MINNEAPOLIS — All season long, Minnesota coach Brad Frost has talked about focusing on the process, rather than winning games. He feels that if his team sticks to executing certain things within each contest, winning will take care of itself.
That sounds good; I’m sure that it is true on many levels. Certainly he has done an excellent job of creating this team, and he and his staff, including assistants Joel Johnson, Nadine Muzerall, and Andy Kent, have done stellar work in developing them.
However, Frost doesn’t get on the ice while the clock is running during games. Minnesota was able to accomplish all that it did because of the people he sends over the boards.
I remember the first time I heard the subject of an undefeated season for this team come up in a post-game interview. A local reporter asked Frost about the possibility of his team winning every game this year after Minnesota broke Harvard’s record with its 22nd straight win on Nov. 17 versus Minnesota State to go to 14-0 on the year.
Frost said, “Yeah, I mean, no, well — I have no idea.”
Minnesota’s coach is usually very polished in interviews, seldom needing to stop and restart his answers. But there are some questions that one isn’t prepared to answer when hearing them for the first time. What does a coach say? Either a yes or no answer sends the wrong message to somebody.
Right around that time, the topic must have started to be raised more often.
“I set one goal for me and the team: to win that [national championship] back-to-back,” senior defenseman Mira Jalosuo said. “It’s not that easy; we all know that. But after six weekends or so, I was talking with coach Frost and I told him, ‘I just don’t see us losing.’ Even before this game, I told Noora, ‘I don’t see us losing; there’s no way that we will lose.’”
Jalosuo had an early hand in making sure that prophesy came true, one-timing a pass from Rachel Ramsey into the net for a power-play goal, the game’s first tally.
Jalosuo said she didn’t remember the crowd noise that ensued, but Ramsey remembered noise in general.
“Noise all the time,” Ramsey said. “We’re trying to make plays on the ice and you can’t hear anyone calling for the puck. The environment out here was awesome.”
Ramsey, as a sophomore, buys into her coach’s party line about how to win.
“I think it is about the process,” Ramsey said after her goal and two assists were a factor in the team’s 6-3 win over Boston University in the NCAA Women’s D-I Hockey Championship. “Yes, you’ve got to be a hockey player, but in the end, it feels pretty good to finally let loose.”
Minnesota hadn’t been pushed that hard during the season, when a loss would not have drastically impacted it’s postseason future. Once the NCAA tournament began, that changed.
“We were kind of playing under a lot of pressure,” Jalosuo said. “Against North Dakota, you have to win or you’re done. Same thing with BC. Maybe we were holding our sticks a little too tight. But today, we made the Frozen Four final. That’s all you can ask. Just enjoy the moment.”
That was obvious as soon as the Gophers hit the ice.
“We put everything on the ice that we possibly had,” Ramsey said. “That’s what we have been doing all season. Of course, this one is special, because to win the national championship at the end, and we get to finally relax and breathe and go 41-0 and not have to think about it.”
Minnesota’s big players rose to the moment. Captain Megan Bozek demonstrated just what she is capable of doing, even with elite players on the other bench.
“She’s an awesome defenseman,” said Jalosuo, who has shared the position with her for four years at Minnesota. “There’s not a better ‘D’ in this country right now. She can rush the puck and she doesn’t make any mistakes in the defensive zone. Just like a solid and complete defenseman.”
Her energy helped to swing the momentum in Minnesota’s favor often in the game.
Amanda Kessel, fighting through an assortment of injuries all year, and especially over the final five weeks, came through with a dominant two goal and two assist performance, bringing her season total to 101 points.
“When we needed her, she was right there,” Jalosuo said. “She just played awesome. She’s not 100 percent; it’s not a secret, but she was playing with so much heart.”
There was always someone on the team to step up and make the pivotal play. Senior Becky Kortum scored from her knees against Boston College to give her team its first lead late in the third period in the semifinal, and her celebration from her knees presented an unforgettable images.
“I can’t even tell you how special it was,” Kortum said. “I thought it was the game-winner, and [Sarah Davis] ended up having to put it away, which is awesome in itself. It was a great moment, and I’ll remember it forever.”
After watching the team pour over the boards last year in Duluth, I wondered if anything could top the raw emotion of a team winning the title after a many-year drought and so many close calls in both the conference and national tournament.
“I think it did,” Ramsey said. “So close knit — literally playing for each other every time we stepped out on the ice. How many people get to say that they didn’t lose a game in the season and you actually pull it out in the end.”
Plus, to make their Cinderella season even less believable, it ended on Ridder Arena ice.
“So much better than Duluth,” Ramsey said. “Winning it on our home ice with our fans. Family was there in Duluth, but friends and more people being able to be here. Hearing the Rouser and everybody all the way enveloping the arena. It’s incredible.”
Yes, the team still was willing to buy into Frost’s “It’s about the process” theory.
“Thinking about the steps that will get you there, and we learned that 41 times this year,” Kortum said.
Maybe it isn’t about wins. But you’d have a hard time telling me that this season would have come close to happening had Frost not had a bunch of wins years earlier, winning recruiting battles. What if Kessel and Bozek had gone to Wisconsin? Or Raty and Jalosuo to Ohio State? A 41-0 season starts to sound even more farfetched than it already was. The most important wins in the process likely came when he got this group of 22 student athletes to show up at Minnesota in the first place.