New Site, Old School

The 2009 East Regional may be the first NCAA regional contested in the state of Connecticut, but as Michigan, Air Force, Yale and Vermont prepare to battle for the right to play in Washington, D.C. at the Frozen Four, Friday’s semifinals have a distincly “old school” feel.

Of course, when it comes to the NCAA tournament, the schools don’t get any older than Michigan. The Wolverines won six of the first eight NCAA titles under the legendary Vic Heyliger. However, it was that early run of success that eventually led Heyliger to his “second act” as the inaugural coach at Air Force.

“Back in those days, the Frozen Four was played at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs,” current Falcons coach Frank Serratore explained Thursday. “Vic Heyliger’s teams were so darn good, and they came to the Frozen Four so often in Colorado Springs, that he goes, ‘I kinda like it around here. I think I’m going to retire here.’ He retired in Colorado Springs at about the same the Air Force was looking at starting a hockey program, so they went to Vic and asked him if he’d come out of retirement to get the Air Force program, and he was our first coach.”

The Michigan ties continued when Heyliger went back into retirement, and former Wolverine John Matchefts, a national champ under Heyliger, became his successor. Matchefts coached the Falcons until 1985. “The foundation of our program, basically, was put in place by Michigan people,” Serratore said.

Despite the ties between the programs, the teams will be meeting for just the second time on Friday, and for the first time since Heyliger coached the Falcons (Michigan won, 7-6, in overtime). However, Michigan coach Red Berenson downplayed the significance of the matchup on Thursday, saying, “I don’t think there is anyone on either team, except the coaches, who knows who Vic was or knew Vic.” When commenting on his own experience with Michigan’s third coach, however, Berenson mentioned one detail that might explain his reluctance to play up the Heyliger connection.

“I got to know Vic pretty well,” Berenson said, citing Heyliger’s ties to his own coach, Al Renfrew, and various camps, “but he cheered against Michigan whenever we played Colorado [College]. He became a Coloradan, but he was a great guy.”

Vermont and Yale, meanwhile, haven’t had quite as long a layoff since their last meeting — they last played in 2005 — but it will be the first time the Bulldogs and Catamounts meet since UVM moved to Hockey East. While there’s no bad blood between the two programs over the Catamounts’ move — UVM coach Kevin Sneddon took time Thursday to acknowledge the classy treatement of his program by Yale fans on the way out of ECAC Hockey — the Catamounts are eager to take the ice against Yale as their predecessors did … not to mention their Harvard-educated coach.

“Coach Sneddon has had a few battles against Yale,” Vermont captain Dean Strong said, “and we’ve had a few conversations with some former ECAC Vermont hockey players. You talk to them and it gets the blood going a little bit.”

Clearly, something about the matchups has gotten fans’ blood going, as a sellout for the weekend was announced on Thursday afternoon. While the makeup of the crowd can’t be determined until the games begin, it’s a fair bet that the traveling party from Vermont will be well-represented, and alternate captain Peter Lenes, the team’s only Vermont native, can certainly relate.

“My parents took me out of school to watch the Frozen Four games,” Lenes said, recalling the Martin St. Louis-led charge to Cincinnati in 1996. “I remember the buzz around Burlington in 1996 [and] 1997, and you realize how exciting it was. Now, to be a part of something like this, I know that Vermont will be behind us.”

Yale can relate to Vermont’s situation, having last been to the NCAA tournament in 1998, and like the Catamounts, the Bulldogs look forward to having an energetic crowd behind them, since like Vermont, Yale has enjoyed consistently strong crowd support even in the lean years since the Elis last appeared in the tournament. Being able to reward that support with an ECAC Hockey title and an NCAA regional in the Bulldogs’ backyard is a thrill for the Yale players.

“Obviously, we’ve always drawn well at Ingalls [Rink],” forward Pat Brosnihan said, “but wins are what bring people in, and I think that as our culture’s changed throughout the time we’ve been here, and we started to pile up wins, that’s going to bring people in and get people excited.”

And as the drop of the puck approaches on an East Regional filled with history, there’s sure to be plenty for fans to get excited about.

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