The Best Week of the Year
Why the NCAA Regionals Are Worth the Wait
by Tom Douglis/CHN Senior Writer
As much as I love the Frozen Four, NCAA Regionals Week is my favorite week of the college hockey season. NCAA dreams for everyone in the tourney are still alive, and possibility still reigns over certainty.
The Pairwise pundits and number crunching has been done, the NCAA Ice Hockey Committee has ruled, and 16 teams will face off this weekend, with 12 hockey games to be played, one after the other in a ruthless, assembly-line efficiency, all compressed into a single weekend. Only four teams will be left standing when the last horn sounds. Maybe big school names like Minnesota and Wisconsin. Or maybe little school names like Bemidji State and Holy Cross. Or maybe something in between like Boston College or New Hampshire. Nobody knows.
Right now, everybody is equal and polls don't matter at all. This will be decided on the ice, the way it should be. No BCS like college football, and no double elimination or loser's bracket, like college baseball. No crap, just hockey, and high-stakes hockey at that.
Now don't get me wrong. I love the Frozen Four for its outcome, pageantry and its drama. But today's Frozen Four, with its Hobey Baker Award Presentation, Skills Competition, associated parties and hoopla is as much a 'celebration event' these days as it is a hockey tournament. People have a great time there even if their team doesn't win, because the Frozen Four is a destination in and of itself. You don't even need to be a hockey fan to enjoy it.
NCAA Regionals are much more no frills and cold-blooded — pure, intense hockey games rather than spectacle. You'll likely only really enjoy it if you care about hockey, and if your team wins at least game or two. That's what makes NCAA regionals so much more compelling than say, a conference tournament. It's elegantly simple — win or die. No second chances. No 'at-large' berths. Your team must win or your season is over. Fans at NCAA regionals aren't there to see and be seen, either. There are no celebrities here. Fans here are die hards. They are here for the hockey and little else.
I like it that way. More serious. More intense. More hard-core.
Over 400 players and about 50 coaches will be chasing their NCAAs dream this week, and for them, the weekend can't get here fast enough. Practices are much shorter at this time of year, as players know what they have to do to be successful. Airplanes and buses will be boarded, iPods will be stuffed with new batteries, and patchy playoff beards will be itching on the pensive young faces. Some player will try to sleep, but it won't work. Schoolbooks will be opened, but mostly as a distracting prop. It's hard to do your schoolwork when there are big dreams to lived. Teammates will be kidding around as they usually do, but it's not the same. This is no ordinary road trip, after all. This is "The Dance."
When the teams arrive at the arena, players will shuffle into the dressing rooms to make sure equipment is where they want it to be. But the urge to walk down the tunnel to see the ice is overpowering. Players and coaches make that darkness-into-light walk in every arena. But this time it will be different. This time, their eyes will be riveted on those light blue NCAA logos on the boards, on the ice and often in the rafters. Lights seem brighter, as TV cameras are being checked. All of a sudden, stomachs young and old will shrivel up like prunes. This is what they worked so hard for all season long, and the moment is here. Will they win? Can they play to the best of their capabilities with a trip to Milwaukee on the line? Will they advance or or will it be all over?
The chills will come next, racing up and down these young spines. Most will pretend they don't feel them. But you know they do. They will try to chase away the butterflies as they prepare their equipment for the battle ahead. You can hear the sense of urgency in the sound of the tape wrapping against sticks, the louder rasp of saw blades on stick handles and the precision grind of skate blades against stone wheels. Superstitions and rituals are everywhere. Coaches bark final instructions. Some players will be in bathroom, vomiting. Others will be battling not to vomit. Clocks tick closer and tensions rises to unbearable levels.
Pressure is everywhere. Focus is essential. Opportunity is fleeting.
The players will put on the school colors and burst out of that tunnel as the school fight songs blare. Pride will drive them. Fans will sustain them. Talent will lift them. And history will record them. This weekend makes heroes. It's not so much the big players 'stepping up' as much as it is continuing to produce while lesser players fade under the spotlight. As usual, advancing in a regional is about minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on opportunities. Special teams is critical. Little things like winning faceoffs, finishing checks and shot blocking make the difference. Execution is about being able to keep your talent and personal drive in check with your temperament. As the heat goes up, it gets easier and easier for an 18-24 year old to fade or snap. Those who play harder and smarter emerge victorious.
For 12 of the teams, this year's NCAA dream will be over by the time the weekend ends, and a number of players will never have the chance to participate in an NCAA tournament again. It will hurt badly when they lose, and tears will stream down into those soon-to-be-shaved playoff beards. But they will someday tell their children and grandchildren about the experience of playing in an NCAA tournament, and few thrills in their later lives will ever compare to it. Coaches and fans will remember them too, but always always tinged with a sense of regret.
And for the four lucky winners, they'll have a little time to celebrate, regroup and prepare to do it all over again in Milwaukee, with a chance for immortality in their grasp.
Let the games begin.
Tom Douglis is a special contributor to CHN. He is former editor of College Hockey Magazine and former PR coordinator for USA Hockey.