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College Hockey:
Five Alive

— This year’s CCHA Super Six was not your typical tournament, and the winner of 2003-2004 Mason Cup was not your typical hockey team.

Not only did the Ohio State Buckeyes show so much grit and determination in two come-from-behind, overtime victories en route to their title game with the two-time defending champion Michigan Wolverines that they won over everyone who wasn’t wearing Maize and Blue, including the OHHOWIHATEOHIOSTATE fans of Northern Michigan — Northern freaking Michigan! — this year’s Buckeyes also had some superfreaky mojo going after the 4-2 title win.

This year’s Buckeyes had Rick James on their side.

After beating Michigan, the Buckeyes did something decidedly atypical. Rather than disappear into the quiet of the night, the dazed and happy Bucks returned to their hotel in Detroit’s Renaissance Center and celebrated — briefly — with family and friends. They made straight for the hotel bar, where players of age sipped their allotted single adult beverage, underage players held soft drinks, parents and families, coaches, fans — OSU and otherwise — and a few unsuspecting hotel guests mingled, the Mason Cup sharing center stage with a team that hadn’t won the tourney title since 1972.

When the bar made to close early — as hotel bars often do — funk singing star James intervened, unwilling to see a victory party come to an untimely end. The bar stayed open, James had his picture taken with the CCHA playoff champs surrounding the Mason Cup, then raised his glass and said, “Ohio State! And I’m Rick James, [expletive]!”

The celebration continued for another hour, and everyone agreed that Mr. James was all right.

In winning the Mason Cup, the usurper Buckeyes became the first team other than Michigan or Michigan State to capture a CCHA postseason championship since Lake Superior State did so in 1995. Ohio State is the first team from outside of the state of Michigan to win the title since the 1987-88 Bowling Green Falcons. In fact, the Buckeyes are only one of three non-Michigan team to make it to the title game since those Falcons, and have done so twice (1998, 2004).

“As much as we were the victim, it’s more realistic for our league,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson of this year’s Super Six championship. “We [Michigan and Michigan State] are not necessarily the best teams in the league. You saw Ferris step up last year … and had Miami played better, they could easily have won that [semifinal] game.

“I think this has been going on for some time, but I think the experience and confidence that Michigan and Michigan State have had over the years has carried them. You’ve seen Michigan State get upset in the first round the past two years now.

“It’s good for the league, because it’s really a better representation of the league.”

“It’s good for the league — I believe that, anyway,” said OSU head coach John Markell. “It would have been good if it were us or Miami, or Notre Dame — but I’m happier that it’s us, of course.

“This is a thing that Michigan State went through, Michigan went through, trying to build something. It gives hope for other teams that you can do it.”

It seems like the rest of the league was always playing catchup, with an occasional burst of energy from someone unexpected, like last year’s Ferris State Bulldogs. But the Irish and Buckeyes made their third consecutive trip to The Joe this year, and it’s no accident that the top four teams in the league were clustermates; only with strong competition on a regular basis can programs like Michigan and MSU be brought back to mere mortal status.

“I definitely think it’s good,” said Berenson. “I’d rather not be talking about it right after our game, but there you have it. We keep saying there’s parity in our league, so why shouldn’t these teams be able to step up and win the championship?”

Parity indeed. The Wolverines “limped into the playoffs” — Berenson’s words — and the regular-season title came down more to who lost than who won. With Michigan one slim point ahead of Miami in the standings and having just lost to MSU in the last regular-season game, the Wolverines had to wait for the outcome of a Miami-OSU contest, putting Michigan in the decidedly uncomfortable position of having to root for the Scarlet and Gray.

Two points separated Michigan from third-place Michigan State. The fourth-place Buckeyes were four points behind the Spartans, but only two points kept sixth-place Alaska-Fairbanks apart from Ohio State, with Notre Dame sandwiched in between.

“It was good for the league to have a competitive league race,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley. “How that translates into winning the league, I’m not sure.”

The top four teams in the league played each other four times this season, in a cluster that none of them would care to repeat in the near future.

“That was a statement in itself,” said Berenson. “All four of those teams survived that cluster and finished in the top four. These are all good things, and they’re all in the [NCAA] tournament.”

“Obviously it helped our RPI,” said Comley of the “supercluster” that swept the top four league spots. “We have five teams from the league in the [NCAA] tournament. We’ve had the most competitive season we’ve seen in a while.

“The CCHA has never benefited from the RPI. It’s been a two-team race for a while … but this year clearly with those four strong teams playing each other on a regular basis, it helped.”

Like the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, five CCHA teams — Michigan, MSU, Miami, OSU, and Notre Dame — received NCAA tournament invites, a first for the league. Unlike the WCHA, not one of those CCHA teams is a No. 1 seed, which is perhaps the most telling thing about the state of the league and college hockey this season.

Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality in this case, and parity doesn’t always mean “equally good.”

“College hockey this year, really, if you looked at it month by month, there was a trend that the WCHA was way ahead of everybody else, and there were times when I thought we wouldn’t get two teams in,” said Ron Mason, Michigan State athletic director and former Spartan head coach.

“You know, in terms of validity, I think it depends a lot more on what we do now that we’re there than it does the fact that we get in. Now the criteria is how far these teams advance.”

Like his CCHA brethren, Mason is a realist. He said that any CCHA team’s chances are “reasonably decent” in the NCAA tournament, but added, “We didn’t have a number-one seed this year, which we probably should have. The number-one seed has by far and away the best chance of making it. I know we’ll do well in the games we’re in.”

The closest thing to a No. 1 CCHA seed in the tourney is Ohio State, which would have made the tournament regardless of the outcome of last week’s Super Six, but which vaulted from a tie for No. 13 in the PairWise Rankings to a tie for No. 6. The Buckeyes are the highest No. 2 from the league, and they face a tough road in Albany, facing No. 3 Wisconsin (tie-10th PWR). Should they survive that game, they’ll play the winner of Harvard-Maine.

In spite of the rough road ahead, Markell is philosophical being sent east rather than remaining closer to home. Michigan State and Notre Dame — the two lowest CCHA seeds in the tourney — will play in their own backyards, in Grand Rapids.

“You know what? They still have to put people in the buildings, and that’s what they did,” said Markell. “Michigan State is the closest school in Michigan to Grand Rapids, Notre Dame’s right down the road. You always want your regionals making money. That’s one of the things you have to look at.”

Berenson, whose Wolverines have to leave their own rink for regional play for the first time in three years, said that the league could have, should have produced two No. 1 seeds for this year’s NCAA tournament. “Miami could have been, we could have been had we not dropped the ball at the end of the year.”

Berenson is equally philosophical about other implications of last Saturday’s to Ohio State. “Not only does a new team win, but it’s good for their program. Their people were all excited, and [OSU athletic director] Andy Geiger was all excited, and you maybe had a team that wasn’t expected to win it.

“And now you look at the NCAA tournament and you see five teams from our league.”

Superfreaky indeed.


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