Breaking the Ice
Season-Opening Tournament Has Become Mainstay Ritual
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
MINNEAPOLIS For six months, college hockey’s opening weekend is circled on calendars. For six months, there is one game everyone – players, coaches, fans and even media – looks forward to from Alfond Arena to Anchorage, Alaska.
Then it’s over. Players skate off the ice, fans get up and leave the arena, reporters pack up their equipment and coaches get back to work. There’s another game the next night or the next weekend and for all the waiting, it becomes clear. What has been an anticipation for an extended period was just one game. Philadelphia is only slightly closer. Winter is coming.
The college hockey season is a long marathon filled with 30-odd sprints.
Each game is important. There is no denying that. The first game, besides being the one circled all offseason, sets the tone in a “journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step” sort of way. Teams find out in Game 1 where they are and what needs to be worked upon for Game 2 and beyond. It’s one reason why four teams from four different conferences gathered in Minneapolis last weekend for the season-opening Ice Breaker Tournament.
“It’s a good measuring stick,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, a man who literally ran a marathon prior to the season beginning for the Gophers last weekend, about the traditional season-opening tournament.
The college hockey year opening with the Ice Breaker dates back to 1997. In the first tournament, held at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison, saw Michigan State win the in-season tournament over Boston University, Clarkson and host Wisconsin. Since then, the Ice Breaker has made stops in Boston, Oxford and Omaha showcasing college hockey. A couple recent editions have even been hosted in neutral sites outside the traditional footprint.
Since 2010, College Hockey, Inc. has played a role with the event; using it to further their mission of promoting college hockey. Despite all the changes in the sport this season, the format remains the same. Four teams from four different conferences still meet in a non-conference tournament.
“I think it helps make the tournament special, too, giving fans a chance to see some different matchups they would otherwise see” said College Hockey, Inc. Deputy Executive Director Nate Ewell, who was at the first Ice Breaker, about the event.
This year the Ice Breaker was held on campus at Mariucci Arena, home of the Golden Gophers. Clarkson, one of the teams participating in the first Ice Breaker, was back in the 17th edition. Joining the Golden Knights and Golden Gophers were Mercyhurst and New Hampshire.
For all but Clarkson, who opened its season a week earlier with two wins against Niagara, last weekend’s Ice Breaker was a chance to begin the season against top competition. Steel sharpens steel. There isn’t much time for teams to come together at the beginning of the year. Coaches are limited in the number of practices and amount of time around players.
“We come out here in tournaments like this to play against the best so we’ll become better,” New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile said after Saturday’s game. “This was a good steppingstone towards becoming a real good team.
The Wildcats took steps towards that in a 4-1 win over the Golden Knights. UNH got goals from four different players, including freshman Tyler Kelleher’s first, and senior goalie Jeff Wyer made 33 saves.
For Mercyhurst, the Ice Breaker was not exactly the start that the Lakers wanted. Despite being picked in the preseason to finish second in Atlantic Hockey, Mercyhurst was outscored 11-2 by Minnesota and Clarkson.
“We’re clearly a work in progress,” Mercyhurst head coach Rich Gotkin admitted. “We have a lot of work to do on our end.”
Both games followed similar scripts. The Lakers held its two opponents close for the first period before falling behind on the Olympic sheet and scoreboard late in the second.
That his team was competitive was encouraging for Gotkin in spite of the final score.
“We’ve played teams like Minnesota in the past where we couldn’t get the puck past the red line. It felt like we had some chances and some looks at 1-0, 2-0,” he said after Friday’s loss about his team, which features 18 upperclassmen. “You feel like if you can score one maybe you can get back in it.
“It didn’t feel like a 6-0 game.”
Host Minnesota, meanwhile, spent its first two games integrating new players into a team that lost to eventual national champion Yale in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. Seven freshmen played their first game for the Gophers last weekend. Four of them, including forward Hudson Fasching, scored their first collegiate goal.
The Gophers used its speed and depth well on the Olympic ice against larger competition. Eight players scored nine goals in two victories. More importantly, the freshmen looked closer to players who have been there before for the most part.
Some are almost déjà vu.
“He reminds me of (last year’s captain Zach) Budish, but he has a little more hands,” said Sam Warning about his freshman linemate Hudson Fasching. Warning spent much of last season playing with Budish, who left in the offseason to sign a contract with Nashville. Fasching even wears Budish’s old #24.
The comparisons are nice yet are, as cliché as it is to say, good for a game. Yesterday’s win means nothing in a tournament. Teams change. Opponents change. Early in the year, that can be a positive experience even if it doesn’t appear on the scoreboard.
New Hampshire, who lost to Massachusetts-Lowell in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final, was without last year’s leading scorer Kevin Goumas against Minnesota after he left Friday’s game in the first period with an upper body injury. His absence was felt even strength with the team struggling to get shots on net Saturday. Still, the Wildcats came within an Adam Wilcox save on Dalton Speelman in the final ten seconds of tying the game against the Gophers.
And in a long season, the work in a single game against a top team can go a long way.
“I like the way (New Hampshire) worked,” said Umile. “There’s good chemistry, good leadership. We just got to get better.
“Next weekend Michigan is coming to our place for two games. We’re going to play another top-notch team, but we want to play them because the bottom line is at the end of the season we want to be a real good team.”