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Three get ready: Minnesota hockey schools rule Frozen Four
MEN’S COLLEGE HOCKEY

Three get ready: Minnesota hockey schools rule Frozen Four

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Frozen 4

Local flavor: St. Cloud State will meet Minnesota State, and Minnesota Duluth will face UMass in Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinals in Pittsburgh.

Forgive Heather Weems if she’s been walking around with a little more pride than usual over the past week or so.

“The sun is shining, we got some baseball and softball going, and we’re headed to the Frozen Four,” the St. Cloud State athletic director said, basking in the glory of the Huskies men’s hockey team’s triumph in the NCAA tournament.

Weems is not alone among Minnesota athletic directors in her joy. Counterparts Kevin Buisman at Minnesota State Mankato and Josh Berlo at Minnesota Duluth also saw their teams earn spots on college hockey’s biggest stage, the Frozen Four.

St. Cloud State will meet Minnesota State, and Minnesota Duluth will face Massachusetts in Thursday’s semifinals in Pittsburgh, with the winners meeting Saturday night for the championship. Thursday’s action will be aired on ESPN2 and Saturday’s final on ESPN, giving college hockey its best exposure of the season.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Buisman said. “The whole community and the campus are buzzing, and we’re anxious to get out to Pittsburgh.”

Players, coaches and athletic officials have received well-wishes and pats on the back since their teams won NCAA regional tournaments. The feel-good vibes will continue this week, and the Frozen Four appearance will have a lasting impact for the three Minnesota schools. Putting a value on that impact isn’t an exact science. Instead, it’s a sense of shared accomplishment among a team, its fan base and its community.

“Pride,” Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. “The No. 1 thing is pride, and it’s amazing. ‘I’m going to the Frozen Four.’ “

Serratore would know. He guided the underdog Beavers to the 2009 Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., and saw how the tournament experience united Bemidji, a town of about 15,500. Like Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State are schools that play at the NCAA Division II level in every other sport, so hockey is its chance to compete with the nation’s biggest.

“What it does for our community, even if you’re not a big hockey fan, you are for those two weeks,” Serratore said. “… And I always use this analogy: When we went in 2009, it was very similar to the Twins in ‘87 and ‘91 in how crazy it was. If you weren’t a baseball fan, you were during the World Series.”

Serratore at least partly traces the Frozen Four berth to the Beavers’ successful bid to join the WCHA.

“Our building [the Sanford Center] was already in the works,” he said. “It was four months later, June 30 of 2009, and we’re accepting the WCHA’s invitation.”

A seemingly annual trek

Frozen Four appearances have become a rite of April for Minnesota Duluth, which is going for a championship three-peat, a feat accomplished only by Michigan from 1951 through ‘53. Should the Bulldogs beat Massachusetts in the semifinals, they’d be playing in their fourth consecutive title game.

“It drives interest and puts the university on people’s radar,” Berlo said. “We’ve been able to take great advantage of a great opportunity to showcase our institution over the last five or six years, but even go back to 2009 when Scott [Sandelin] really got this going.” The Bulldogs are in their sixth Frozen Four with Sandelin as coach, also winning the title in 2011.

Lynne Williams, Minnesota Duluth’s director of marketing and public relations, sees how a successful athletic team can thrust the university into the public eye.

“From an institutional standpoint, it is hard to quantify,” she said. “So many factors are in play, but one of our goals is to be top of mind when people think about a university — to be a name that pops up right away. This kind of exposure helps to just create that broad awareness.”

Berlo saw the UMD women’s hockey team advance to the Frozen Four this year, marking the first time both the Bulldogs men and women made it that far in the same season. He noted that revamped fundraising efforts have helped the athletic department bring in more than $1 million per year, a large increase from the $400,000 per year the department was raising in the early 2010s. “I don’t know how much of that is due to hockey,” Berlo said, “but I can tell you it’s a key factor.”

Second time around

At St. Cloud State, the Huskies are in the Frozen Four for the second time, joining the 2013 team that lost to Quinnipiac in the semifinals in Pittsburgh. Weems, the AD, senses the same level of excitement this year.

“It feels just as big, and I think partly because there was just this monkey on our back, so to speak, from the last couple of regional tournaments [first-round losses in 2018 and ‘19],” she said.

Weems sees St. Cloud State gaining a high profile in more areas than Minnesota.

“I would argue it’s not just regional, it’s not just national, to some degree it’s also international and particularly in the sport of hockey within European and Scandinavian countries,” she said. The Huskies roster shows that. Two of their best players, Veeti Miettinen and Jami Krannila, are from Finland, and goalie David Hrenak is from Slovakia.

“People want to be associated with something, they want to feel a sense of belonging,” Weems added. “… That extends to athletics when they feel like they’re part of something that’s larger than themselves.”

The newcomers

The euphoria Bemidji felt in 2009 and St. Cloud felt in 2013 — smaller cities getting their first taste of the Frozen Four — is something Mankato finally is getting to experience.

When Minnesota State beat Quinnipiac 4-3 in overtime in the West Regional semifinals, the program had its first NCAA Division I tournament win in seven tries. A day later, the Mavericks’ 4-0 victory over the Gophers gave coach Mike Hastings and his team their first Frozen Four bid.

Buisman describes the breakthrough as the culmination of visions by school President Richard Davenport and Hastings.

“When we were hiring a new hockey coach [in 2012], he said get us one that’s capable of putting Mankato on the map and having us be successful on the national tournament on the big stage,” Buisman said of Davenport, who is retiring at the end of the school year. “… He knows that success is not inexpensive, but rather than just looking at it as an expense, he’s looked at it as an investment, and the return on investment is coming this week.”

Minnesota State will try to seize its chance after last season’s Mavericks team (31-5-2) saw its title dreams eliminated when the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports. Buisman and Hastings reflected on that after the first NCAA victory.

“He just said, ‘Gosh, it’s just a little over a year removed from one of the hardest days of our lives when we walked into that locker room and told those guys it was over,’ “ Buisman said of Hastings. “But the juxtaposition of the elation of an overtime victory and getting that first [NCAA win] … it’s really kind of the tale of two cities. From the depths of despair … and now it’s reaching the peak of excitement.”

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