Not long after Boston College’s Krys Kolanos slid the NCAA title-winning goal past North Dakota’s Karl Goehring back in 2001, the two teams’ head coaches were facing different scenarios for the upcoming season.
The Eagles’ Jerry York had a strong portion of the championship team returning and thoughts of a repeat were being entertained. Halfway across the United States, the Fighting Sioux’s Dean Blais was wondering how many freshmen he would have to count on in 2001-02 after winning a title in 2000 and coming so close in the championship game a year later.
Blais would be more prepared for what happened to both teams last year but York found out in June that finding reliable first-year players would become an immediate priority. Kolanos, a sophomore in 2000-01, joined junior Brooks Orpik and freshman Chuck Kobasew — all first-round NHL draft picks — in leaving for the professional ranks within a two-week span in August. Add to that the loss of leading scorer Brian Gionta and top goaltender Scott Clemmensen to graduation, and the Eagles became shorthanded.
After disappointing seasons last year that saw both the Eagles and the Fighting Sioux miss the NCAA postseason tournament for the first time in five and six years, respectively, many inside the college hockey circle were wondering how long it would take to complete a rebuilding process. The consensus belief was that it would take another year before York and Blais were competing for any championships, but a check of the latest polls would find North Dakota sitting at No. 1 and Boston College five spots behind at No. 6.
“I think a more accurate ranking would have us at 12th or 13th,” Blais said. “I don’t think there’s a dominant team in the country, though, so we have as good of a chance as anyone.”
“There are probably 10 to 12 teams that have positioned themselves in the hunt for the title,” York added. “We’ve played well enough to be one of those dozen or so teams.”
A slew of talented freshmen on both squads have vaulted the Fighting Sioux and the Eagles back into the upper echelon of Division I, but the process was neither simple nor easy.
Boston College’s Ben Eaves was a freshman on the national championship team in 2001 and was the team’s top returning scorer heading into last season. He did nothing to disappoint when he was in the lineup, scoring 38 points in 23 games, but missed 15 games due to injury and the Eagles’ record dropped to 18-18-2 after a 33-8-2 mark the year before.
“It was so frustrating with all the happenings last season,” Eaves said. “We knew we had the players in our locker room that could make the team successful but we didn’t get it done. Then, to lose a big chunk of the season to injury made it even more difficult.”
“Ben had a tough time getting through last year,” York said. “Mentally and physically, he had a very difficult season and that’s why it’s been so nice to see him at full strength. He has matured so much quicker than anyone could have hoped.”
York had been through what the Eagles went through last year as a head coach for Bowling Green in the mid ’80s. The Falcons won the 1984 NCAA Championship only to lose four undergraduate players to the pro ranks after that year and finish 21-21 the following season.
“Losing guys like [Dave] Ellett and [Garry] Galley at Bowling Green was real similar to what happened to us last season,” York said. “It was like deja vu.”
The Eagles have rebounded nicely this season with a 9-3-3 record heading into the holiday break, despite finishing on a 1-3-2 slide in their past six games. An early-season victory over then No. 1-ranked Denver (4-2, Oct. 18) set the tone for what has been an inspiring performance by York’s team.
“I really like the team Denver has,” York said. “Because there are so many good teams out there, our goal is to win a Hockey East title and by doing that, we would put ourselves in a good position to win the NCAA title.
“To win a national title, you’re going to have to beat a Denver, a BU, a Maine, a Michigan, or North Dakota. We’ll need to have a hot goaltender on our side and what I like to call a little ‘puck luck.'”
The Eagles’ hopes for a national championship took a serious blow when freshman Patrick Eaves, Ben’s brother, went down with a fractured vertebra in his neck. He will be out indefinitely, a time likely to be at least two months. With highly-touted freshmen Chris Collins and Peter Harrold in the lineup, however, the Eagles still have a wealth of talent to make a serious run at their second title in three years.
“We have a lot of pride in our locker room,” Ben Eaves said. “We’re not going to let Patrick’s injury bring us down. We know how much he wants to get back in there, you can see it in his eyes. When we get back here in January, he’ll be here in the locker room even if he’s not playing yet and will help push us.”
The Fighting Sioux saw a similar downward spiral. Playing a brutal schedule they finished the year 16-19-2 and out of the WCHA playoffs with a first-round loss to eventual national champion Minnesota. What was hard for Blais to digest was the fact that his team had defeated six of the 12 teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament, including overtime victories over Michigan and Michigan State on consecutive nights.
“Half of our roster were freshmen,” Blais said. “We progressed a lot throughout the year, especially on the blue line. Despite that, I know all of the losses affected some of our players, like Kevin Spiewak. He’s learned a lot from last year and as a team, we are seeing the results.”
“I know people didn’t expect us to do as well,” Spiewak said of last year, “but it was still very frustrating when you’re used to winning. I blamed myself because I know I didn’t play up to my potential and didn’t become more of a leader until this year.”
Like BC, the maturity of North Dakota has come suddenly.
This year, the Fighting Sioux are 14-1-1 with their only loss coming at St. Cloud on Nov. 8. The turnaround has been quick, thanks in large part to the play of freshman Zach Parise. Parise has 12 goals and 21 assists in the Sioux’s first 16 games and is tied for the Division I lead in scoring with Colorado College’s Peter Sejna, averaging over two points per contest.
Linemate Brandon Bochenski, a sophomore, is one of three Division I players with 16 goals, including five power-play and two shorthanded tallies.
“You can just tell this is a different team than last year,” Spiewak said. “The tempo in practice is faster and we’re upbeat. There have been a lot of one-goal games for us this season that we would have lost last year. We would’ve packed it up once we got behind.”
North Dakota’s last four victories have all come by one goal after losing a total of nine one-goal games in 2001-02.
“We’ve stayed relatively healthy and had good goaltending so far,” Blais said. “We need to keep getting better as a team every week, though. It’s only going to get tougher.”
That’s what made the championship teams of North Dakota in 2000 and Boston College in 2001 — the ability to win tough games. If the first two months of this season is a sign, the Eagles and Sioux might be renewing their rivalry come April, a lot sooner than expected.