April 5, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

St. Paul: Home of Classics

by Dan Myers and Adam Wodon/CHN Staff

During the late 1980s and early '90s, St. Paul was the most popular Frozen Four site in the country. Between 1989 and 1994, the St. Paul Civic Center hosted the event three times.

The Civic Center was demolished in 1998 to make way for the Xcel Energy Center — the new state-of-the-art home for an NHL expansion franchise, later named the Minnesota Wild. Where the old Civic Center was an "old barn," known for its distinctive see-through boards, the Xcel is a testament to modern amenities.

"We talked about it before going," former Harvard star Ted Donato said about the see-through boards. "It definitely looked unusual visually, but there wasn't much of a difference practically. You noticed it more during warmups. Maybe it was a little on the darker side, but it wasn't really a problem."

Whether it be the Civic Center of the Xcel, each has had memorable Frozen Fours.

Hometown Heroes

Xcel Energy Center hosted its only Frozen Four in 2002, when a packed house watched the hometown Golden Gophers capture its first national championship since 1979 with an overtime victory over Maine.

The game had a number of underlying storylines. Most notably, it was Maine's first season after the death of long-time head coach Shawn Walsh, who died of cancer one day before the start of on-ice practices that season.

Walsh was widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the country and was somewhat of a hero in the state of Maine. When Walsh took over in Orono in 1984, Maine was a six-year-old program that had won just 11 games in the three seasons prior to his arrival. Over the next 15 years, the Black Bears won two national titles, made it to a third Frozen Four and had become one of the premier programs in college hockey. In June of 2000, Walsh was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. At the time of his death — less than a month before the 2001-02 season began — Walsh was just one win shy of his 400th career victory.

Tim Whitehead, still the coach today, was originally brought in to assist Walsh in case anything went wrong, then was elevated to head coach upon Walsh's death. The Black Bears' inspiring run to the championship game in memory of their former coach was impressive. The team went 10-1-2 down the stretch, beat Boston University and Boston College in the opening rounds of the playoffs, then defeated Harvard and BU again in the NCAA tournament. A win over UNH sent Maine to the title game.

Minnesota, with a senior class loaded with talent — including Hobey Baker Award winner Jordan Leopold — was looking to end a slump for the Gopher program. While Minnesota's teams remained ultra-competitive in the two decades since their last championship, the Gophers' star had begun to dim. It had, however, been rejuvenated under coach Don Lucia, who came in three years earlier, and ended the Minnesota-only recruiting policy, starting with North Dakota native Grant Potulny.

In another storyline, Maine had knocked Minnesota out of the NCAAs in 2001, scoring on a late third-period power play. That would turn out to be prophetic.

Maine scored early in the third period to tie the game, then took the lead with under five minutes to play, 3-2. Minnesota called a timeout with 58 seconds left and tied the game six seconds later on a goal by Matt Koalska, sending the game to overtime. The teams slugged it out in the extra frame before Potulny slammed home a loose puck in front for the game winner, sending the 19,000 fans in attendance into a roar.

Said Potulny, "After I scored, one guy ran off the bench — everyone was hugging each other — he said, 'Did you score that?' I said, 'I think so.' It felt so light. It happened so fast.

"What's great about it is, there were 19,000 people there, and 150,000 have told me they were sitting behind the goalie. It's an interesting story that it came down to me. I wasn't having a great year. I think I scored eight goals going into the playoffs. I didn't feel like I had my legs in that game. I had taken a penalty they scored on. I get grief from Donny all the time — he tells me it was my Mike Eruzione moment."

Potulny, now an assistant coach with the Gophers after a brief minor-league career, earned a reputation as a clutch player. He also, with one goal, helped erase any further fretting over what was still a controversial decision by Lucia to start recruiting out of state.

"That goal solidified the fact that what Don was doing was good for our program," said Potulny, whose five-year-old son will skate the flag out in pre-game ceremonies Thursday. "I know for sure they offered other guys before me that didn't want to do it."

As for the overtime power play ...

"I've looked back at it many times. If you're a referee, you have to make that call," Potulny said. "The way it happened, Koalska had him (Michael Schutte) beat. It looked like a trip. I know it was controversial, because we had a power play at the end of the game too. And our goalie, Adam Hauser, made contact with their top player, Niko Dimitrakos. They could've evened it up pretty easily. Then we score (to tie it)."

ECAC's Triumph

One of the most memorable games ever played in the St. Paul Civic Center was the 1989 national championship game between the Gophers and Harvard. It had been 10 years since Minnesota's last national title and the Frozen Four was being hosted in the Twin Cities for the first time in 23 years. It was a first for the city of St. Paul.

For Harvard, which boasted Hobey Baker winner Lane McDonald, it was its 11th appearance in the Frozen Four and third time in the championship game, but the Crimson were still seeking their first national title.

Two days earlier, after a semifinal win over Michigan State, Crimson forward Ed Krayer told the media he hoped Minnesota would beat Maine in the second semifinal game because, although the Black Bears would have been an easier opponent, "Beating Minnesota would be sweeter." The Gophers beat Maine 7-4 the next night to set the match-up. Maine coach Shawn Walsh had different thoughts.

"I'd always thought the Eastern schools and Western schools stuck together," Donato said. "But after Minnesota beat Maine, I remember there being a story about how Shawn Walsh went into the Minnesota locker room and said how they were going to win. I thought we were supposed to stick together East of the Mississippi."

On the Friday off day, the team had dinner at the home of teammate Todd Hartje, who was from Minnesota.

"I remember the anxiety of that day," Donato said.

The Gophers grabbed an early lead but Harvard stormed back, taking the lead into the third period. Minnesota tied the game with under five minutes to play, sending the game to overtime.

Tied 3-3 in the extra frame, Minnesota's Randy Skarda rang a wrist shot off the near post, nearly ending the contest. Three minutes later, Harvard got an opportunity to win and didn't miss. After an initial shot by Brian McCormack was stopped by Gopher netminder and 1988 Hobey winner Robb Stauber, Ed Krayer gathered in the rebound and slid the puck through Stauber's 5-hole to win the title.

"I don't know if I've ever been more happy to hear silence," Donato said.

"It's always the first thing people notice when they look at video of that game. 'Is that really see-through boards?' It was a unique environment, and with Minnesota being in the finals. It made for a great atmosphere. There was not a huge pro-Harvard contingent there. It was a strange feeling, but a great atmosphere and a great hockey game."

Harvard is the last ECAC team to win a national championship. It was coached by the legendary Bill Cleary, a member of the 1960 gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team, who retired after the next season. An enduring scene is of Cleary, racing across the ice, beaming, looking for someone to hug. Two current Division I coaches were members of the team, Vermont's Kevin Sneddon, then a freshman defenseman, and Donato, who was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player and went on to a lengthy NHL career before returning to coach his alma mater.

"We had a great team, but I don't think we were taken fully seriously until we won that game," Donato said.

Another Classic

The 1991 Frozen Four was the only one in St. Paul not to feature the University of Minnesota, but was still a classic nonetheless.

Led by tournament most valuable player Scott Beattie, Northern Michigan defeated Boston University 8-7 in three overtimes, capturing its first — and to date only — national championship.

After the Terriers had jumped out to a 3-0 advantage, Northern Michigan rallied with six straight goals — three by Beattie — to take a 6-3 lead. Down 7-4 with eight minutes to play in regulation, BU rallied to tie the score on a goal by David Sacco with 39 seconds left. They nearly won the game with just a second remaining, but NMU goaltender Bill Pye robbed Terriers forward Tony Amonte with a glove save to send the game to overtime.

Known primarily as a checking, defensive forward, left winger Darryl Plandowski scored the game winner for the Wildcats 1:57 into the third overtime, seeding a pass to Mark Beaufait which fooled BU goaltender Scott Cashman, who laid out to stop a potential shot by Beaufait. The center returned a pass to Plandowski however, and he buried a shot into a wide open net.

That BU team featured a mighty trio of Keith Tkachuk, Scott McEachern and Amonte, all of whom left to play for the U.S. Olympic team the following season.

JJ's Original St. Paul Experience

In 1994, the Gophers advanced to the Frozen Four at the Civic Center but lost 4-1 to Boston University in the semifinals.

But the Terriers were no match for Lake Superior State in the championship. Playing in their third straight national title game, the Lakers rolled to a 9-1 victory, winning their second national championship in three years and third overall.

Goaltender Blaine Lacher, defensemen Keith Aldridge, Steve Barnes and forwards Clayton Beddoes and Sean Tallaire all excelled as LSSU occupied five of the six spots on the All-Tournament team. Tallaire was named the MVP, scoring three goals and adding three assists against in the wins over Harvard and BU.

The coach, Jeff Jackson, had his second national title. He left two years later, but returned to college hockey nine years after that as coach of Notre Dame — which plays in St. Paul this weekend.

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