After a rather lengthy travel day on Monday, a 'milk run' as Dean would put it, I'm back in the saddle and back in Canada. The trip to Minnesota was much different than what I expected and yet, better than I could have hoped for. It will be a working vacation that I won't soon forget for a number of reasons.
Here are five of them.
5. The City
I didn't know what to expect from St. Paul as I'd never been there before and really, it's not exactly listed as a vacation hot spot. I didn't rent a car which may have been my biggest regret because i didn't get to tour around as much as I normally like to do in a new city. And I sure would have in St. Paul if I had that chance because the parts I saw were beautiful.
Downtown was clean. The short walk between the arena and the media hotel led through an open town square surrounded by fantastic buildings. The St. Paul Hotel is a sight all its own. There are statues of the Peanuts characters created by local legend Charles Schultz. Of course the statue above of famous 1980 USA Olympic coach Herb Brooks can be found nearby as well.
The star attraction, from what I saw in town, was the Cathedral of St.Paul. The century old church was amazing when seen from afar but incredible on the inside. Unfortunately there was an active mass going on that prevented me from exploring it as much as I would have liked but check out the detail and craftsmanship in some of the photos online to get a sense of the structure. Just simply a magnificent building.
The people were friendly and some even went out their way to be accommodating when they learned where I was from and why I was in town. Chris, the manager at the Days Inn in Midway where I stayed, didn't have a shuttle to the arena on some days so drove me there himself so I wouldn't have to cab it. On the day I left, he literally drove me to the airport.
St. Paul was a fantastic city, I'd go back again any time.
4. The Media
We've had a plethora of NCAA media on The Pipeline Show over the years but for obvious reasons, I'd never actually met any of them in person. The entire crew from USCHO.com was out covering the Frozen Four so running into Jimmy Connelly, Paula Weston, Todd Milewski, Tim Brule and company wasn't just inevitable, it was a priority. And I'm glad I did - first class folks all the way and I'm glad to say that we'll be working as closely as ever with USCHO.com next year and beyond.
Brad Elliot Schlossman from the Grand Forks Herald also played chauffeur for me a couple of nights. The beat writer for the Fighting Sioux didn't stay until the end (for obvious reasons) but it was great getting to know him in person.
Hocky Buzz's Julie Robenhymer was one of the first of our media pals that I ran into. She showed this old man how to post the pictures I was taking on Twitter while I was down there.
My old Hockey's Future colleague D.J. Powers was on hand and it was nice to finally put a face to the name.
New friends and future guests were also found in guys like Jess Myers and Mike Eidelbes of Inside College Hockey, Adam Wodon and Joe Meloni from College Hockey News and Kevin Pates from the Duluth News Tribune and the blog Rink and Run.
But it wasn't just media, it was also the media contacts who we call to book players and coaches to the show. Obviously Matt Trevor (Michigan), Jayson Hajdu (North Dakota), Tim Connor (Notre Dame) and Bob Nygaard (Duluth) were there with their teams but so were PR folks from other teams. Erich Bacher (Denver), Jamie Weir Baldwin (Michigan State) and Mark Majewski (Northeastern) just to name a few.
One night I had a 2-hour conversation with former NHL tough guy and referee Paul Stewart who is now Director of Officiating in the ECAC. You want to talk about a guy with stories... Paul Stewart is The Man!
I met the coaches for the four teams in the tournament as well as Princeton's Guy Gadowsky (Edmonton native), Enrico Blasi (Miami) and Tom Serratore (Bemidji State).
It was also nice to finally meet everyone from College Hockey Inc. including Executive Director Paul Kelly, Director of Communications Nate Ewell and former player Jeff Dwyer who now heads up Education and Recruitment.
Last but certainly not least, Dave Fischer the Senior Director of Communications for USA Hockey. Fish was on hand to run the show at all the press conferences and was a big help in getting me orientated to the procedures down there. Just another terrific guy on a list of terrific people I was lucky to meet.
3. The Fans
I'll be honest, I didn't really know what to expect. We're told Americans don't care about hockey. We're told they don't understand the sport. We're told a lot of things that I came to learn to be complete nonsense.
The Frozen Four completely took over St. Paul. By mid-week, every where I went, every conversation I overheard, people were talking about the tournament and who they were cheering for, or against. After games in the hotel bar fans from each team were mingling without fights breaking out, just good-natured cheering!
At the arena I saw people wearing sweaters or t-shirts or hats representing just about every NCAA team there is. All 3 games were complete sellouts with attendance surpassing the final game of the NHL regular season on Sunday (Dallas in town to play the Wild). The fans were loud, especially the North Dakota horde who dominated the stands during Thursday's semi-finals. The best way for Canadian fans to get a feel for Sioux Nation is to think of the CFL's Saskatchewan Rough Riders and the way their fans are everywhere - it's the same thing. I'm told that Denver's only guaranteed sell out of the year is when UND comes to town and it's because the rink is half full of green jerseys. Maybe it's the colour... but Saskatchewan fans are the same way.
Hockey isn't #1 in he U.S. like it is here but these hockey fans were every bit as passionate and knowledgeable about the game we love... as we are. There may be more Canadian hockey fans per capita but those Americans who love hockey do so just as much as we do up here.
Was it as loud as Rexall Place in the playoffs? (think back, you can remember that long ago if you try hard enough). No it wasn't but few rinks can match what we experienced in 2006. This was also mainly fans of 4 different teams under one roof so they never cheered or booed in unison. When Michigan supporters started with "Go Blue!", the Duluth fans would try and drown them out with "Lets go Bulldogs!" or "U-M-D!".
Not quite Stanley Cup playoffs level but better than anything else I've attended.
2. The Venue
I was tweeting pictures from the Xcel Energy Center to try and give Oilers fans (and anyone else) a point of reference when considering the proposed new building in Edmonton. We've heard that Minnesota's rink and maybe the one in Columbus, could be used as a basis for Rexall Place II... and I sincerely hope that is the case.
What a facility. The open concourse, the high quality seats, the great acoustics, the pavilions and halls all under one roof, it really was a great experience. Check out the pictures and if you have questions, I'll try to answer them as best I can. I didn't sit on every level but I did stop and check out the view points from many places.
1. The Games
The most important part of the trip was to get first-hand, live exposure to NCAA hockey. The two games on Thursday were terrific. Notre Dame and Duluth scored 5 goals in the first period and I wondered if the goalies were up to the task. Then there were only two more goals in the game so that put that concern to rest.
Michigan and North Dakota was an absolute event. Although only two goals were scored and the crowd favorites didn't get either of them, it was action packed from start to finish. I would have liked to have heard that Sioux crowd erupt after a UND goal but alas, that will have to wait for another day.
The final game was without question, the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat, dramatic game I've attended since Game 6 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals in Edmonton. What could be better than a championship game that goes into sudden death overtime? Nothing.
People will ask me how it compares to watching a WHL game. I say it's not a fair comparison to make because this was the Frozen Four, the best of the best. I'm sure a Lake Superior vs Ohio State game in November can be a bit of a yawner... just like Kootenay vs Prince Albert could be. But this wasn't that. This would be akin to the Memorial Cup at a sold out Bell Center in Montréal.
I have yet to experience the Memorial Cup in person, (I would have in 2012 if Saint John had been awarded the event but...), so I can't honestly make the comparison any way. And even then, I don't think that would be right.
NCAA hockey shouldn't be directly compared to the CHL because they are different. Players are by and large older and more mature. As a result it's more structured than Major Junior. Each is its own entity and deserves to be seen as such.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first NCAA experience and encourage any and all hockey fans to check it out if you have the chance. Enjoying the NCAA game doesn't make you a traitor or any less Canadian, it simply shows that you love the sport at all its various levels.
Will I be back next year in Tampa Bay? No... but this won't be my last Frozen Four, that I can guarantee you. I've already got 2014 in Philadelphia circled on my calendar.