TAMPA, Fla. — The NCAA Frozen Four is being hosted for the first time in a Southern city. And in keeping with the theme of a non-traditional site, two first-time participants hope to make their own memories.
Union College, a 2,133-student liberal arts school from Schenectady, N.Y., and Ferris State — located in Big Rapids, Mich. — will meet in Thursday’s semifinals as both try to continue their unlikely paths toward a national hockey championship.
Meanwhile, the “other” semifinal is a more familiar matchup to college hockey fans.
Boston College (31-10-1), the overall No. 1 seed and winners of 17 straight games, will take on Minnesota (28-13-1). The Eagles and Golden Gophers have combined for 43 Frozen Four appearances.
But it’s not like the winner of the Boston College-Minnesota matchup will be a lock to claim the title.
“Any of the teams have a chance to win here,” said Ferris State coach Bob Daniels, whose school competes at the NCAA Division II level in other sports. “That’s the beauty of our sport. College hockey is definitely a unique animal when it comes to opportunities for all to be successful.”
Ferris State (25-11-5) reached the Frozen Four after making only the second NCAA tournament appearance in the program’s history. Union College (26-7-7), which competes at the NCAA Division III level in its other sports, is the Frozen Four’s first East Coast Athletic Conference representative since 2003.
Both teams are strong defensively.
Union College features sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick, who is second nationally in goals-against-average (1.64) and save percentage (.936). Ferris State, featuring goaltender Taylor Nelson, is tied for fifth nationally in team defense, allowing 2.17 goals per game.
“We don’t really consider ourselves a small school in terms of hockey,” Union College coach Rick Bennett said. “The only time we consider ourselves a smaller school is in terms of enrollment. Both teams look like they’re in uncharted waters. At this stage, you tend to want to reinvent things and we’re not going to do that. We’re going to keep doing the things that got us here.”
Boston College is accustomed to getting here. The Eagles have 10 Frozen Four appearances under Jerry York, in his 18th year coaching Boston College. They have captured four national championships, most recently winning in 2008 and 2010.
The Eagles were just 6-9-1 in late January, though, and that’s when York challenged his players to strive to become something other than an average team.
“Our play raised, our work ethic raised and we became a special team,” York said. “We’re built upon that and gotten better and better. We’ve got players who want to leave a mark and leave a legacy.
“BC-Minnesota, this rivalry goes back a long, long way. It’s not just the color of the uniforms that are the same. These are two teams that value hockey on their campuses and have great, great traditions. We’re honored to be looking across the ice at the Gophers.”
Minnesota, making its first Frozen Four appearance since 2005, had missed the NCAA tournament for three straight years and was 16-14-6 last season.
Minnesota has a relatively young team with 19 underclassmen, but it has 19 NHL draft picks. The Gophers program has won five national championships, including back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003.
During the NCAA drought, it was especially painful for the Gophers to watch Minnesota-Duluth win last season’s national title at St. Paul, Minn.
“It’s not easy to get here and it’s even harder to win it all at the end,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “The focus on the games is the same, whether you’re in Tampa or Timbuktu. You’re thinking about the game, the rink, your opponent. These host cities do a great job. When you get on the bus to leave the airport, you might see different palm trees instead of pine trees. It’s going to be a great experience.
“But it’s a business trip. You always focus on the task at hand.”