Quick — name the last West Coast team to win the Stanley Cup. Want a hint? It was the year before the last Red Sox World Series title.
Easterners know, on some level, that hockey is played west of the Mississippi, wherever that is. Bruins fans — who haven’t seen a Stanley Cup title since 1972 — have been forced to acknowledge that there is competitive hockey in places that sound Midwestern, like Detroit and Chicago, and in places so remote that the notion of a Lord & Taylor or Starbucks seems unlikely, like Edmonton and Calgary.
(Forget, for the moment, that Starbucks is a Seattle-based company.)
The two teams meeting in Saturday’s championship game are from cities 1,871 miles apart, as the crow flies. To many Hockey East fans, Orono, Maine seems like a remote outpost, a long way to go to see your Warriors, Huskies, or Eagles play. If you’re a Friars fan in Providence and your team is playing the Black Bears in Orono, you’re in for a 250-mile road trip if you want to see the game.
If, however, you’re a Pioneers fan — remember, they’re the other team in the big game — and you want to see Denver play WCHA foe Minnesota State in Mankato, you’ll travel 637 miles to do so.
Think that’s a long way to go? With the exception of the trip between Denver and Colorado Springs, home to WCHA rival Colorado College (and, incidentally, Air Force) — a mere 63 miles — Mankato is the shortest WCHA trip Denver makes. As the crow flies, Denver travels 693 miles to Minneapolis, 835 miles to Madison, and 2,378 miles to Anchorage.
If you average the distances between Denver and each of its WCHA opponents, you’ve got 858 miles. Take out the two extremes — Colorado College and Alaska Anchorage — and you’ve still got 755 miles.
Distance between Boston College’s Conte Forum and Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena? A mere 3.66 miles.
In the greater Boston area, there are five Division I men’s ice hockey programs, three leagues represented. In Boston or within an hour’s drive of Boston, there are no fewer than 20 combined Division I and Division III men’s ice hockey teams.
In Denver? There’s Denver.
And geography isn’t the only difference between East and West. In some WCHA and CCHA cities, college hockey receives coverage focusing on one local team, or in some instances, two or three local programs. In New England and in some parts of New York State, it’s not unusual for newspapers to devote a lot of ink, and not just the local picture.
The Pioneers — like many teams in the geographically far-flung WCHA — are basking in an unusual amount of press, because they’ve come a long, long way, so to speak.
“This Frozen Four opportunity for us has created an awful lot of excitement,” said head coach George Gwozdecky. “Being on the front page of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News on a daily basis over the last two weeks has given us the kind of attention that we wouldn’t normally see during the regular season.
“Obviously, with the Avalanche going to the playoffs and the Rockies just starting their season, the Broncos making a couple trades and the Nuggets hanging onto last place for the playoffs, there’s a lot of excitement in the city of Denver. So for the DU Pioneer hockey team to get the kind of attention we’re getting in the midst of a major league city is very, very important for us.”
Getting attention in a major league city? Can you imagine a situation in which Jerry York or Jack Parker would say the same things?
Every region claims hockey as its own, and Easterners have as much a right to that claim as anyone else, given the number of teams — collegiate and professional — that play in the northeast, especially. Since 1927, when the NHL assumed control of the Stanley Cup, the East has been dominant, winning 57 Stanley Cup titles to the West’s eight, the Midwest’s 11, and the South’s one. (And does Dallas really count, after all?)
But the history of hockey is filled with stories as big as the legendary West itself. In 1904, when the Stanley Cup was a challenge trophy — that is, when one team held it until another challenged for it and won — a team from Dawson City in the Yukon, Canada, traveled over 3,600 miles to challenge the Ottawa Silver Seven. For the first 2,000 miles of that trek, to Vancouver, they went by dogsled.
For the rest of the journey, they traveled by train. They were en route for nearly a month, and lost their best-of-three series in two games. Then they had to go back home.
There’s an awful lot of college hockey played in Boston, but 44 NCAA titles belong to teams west — as the CCHA and WCHA are known — to the east’s 13.
Oh, and that last team from the West Coast to win the Stanley Cup? It was the Metropolitans, in 1917, from the city that brings you your morning coffee.