The Big Show

Plenty has been said already — and rest assured that more is coming — about Michigan’s edge in this year’s Midwest Regional.

Playing at Yost Arena, the Wolverines overcame Maine 2-1 before building momentum en route to a 5-3 win over top-seeded Colorado College, gaining Michigan a berth in a third straight Frozen Four.

For some, however, the wins were tainted by home-ice advantage, which seemed like an unfair boon for the Wolverines — or at the very least, an unwarranted disadvantage for the top-seeded Tigers.

It’s worth mentioning that with two of the four regionals hosted at campus sites this year, the losing coaches had little criticism for the format. After Maine lost to Michigan in the first round, head coach Tim Whitehead called Yost “a great environment.”

Similarly, Bob Daniels, whose Ferris State team was beaten by host Minnesota in the West final, indicated a preference for the big-game atmosphere that a lively crowd brings — even when that crowd is arrayed on the other side.

But we’ll leave that debate for another day, pausing only to note two things.

Jeff Tambellini leads Frozen Four-bound Michigan in scoring as a freshman.

Jeff Tambellini leads Frozen Four-bound Michigan in scoring as a freshman.

First, NCAA regional sites are selected by bid, typically years in advance. Any team can bid for the right to host a regional, but not many do so. Michigan does, and so Yost has hosted regionals each of the last two seasons, as well as in 1998.

(It’s worth noting that the only other NCAA tournament games ever played in Ann Arbor were the 1977 play-in game — in the brief era of the five-team tournament — and a best-of-three series in 1991. At that time, first-round games were played on the home ice of the higher seed, which Michigan was.)

Second, since the development of a true regional system in 1992, the rules have been straightforward: a host team that makes the NCAA tournament must play at its own regional site.

The point is that there is no conspiracy to put Michigan in the Frozen Four year after year. While it may seem unfair to force a No. 1 seed to play a road game in the regionals, that’s just the way the current NCAA cookie crumbles. And what goes around, comes around: CC will host next year’s West Regional in Colorado Springs, Colo.

No, the truth is far more insidious: Michigan is really good in the NCAA tournament.

Indeed, the Wolverines’ national record is one of superlatives. Most college hockey fans know that Michigan has won the most NCAA championships (nine) of any team, though what-have-you-done-for-me-lately types dismiss that record by pointing out that six of those came in the championship’s first decade.

Of course, those six titles were an early lesson in Michigan’s performance under the bright lights. From 1948-57 the NCAA tournament — back then a four-team event — was held in Colorado Springs. Not only did Michigan participate in all 10 tourneys, win six championships and complete the only three-peat (1951-53) in history, the Wolverines compiled a 16-4 record in the process.

For comparison, homestanding CC appeared in seven of those tournaments and went just 6-7, though the Tigers did win the 1950 and 1957 titles.

Not long after that, a dry spell settled over Michigan hockey. The Wolverines won the 1964 championship (in Denver this time), but then went to just one NCAA tournament over the next 26 seasons.

Then came the Red Berenson era, during which the NCAA hockey record book has been heavily daubed in maize and blue. Nine titles aside, Michigan also holds the NCAA record for best tournament winning percentage (.700, 42-18) and most Frozen Four appearances (22).

The Wolverines’ current streak of NCAA invitations — 13, all under Berenson — is tied with Minnesota for the longest all-time, and Michigan is second only to the Gophers in overall tournament wins, 42 to 44. Since Michigan plays Minnesota in the semifinals Thursday, that means that a Michigan national championship would tie the Wolverines for first in that category as well.

But perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is this one: in 26 appearances in the NCAAs (third all-time, one behind Minnesota and Boston University), Michigan has failed to win a game just one time.

This is the big stage we’re talking about. Twenty-five of 26 times, the Wolverines have tallied at least one victory before departing.

The lone exception? The 1994 tournament, in which the West Regional was played in East Lansing, Mich., home of Wolverine archrival Michigan State. The following year, Michigan won its quarterfinal contest before losing to Maine in triple-overtime in Providence, R.I., a game which at the time was the longest in NCAA history.

Those defeats, notable for their rarity, are accompanied by some impressive neutral-site and road wins. Atop that heap, Michigan won the 1998 championship as a No. 3 seed in truly hostile territory, defeating Boston College 3-2 in overtime at the FleetCenter.

Those who were there — the author included — can appreciate the extent to which the crowd and the venue made that a true road game for the Wolverines. Of course, the case can be made that Michigan’s fan base is the best-traveling in college hockey, so that the Wolverines tend to create pockets of home ice wherever they go. Overall, Michigan is 33-17 away from Yost in NCAA tournament games.

And recently at least, the Wolverines are a harbinger. Each of the last two seasons, Michigan’s semifinal opponent was the eventual national champion.

This year, that would make Minnesota the first repeat titlist since 1972 — an NCAA accomplishment with which the Wolverines would prefer not to be involved.


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