Commentary: Sixteen Reasons to Cheer This Year

Sixteen teams with a chance to be No. 1.

All have a story, all have a purpose and all think they have a legit shot to win it all.

These are 16 likable teams, and here is a reason to root for every one of them. I give you every team and why I’d like to see them win the national title. Before doing that, for our visitors from outside New York and the Capital District region, it is pronounced Awl-bany or All-bany, not Albany (as in You Can Call me Al-bany). It sounds like “that all she wrote” as opposed to Al Gore. Get it? Just trying to help; sounding like you’re from out of town could be a risky proposition.

Miami

Anyone who has spent some time in the CCHA this season knows RedHawk nation can’t stand me and it’s because I said that I felt they would come up short in the CCHA playoffs. Well, they did, but that might be the best thing that happened to them. Losing in a big spot gives coaches ownership of their team for a period of time after that bad loss. You get the undivided attention of your players that week.

Miami has been through hell this season and so has its head coach. Brendan Burke, the team manager, was killed in a car accident and Rico Blasi has had his share of personal grief this year. It is a season off ice you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

However, Miami is a class act on and off the ice. Whether it be Nick Petraglia or Chris Bergeron or Brent Brekke, their staff is professional and they have instilled the concept of the brotherhood at Miami. It’s a fun team to watch and it can be explosive at any moment. It missed a national title by mere seconds last year and was a solid team all season.

You’d be happy for them if they won it all. I’d be happy for Pat Cannone most of all, considering how hard he has had to work to be a D-I player.

Alabama-Huntsville

The Chargers didn’t have a great season but they got hot when they needed to and won an OT game at Niagara against Niagara in the CHA championship game. Pretty impressive. Well coached by a pair of ex-Spartans in Danton Cole and Chris Luongo, it’s a good group that plays hard and battles. They can be tough to score against and tough to manufacture offense against. Great goaltending and discipline are the hallmarks here but they also have a bunch behind the bench you want to see do well.

They will play as an independent next season because they could not get a conference to adopt them as the CHA disbanded. What a story this would be if the defending national champ was an independent next season. For the chaos alone it’s worth rooting for them. Also, no school band plays “Sweet Home Alabama” better. I like the Chargers.

Bemidji State

Tom Serratore is more fun to talk hockey with, or just to talk to, than almost anyone in college hockey. Passionate about the game, smart, and charismatic, Tom is good for college hockey and he has done a phenomenal job at Bemidji State. For the first time in school history they won a regional last year and this year they made the tourney as an at-large pick. These guys are no pushover and they can be Michigan’s worst nightmare because of how hard they play and how well they go to the net. They can match Michigan’s speed at times and certainly can match their work ethic. They also are catching Michigan off an emotional weekend, so that might help or hurt BSU.

The Beavers go to the WCHA next season and should they get a crack at Michigan and Miami in the same regional they’ll be pretty ready either for the Frozen Four with two wins or at the very least be ready to tackle the WCHA. Bemidji State is a favorite of ours at CBS College Sports.

Michigan

OK, be honest. Even if you hate Michigan football or Michigan itself you have to be rooting for the Wolverines. They look dead in the water six weeks ago, they lose their starting goalie, they need to win the CCHA to make the tourney for a record 20th straight year, they needed to beat the No. 2 seed and archrival Michigan State at MSU and then needed to knock out the No. 1 seed in Miami in a semifinal game.

If you love an underdog and a great story you are rooting for Shawn Hunwick to win a national title. If you rooted for Jeff Lerg you can root for Hunwick. Likable, composed and making the saves he needs to, Hunwick is writing a great story. You would smile seeing this one end with the glass slipper on his foot.

North Dakota

Always a favorite program of mine with a terrific coach in Dave Hakstol. Another team that battled some adversity this season to get where it is. The Sioux have Ryan Malone’s cousin and Ron Hextall’s son on the squad, so you have some names that ring a bell. Their goaltending has been terrific and they look like the North Dakota teams that made the Frozen Four for what seemed every year last decade. They have a trio on top of their scoring list that would remind you of the Bochenski-Parise-Zajac era, or the Duncan-Toews-Oshie era.

Very likable team, great staff, and they are due.

Yale

The Bulldogs lost their best player in Sean Backman, who is a diminutive dynamo. Mark Arcobello is a buzz saw and Thomas Dignard is a bit of an unsung hero on the back line. Great coach in old friend Keith Allain and a team that has shown it can skate with anyone. They can hit, play well in their end and their goaltending has been good enough. Minus their best player you worry if they have enough jam but the Bulldogs are a great part of the tradition of college hockey and it’s always nice when the old guard climbs to the top again.

Alaska

The Nanooks are traveling almost as far to Worcester as they would to get to Tokyo to put this gong show in perspective. The committee couldn’t have switched them and Vermont to put Vermont closer to home and Alaska in an area where they’ll be close to some of the families of the players? The team is loaded with Western Canadians, a couple from Minnesota and their star is from Illinois. They have an awesome rookie in Andy Taranto and coach Dallas Ferguson was the coach of the year in the CCHA last season. He’s a class act and a good coach who keeps Alaska a pretty competitive team. If the Nanooks can get to Detroit it could get interesting. The team has a habit of playing well in the state of Michigan and plays about as many games a year there as they do at home.

Boston College

Jerry York, ’nuff said. Then again, we’ll say more. Not the superstar-laden teams we have seen in the past but kids like Jimmy Hayes and Chris Krieder make you want these guys to win. No staff in college hockey makes you feel more at home in their rink as a visitor then theirs, and when it comes to BC it’s a family affair everywhere they go. You never get the feeling they are Boston College; you get the feeling that they are just your local team you root for, which is pretty cool. There is just something folksy about them which is unique since they play in a huge city.

Boston College as a national champion is never a bad thing.

Denver

I’m a huge fan of George Gwozdecky and the Pioneers. Good program, good people, and great tradition. They are always fun to watch because even when they are good there is always that little doubt about them because they play in a great conference, and in the WCHA Final Five it’s just a huge crap shoot who wins anyway. You wonder if losing there hurts their psyche?

They have lights-out goaltending in Marc Cheverie, and this just might be the year Denver gets back to the Frozen Four. It would be cool for Gwozdecky to play in the FF in Detroit — he was an assistant on Michigan State’s national title team in 1986. He is the only person to win a national title in Division I as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

RIT

The little school from one of the great rinks in college hockey, RIT is a fun team to watch. Dan Ringwald is a hell of a defenseman and just oozes hockey sense and confidence. Coach Wayne Wilson has a good track record for success everywhere he has been and is a good ambassador for college hockey. He is an honest straight shooter. If for no other reason other than no one thinks they’ll even beat Denver, the Tigers coming out of nowhere would be a hell of a story.

New Hampshire

There might not be a team you would want to root for more than Dick Umile’s Wildcats from Durham. Always a great program, well coached, and somewhat snake bitten in the national tourney, the Wildcats deserve a national championship. They are always close, always have the right pieces in place and it just never happens for them. They come in as the regular season champs in Hockey East and play a regional somewhat close to home. They are one of those teams you can just root for because of Umile behind the bench and the class the program has.

Cornell

Here is a group that seems to give up a goal only if it feels like it. The Big Red are not exciting but rather ruthlessly efficient. They can play offensive as they have some good skill in their top six forwards, and their goalie Ben Scrivens might win the Hobey Baker. Mike Schafer is a fun coach at a press conference. He might not say much but he is entertaining and a good dude. We like him. Cornell has been close before and this might be as balanced a team as they have had in a while. That loss in the regionals last year has been a motivating factor for them this season. They are as deserving a winner as any team in the Sweet 16.

St. Cloud State

These guys are a little off my radar, but I’m rooting for Mike Lee. The kid got KO’ed from the gold medal game in the World Juniors and responded with a great second half. He is composed, competitive, and a terrific goalie. He is a kid who left Roseau High School after his junior year to play in the USHL, and that is somewhat unheard of up there in the Northern Minnesota region. He survived that and led Fargo to a USHL finals appearance. I like Mike Lee and him in net for a national title-winning game would be a great scene. He was a huge part of why Team USA won gold in Saskatoon.

Northern Michigan

Walt Kyle is a magician. Every year NMU muddles through the CCHA season and every year he gets them to The Joe for the CCHA championship. He did it again, but this year they got there in great shape in the PairWise, beat Ferris State and nearly beat Michigan. Walt’s brother John might be the funniest man in college hockey (he and Rick Gotkin of Mercyhurst at happy hour would be priceless) and if for no other reason than listening to him in a postgame presser after winning a national title NMU is a good team to root for. Their goalie Brian Stewart is also a fun watch and Alan Dorich, an unsung defenseman, is as tough as nails. Walt is a great coach and he deserves some light on him.

NMU fans travel well; they are a fun bunch. They’d be great at Ford Field. They are every year at the CCHAs.

Vermont

There are very few coaches in college hockey as unusual as Kevin Sneddon, and he is an old favorite of mine back to his days at Union. The Catamounts are a Frozen Four team from last year and despite a defensive moniker they are a pretty solid all-around team. The best part about Vermont is when it has to play with desperation. In that scenario the Catamounts might be the best team in college hockey. I’d love to see them in a national title game down 3-1 late and see if they can duplicate the feat BU did last year. They’d be the team I’d bet on in the tourney to do so and it would be great to watch. Why they are not in the Worcester regional for common sense reasons is beyond me.

Wisconsin

There is no coach in college hockey I have known longer than Mike Eaves. It’s now 20 years, just about my entire career in the business that I have had the pleasure to know Mike. I’d root for Mike even if he defected and coached Team Canada. This is another team that has a great staff and is led by a lunch pail group of forwards who work hard, can run you over, and play as a team. There might not be a more active defense in the nation, and John Ramage is my unsung hero of the year. Like Miami, Wisconsin is a team thing — the sum of the parts is bigger than any one piece.

Wisconsin winning a national title in hockey is like Alabama winning a national title in college football. It might ruffle a feather or two but it’s good for the business.

Enjoy the Sweet 16.

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