. No longer does Minnesota face regional rivals Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State Mankato, North Dakota and St. Cloud State in conference play.
Rohlik, who grew up in St. Paul, coached and played at Hill-Murray, played for Wisconsin and coached at Minnesota Duluth, understands those feelings — to a point.
“Sometimes change is difficult no matter what you’re doing, and it’s certainly the tradition and history of the WCHA and what Minnesota was in. That’s what we all remember,” Rohlik said. “But what I think people have to realize is, jump on board because it is a great league. There are great universities and great venues and academics, look at the big picture.”
Sandelin sees an improving Big Ten as a part of the growing parity in college hockey.
“You look at the programs in the Big Ten, they’re always very, very strong teams with long histories and traditions,” said Sandelin, whose Bulldogs edged Ohio State 3-2 in overtime in an NCAA first-round game last year. “And everyone’s going to go through it. The parity — college hockey is hard right now.”
Bulldogs captain Karson Kuhlman, however, isn’t about to concede anything to the Big Ten this weekend, even though that conference is the first to have three Frozen Four teams since the WCHA had all four in 2005.
“Props to the Big Ten. Pretty awesome having three teams in here,” he said. “But at the same time, we know that NCHC is one of the top, if not THE top conference in college hockey.”