By Jim Diamond
Friday night marks the start of the NCAA’s Division I collegiate hockey tournament. No, Warren Buffett is not offering a billion dollars to anyone who fills out a perfect bracket. Since just 16 teams get in, all of the 16 in the draw are sweet, and the level of excitement far exceeds that of college hockey’s basketball-playing brethren.
Following this weekend’s action, just four teams will remain and advance to Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, site of this year’s Frozen Four.
Several Nashville Predators came through the college ranks, and many of them got to experience the range of emotions related to playing for college hockey’s national championship. The old saying ‘It’s not hockey, it’s playoff hockey,’ takes on a different kind of intensity in college since there are no multi-game series like the NHL. The lose and you go home format of the games can make a season’s worth of work come to an immediate halt should you be on the losing end of a tournament game.
“It’s a great time of year,” Predators forward Eric Nystrom said. “There’s always a great buzz when you are playing those games. It’s that one and done format, so you’ve got to make sure that you are ready to go.”
During his time at the University of Michigan, Nystrom made Frozen Four appearances in 2002 and 2003. Those two trips both ended in disappointment, with the Wolverines being ousted in the semifinals by the University of Minnesota, both games ended 3-2 with the 2003 loss coming in overtime.
Though the bitterness of defeat still exists more than ten years after the fact, Nystrom is able to look back fondly on the two regional victories had enabling Michigan to advance to those Frozen Fours.
“We had a couple of regionals that we actually hosted at home at Yost,” he said referring to Michigan’s home arena. “We played both years in the second game to go to the Frozen Four. We played the number one seed and we knocked them off in our own building to go to the Frozen Four. To this day, it was 7,000 people, but that was the loudest I have ever heard a hockey arena. It was incredible.”
Colin Wilson is the only current Predator to have won a national championship. In 2009, Wilson’s second and final year at Boston University, the team traveled to Washington, D.C. and won an overtime thriller over Miami University in the championship game. In that tilt, the Terriers trailed by two goals with less than a minute remaining in regulation time before rallying for a 4-3 win.
“It is very exciting,” Wilson said. “If you win the national championship, it’s a feeing that you don’t get too often. You want to win at high levels. It was a very cool feeling.”
In order to advance to the championship game, Boston University had to survive another tight game just to make it to the final. That game was played against the University of Vermont, a team that featured Viktor Stalberg on its roster. The Terriers took that one 5-4.
Following Wednesday’s practice at Bridgestone Arena, Stalberg overheard Wilson discussing 2009’s triumph and couldn’t resist the urge to chirp his current teammate.
“So lucky,” Stalberg said.
Stalberg pointed out that the Catamounts were up two goals late in the third period, but Boston University got a couple of quick goals to grab the win. Now that they are teammates, Stalberg just has to look over a couple of locker stalls to be reminded of the anguish of that game since Wilson was the one who netted the game winner at 14:19 of the third period.
2009 was just the second-ever Frozen Four appearance for Vermont.
“It’s one of those things that you strive for in college,” Stalberg said. “For a lot of guys who don’t move on, it’s probably the biggest thing that they experience. It was a great way for me to finish my college career.”
Wilson broke the heart of more than just one future teammate that year though. In the Hockey East championship game, BU downed the University of Massachusetts-Lowell by a score of 1-0, costing the River Hawks the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament that went along with winning the Hockey East crown.
Although he didn’t play in that championship game, Carter Hutton was a member of that Lowell squad.
Hutton still keeps a close eye on his alma mater and he is excited about the River Hawks being included in this year’s field.
After this weekend’s action, the 16 teams will be paired down to just the four who will head to Philadelphia in two weeks. The small field and the intense action each and every shift are just part of what makes this tournament great.
“Everyone goes all out,” Stalberg said. “It’s what college is all about. You don’t play as many games as you do in other leagues, so you have to go after it every time you are out there.”