Dear Uncle Freddy and Aunt Esther,
Sure, this is supposed to be a Christmas letter, but since when have I been on time with anything?
Things are going well here in the upper Midwest. I wish we could get rid of this snow, though. And the cold! Things haven’t been this bitter around here since Doug Woog had to do color commentary for the Gophers.
But seriously, things have been busy in the WCHA over the last couple of weeks, not including the days around the holiday. That Russian team came around the area and didn’t do all too well.
League teams went 3-1 against the Russians, who for some reason wore blue uniforms. I thought this was going to be the big red machine coming to town. More like the George Foreman grilling machine, with all the advertisements on their sweaters.
Speaking of grilling, how about Denver? The Pioneers have been barbecuing opponents in the last month and are now all alone in second place in the league.
They’re 7-0-2 in their last nine games, one of the hottest teams in the nation. Maybe this is going to be an up year for them, after all.
And did you see the score of that Minnesota-Quinnipiac game on Dec. 9? The Gophs won 11-2. Now that’s a good way to go into the break. They haven’t scored 11 goals in a non-conference game since 1986.
You knew it was going to be a big night when Paul Martin, a freshman defenseman, got his first collegiate goal seven seconds into the game.
Oh, and more about those freshmen: Did you hear that Minnesota State-Mankato’s Tim Jackman was the top WCHA prospect in the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau ratings? He’s listed as sixth among draft-eligible U.S. college hockey players.
Jackman was a big part of Mankato’s strong close to the first half of the season. The Mavericks are 10-8 overall going into the break after sweeps of Alabama-Huntsville and Bemidji State.
While we’re talking about teams from Minnesota, Craig Dahl has that St. Cloud State team rolling after the first half. The Huskies’ previous best start through 18 games was 12-4-2. Well, they did one better this year — they’re 13-4-1.
SCSU is a part of a logjam at third place in the standings. Four teams — St. Cloud, Minnesota, Colorado College and Wisconsin — have 16 points, one back of second-place Denver and five points behind leader North Dakota.
But three of the teams in third place — CC, Minnesota and St. Cloud — have played two fewer league games than the others.
North Dakota is still the frontrunner, especially with such a strong front line. I’m sure you’ve heard of Jeff Panzer, Bryan Lundbohm and Ryan Bayda, and the havoc they’ve wreaked on opponents.
They’re 1-2-3 in the WCHA points race (Panzer has 43, Lundbohm 37, Bayda 33). You think Panzer can hit 100 points this season? I wouldn’t write it off, either.
Well, that’s pretty much the update. I have to go dig out of the snow so I can get to Milwaukee for the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown. The possibility of a Wisconsin-North Dakota rematch in the final is too good to pass up.
But I’ll have my eye on the other holiday tournaments. That Wells Fargo Denver Cup should be interesting. It’s the first time CC hasn’t been involved since 1994. The Tigers are playing Harvard this weekend.
The Mariucci Classic field isn’t the strongest it’s ever been. The Gophers play Union in the first round after Lake Superior State plays Bemidji State. The Silverado Shootout is still going in Duluth, this year featuring NCAA scoring leader Western Michigan.
And Michigan Tech is in the Great Lakes Invitational as usual, but this year the fourth participant is Boston College. Now that’s a stretch for the Great Lakes.
So, best wishes for a happy new year, and I’ll see you in Albany.
Last year’s final of the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown was so good, the organizers are going for another.
Well, that’s not the whole story.
Remember the one about the party that featured plenty of excitement but ended in vomiting? No, not the USCHO Christmas bash. Last season’s North Dakota-Wisconsin matchup in the Showdown’s championship game ended with Sioux star Lee Goren scoring the overtime winner … and then making a run for the locker room to, ahem, take care of business.
The Sioux didn’t expect to be coming back to Milwaukee this season, but when Ohio State pulled out before the season started, bringing UND back to attempt to become the first team other than Wisconsin to defend a Showdown title was a no-brainer.
The television advertisements for this season’s Showdown at the Bradley Center end with a shot of former Wisconsin goaltender Mike Valley holding the Pettit Cup, the championship trophy.
That was 1997, and yes, Badgers fans, that was the last time UW won the Showdown. Wisconsin beat Northern Michigan, 4-3, that year and Valley was the all-tournament team’s goaltender.
Valley is long gone (he left for the pros after his freshman year), and so may be the Badgers’ mystique at the Showdown. Wisconsin has won only one of the last five tourneys. North Dakota and Boston University (the Sioux’s opponent on Friday) have also won one title in that time.
Changes Ahead in Duluth?
Scott Sandelin doesn’t want to be thatguy — the one who comes into a new job and starts changing everything.
But that doesn’t mean the Minnesota-Duluth coach doesn’t see some things with which he’d like to tinker.
One is the format of the Silverado Shootout, which the Bulldogs host this weekend at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. Since its inception, the schedule has always been set in stone. In other words, the winners of the first night would not necessarily play in a championship game on the second night.
So don’t be surprised if Sandelin suggests a change in the format for next year’s tournament, when Boston College, Yale and Miami are scheduled to travel to Duluth. He said his view of a tournament is one in which the winner plays the winner.
“I certainly would like to look at that,” Sandelin said. “[The current format is] something they’ve had in place here so I don’t want to come in and change everything. I would certainly like to consider going to something like that.”
For now, though, Sandelin, like most coaches, is looking forward to the first part of the new year. In that time, it’s all hockey for his players. No classes, no studying. Just practice, weight training and more practice.
With just a day and a half of practice after players returned from break and before playing Merrimack on Thursday, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to prepare. But starting next week, Sandelin has his players’ undivided attention.
“As a player, it’s grind with the school,” Sandelin said. “Everybody’s schedule is different, but we were on the road a lot and our guys had a lot of catching up to do in the last half a month before finals. It’s just nice to wake up and know that you don’t have to go to class and you can just go to practice and work out and you still have the whole day to not have to study. I think it’s a nice break for guys.”
The Bench is Empty
It’s an annual occurrence, but that doesn’t make it any easier to plan for when it comes around.
Minnesota has three players with the U.S. National Junior Team in Moscow while it’s trying to win the Mariucci Classic this weekend and a series at Alaska-Anchorage next weekend.
Forward Jeff Taffe and defensemen Martin and Troy Riddle are gone, but the Gophers have to find a way to persevere.
“It certainly has an impact,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “You take three of your key guys — all three are specialty players, there goes three guys off our power-play unit and guys that are going to kill penalties for us and play four on four.
“You need other people to step forward and play well in their absence and maybe prove they can handle an increased role.”
Lucia is hoping his team can come through like it did in last season’s Mariucci Classic, when it beat Harvard and Northern Michigan to win the title. Largely unheard-of Mark Nenovich and Dan Welch scored in last year’s tourney, and the Gophers need more little-used players to chip in this year.
They have even more reason to search within themselves this weekend. With Union as the opponent on Friday, the Gophers will enter the game not knowing too much about the team on the other end of the ice.
“What happens when you get into these tournaments, you don’t know other peoples’ players like you do within your own league,” Lucia said. “You’re more concerned about your own team and focusing on your own team than really worrying about what the other team’s all about because you don’t have a feel for who their top guys are and what they can do.”
CC ya’ later
Those residents of the Mile High City looking for a good intrastate college hockey rivalry this weekend will have to wait a few weeks.
For the first time since 1994, Colorado College is not taking part in the Wells Fargo Denver Cup. But it’s not like Denver and CC have a long history in the tournament anyway.
“[Fans have] gotten used to having CC in the tournament and coming into the tournament knowing that DU-CC matchup will not happen may be a little bit disappointing,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “At the same point in time, in the years that we’ve run this tournament that CC’s been in it, we’ve only had one DU-CC matchup.”
That’s right, just one. That was in 1995, when the Pioneers beat the Tigers 3-2 in front of a sellout crowd of 16,061 at McNichols Arena.
With the Tigers out (they’re playing a series against Harvard at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo., this weekend), though, it has given tournament organizers the opportunity to have a more diverse range of teams. Air Force (CHA), Ferris State (CCHA) and Providence (Hockey East) join the Pioneers this year.
And they’ll have their hands full if the Pioneers can start the second half the way they closed the first.
They capped a rollercoaster ride through the first half on a nine-game unbeaten streak to be 9-7-2 overall. But Gwozdecky said his team has not yet reached its potential.
“The thing that I look at and analyze on our team at this point is that we have played pretty well at times and there’s other times we haven’t played very well during this nine-game streak,” Gwozdecky said. “We’re still in the process of developing. I know we will continue to get better. I don’t think we’ve even come close to hitting our stride or our peak at this time.”
Rumble In Hockeytown
With Michigan State, Michigan and Boston College in the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament this weekend, what exactly would have been a good draw for Michigan Tech?
The Huskies were stuck with Michigan as their first-round opponent for Friday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Not much more to say about that.
After helping to start the Silverado Shootout in Duluth, Tech interim coach Mike Sertich gets his first look at the Great Lakes tourney.
“I’ve heard a lot about the GLI over the years,” Sertich said in a news release. “I know the kids are looking forward to it with great enthusiasm, as am I. Certainly, the GLI is a cornerstone of the Michigan Tech hockey program and we’re going to do our darnedest to get that GLI title back to Houghton.”
Darnedest? Enough said.
He Said It
“You’re not going to solve all your problems. You’re trying to touch on everything as best as you can in three practices.”
— Lucia, on trying to prepare for the holiday tournaments so soon after the holiday break.
News And Views
On The Docket
After this weekend’s games, it’s back to the league grind for many WCHA teams. The featured matchup next weekend looks like the Denver-Colorado College home-and-home series. How improbable was that statement just a month ago?
The other crucial series should be Minnesota’s, at Alaska-Anchorage. The Gophers need some WCHA wins right now, while the Seawolves need a win any way they can get one.