PROVIDENCE — Welcome back, old friend! Haven’t seen you in five years.
For the first time since 1995 and the seventh time overall, Providence, R.I., is the host for the NCAA Hockey Championships — the Frozen Four. And with all due respect to Colorado Springs, Detroit, Milwaukee and Albany, to name a few, there is no better gathering place for college hockey’s best.
The games are now televised, tickets are $40 and $35, the event is sold out months in advance and fans in the East have had to scrounge the Internet for ticket brokers in America’s heartland. It was a lot simpler in 1965, when Brown University hosted the event at its cozy Meehan Auditorium — so low-key that legendary Coach John “Snooks” Kelley simply had Boston College commute by bus to and from both games that year.
We’ve witnessed the surreal, ranging from triple overtime to a Zamboni in city streets. We have seen future Hall of Famers and Olympic heroes.
As Providence VII beckons, let’s give the kaleidoscope a good shake, sit back and enjoy flickering images from the past:
BC’s upset of North Dakota in the Thursday night game was a stunner, for sure. Back when the Frozen Four was the Only Four, East victories over the West in tournaments were a rarity. But the Eagles, sparked by future NHL coach John Cunniff, current Eagles coach Jerry York and a spunky goalie in Pat Murphy, held off the Fighting Sioux. While this week’s games are televised nationally, fans back then who didn’t make the trip from Boston settled for the radio voice of Fred Cusick, who went on to become the legendary Boston Bruins’ TV broadcaster.
One night later, host Brown, which qualified by upsetting BU in the ECAC semifinals at Boston Arena, was no match for Michigan Tech, falling 4-0. There was no ESPN or ESPN2, but if you lived in Boston and had a good antenna, you could pick up Channel 10 in Providence and ignore your mother’s pleas not to watch television through such a snowy reception.
BC, likewise, was a notch below Michigan Tech; head coach John MacInnes’ Huskies, with future NHL Hall of Famer Tony Esposito in the net, prevailed 8-2.
As residual snow from the Blizzard of ’78 was heading for the exits, there was a storm of controversy.
BU, which had lost but once in the regular season, fell 5-1 to Providence in the ECAC semifinals. After BC beat the Friars in the league title game, the second East berth was in question. What evolved was an additional outbracket game — the WCHA and CCHA already had one — between BU and Providence, this time at Providence College’s Schneider Arena. BU won 5-3, drawing Wisconsin in the Final Four.
The defending champion Badgers’ trip East both tickled and concerned hotel operators. Wisconsin, which won the nationals in Detroit a year earlier, always travels well, but their fans are more than a tad raucous. Holiday Inn’s Detroit people called their Providence managers to say, in effect, “bolt down everything, Wisconsin’s coming.”
The best hockey Wisconsin played was the foot variety in hotel lobbies; the Badgers fell to BU 5-2 and lost the consolation game to Bowling Green, which was making its first Final Four appearance.
On Saturday night, it came down to the championship of an avenue — Boston’s Commonwealth, as BU, saddened during the ECAC playoffs by the cancer death of coach Jack Parker’s wife, beat BC by a cosmetic score of 5-3. It was the Terriers’ fourth victory of the season over the Eagles, prompting defenseman and tournament MVP Jack O’Callahan to say: “Heck, we shouldn’t have to beat BC for the national championship. We can do that anytime.”
Little did we realize that two years’ hence, the likes of BU’s O’Callahan, Jim Craig and Dave Silk, Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson and Bowling Green’s Ken Morrow would join their U.S. Olympic teammates at a gold medal ceremony in Lake Placid.
Northern Michigan carried the banner of the CCHA, becoming the first team from that league to reach the title game, but favored North Dakota had too much Doug Smail and Phil Sykes. Smail scored four goals and Sykes had four assists as the Fighting Sioux avenged their loss by a goal to Minnesota in the previous year’s showdown game.
The Sioux survived a scare in the Thursday semifinal, scoring four goals in the last 10 minutes to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 victory over Dartmouth. Bob Gaudet, the current Big Green coach, played admirably in defeat for the Big Green. Cornell, which fell 4-3 to Northern Michigan, has yet to return to the semifinals.
The consolation game between league rivals Cornell and Dartmouth had everyone in a testy mood. “The only people who show up for the consolation games are the reporters,” Cornell coach Dick Bertrand said.
A half-hour after the championship game ended, red-clad fans were on the ice, clapping, cheering, singing the Bud Song and chanting “sieve” after kicking milk cartons into the net.
This, after their team lost by three goals.
Yes, Wisconsin fans were their usual entertaining selves, but North Dakota stole the show, scoring three third-period goals to break a 2-2 tie and prevail, 5-2. The Sioux, in winning, avenged a 9-0 loss to the same Badgers in the WCHA playoffs. Sykes, the erstwhile setup man for Smail, took his own bow this time, grabbing the MVP honors.
Two years after the Miracle On Ice at Lake Placid, NHL scouts were there en masse, having begun to take college hockey more seriously. And whom they saw included the likes of Wisconsin’s Chris Chelios and Bruce Driver (the latter was the only Badger to wear “ski pants”), and North Dakota’s James Patrick and Troy Murray. It marked the collegiate finale for the late Wisconsin coach “Badger Bob” Johnson, who left for the NHL.
Northeastern made its lone appearance in the Frozen Four, New Hampshire its third in six years. Both lost routinely in the semifinals.
Fans had a one-hour wait between the first and second periods of the championship game between Michigan State and Harvard. As it turned out, the Zamboni was broken and they had to borrow one from Brown. The driver had to negotiate hilly streets down from the College Hill neighborhood, then drive through downtown, drawing attention from gawkers, as though they were watching plodding circus elephants.
Not even a one-hour intermission could keep Harvard fresh. The Crimson could not hold leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2; despite HU tying the game 5-5 on Andy Janfaza’s tally with about 12 minutes remaining, the Spartans won it on Mike Donnelly’s one-time off a faceoff with three minutes left in regulation. Cries of “Fight, fight, go green white!” reverberated through the Civic Center. The win more than atoned for State fans’ disappointment earlier in the evening, when they assembled in the Civic Center’s bar, the Royal Roost, to watch the basketball team lose an NCAA tournament game on a disputed call.
Harvard, fatigued from having played the Friday night game — there were separate semifinals on Thursday and Friday back then — would compete in three title games in seven years, finally winning the championship in 1989. In all three games, the Thursday night winner beat the Friday night winner. The NCAA dropped the Thursday-Friday setup after 1989.
Several media members were assembled in the interview room deep in the Civic Center’s bowels, and the Maine-Michigan game lasted 4 hours, 45 minutes, so late that they began serving the pre-game meal for the night game. Finally Dan Shermerhorn ended it in the first minute of the third 20-minute overtime.
Before coach Red Berenson and the Michigan entourage could come in, Providence College sports information director Tim Connor got everyone’s attention. “ESPN lost the feed,” he said, to no one in particular but loud and clear enough for all. “They missed the winning goal.”
Jolly broadcaster Bob Norton, in between ESPN assignments, had a mouth full of spaghetti, but his Boston accent still rang clear. “They went out to Phoenix to get an update on the golf,” he said. ESPN during the overtime had switched coverage to “The Deuce,” ESPN2, then got tangled on a feed and missed the end of a game which had become surreal.
One coach, an assistant from Division III Trinity in Hartford, Conn., killed time before the BU-Minnesota night game by sleeping on a park bench downtown.
In the end, it was BU’s turn. The Terriers, who outscored their foes 11-3 in the third period of three tournament games, dumped Minnesota 7-3 and weary Maine 6-2 for their first championship in 17 years and second under Parker’s tenure — both in Providence.
Paul Burton is news editor for the Parsippany (N.J.) Daily Record. He has written for Rinkside magazine in New York City as well as covering the NHL’s Hartford Whalers and doing broadcasting and commentary work for high school and college hockey.