BOSTON — This weekend, two of the nation’s best leagues collide when the NCHC meets Hockey East in the national semifinals.
It’s a microcosm of college hockey — two of the more powerful leagues producing the four teams who will play each other in a type of crossover, with Omaha playing Providence and North Dakota playing Boston University.
2015 Frozen Four
Follow all of USCHO's coverage at Frozen Four Central.
“There is definitely an East-West feel to this year,” said Providence coach Nate Leaman. “I love how it is because it lets you play teams you might not ordinarily see, and it really helps you learn and respect other coaches and the job that they’ve done at their schools.”
Growth in college hockey lends itself in 2015 to a unique structure where two traditional powers clash opposite two relative newcomers. Boston University and North Dakota are in their 22nd and 21st Frozen Four, respectively.
“The culture’s changed since the 1970s with social media,” said BU coach David Quinn. “Back then, there wasn’t that much familiarity, but if you asked people to name five college hockey programs, the majority would say North Dakota is one of the best programs. BU would also be in the mix. So it makes for an interesting matchup, and it’s a juicy subplot [to our game].”
“A lot of this happened when the WCHA and Hockey East had interlocking schedules maybe 25 years ago,” said Mavericks coach Dean Blais. “The East knew the West, the West knew the East, and it was a great thing for hockey. We’ve tried to play the Eastern teams as a Western team every year. I did that at North Dakota and now I’m doing it at Omaha.”
It’s Omaha’s first trip to the Frozen Four, while Providence arrives for the first time since 1985.
“It’s great to be able to play some new teams,” said Omaha forward Dominic Zombo. “This is a big show for all of [the teams], and we’re all just trying to live in the moment with a great opportunity.”
“It’s a good measuring stick,” said Omaha defenseman Brian O’Rourke. “You want to measure yourself against teams all across the country, and being able to play against a Providence team that we haven’t played against yet will be a nice test. But I think our NCHC schedule, with how difficult it was throughout the year, prepared us for moments like this, and I think we saw that at the regional in South Bend.”
The growth of the game and its shifting alignments allowed for the game to become much more competitive in markets where it maybe wasn’t formally seen.
Even within those different regions, new hockey locations are showing their mettle. This year, Rhode Island and Nebraska have a chance to take center stage in place of their better-known brethren in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota.
“It’s good to get Providence back on the map,” said the Friars’ Noel Acciari, himself a native of the Ocean State. “Hopefully we can continue this journey. I means, it’s a good feeling. Having the regional in Providence, having people come to the games that usually don’t come, it’s just good to have people in Rhode Island come out, see the games, see what Providence is all about and what kind of team we are. We might be a small state, but we’re hard workers.”
“I think Omaha is really putting themselves on the map,” said O’Rourke. “If you look at where Omaha is located, it’s a good central location for players to come from all over the country. It’s an up-and-coming program playing against the top competition week in and week out.”
Still, the growth within the regions can only heighten the competition between two distinct regions of the world’s fastest game.
“Player development has gotten out of the hockey hotbeds of East coast and West coast,” said O’Connor, “but both [BU and UND] have a lot of history and excellence. It’s kind of a cool thing to be playing a team like North Dakota from the Midwest. I think it just brings back more tradition with fans and culture, and it’ll be fun to do it in the Garden.”