WCHA rules Frozen Four

Posted: Sunday, April 03, 2005

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Gophers forward Danny Irmen couldn't help but smile at the thought of East Coast hockey players having to watch the NCAA Frozen Four next weekend from their couches.

All of them.

''Them all sitting at home watching the WCHA next weekend, I think we'll get a little more respect from those guys,'' he said.

So much for the East Coast bias in college hockey. Next weekend's Frozen Four tournament in Columbus, Ohio, is comprised exclusively of teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. It's the first time in the event's 58 years that all four teams hail from a single conference.

For players on North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado College and Denver, it's a little jab at their brethren in Maine, Boston, New Hampshire and elsewhere. For years, those in the West have carried a chip on their shoulder stemming from a perceived arrogance out East.

''This shows how powerful the WCHA actually is,'' Irmen said. ''Those teams out East don't give us as much respect as we think we deserve.''

In recent years, there hasn't been much to brag about at Harvard, Boston University or Boston College, which won the title in 2001. The WCHA has won four of the last five national titles, and will make it five out of six next weekend.

''I think (Eastern players and coaches) don't realize how good the WCHA is,'' Irmen said. ''They think they've got the best leagues out there, and some years they might. But this year I think we definitely went out and proved a point that the WCHA is the league to play in.''

Minnesota plays North Dakota in one semifinal, while defending champion Denver meets intrastate rival Colorado College in the other on April 7.

And while all four teams are staunch rivals on the ice, they definitely share a certain pride in doing something no conference has done before.

''I want to congratulate my WCHA brothers for making it an all-WCHA Frozen Four,'' Minnesota coach Don Lucia said during a conference call with all four coaches earlier this week.

''Unprecedented? I don't think so,'' Denver coach George Gwozdecky quipped. ''It's only been 58 years. It definitely is something that is obviously very unique to the Frozen Four and probably explains the great strength this year of the WCHA. At least this year, it's the dominant hockey conference in the country. This year obviously will set a new standard for all the conferences to achieve.''

The North Dakota Fighting Sioux were the only WCHA team not to receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That didn't stop them from ripping through the East Regional by outscoring traditional powers BU and Boston College by a combined score of 10-3.

Minnesota advanced with two overtime victories on its home ice over Maine and Cornell in the West Regional, Colorado College defeated Colgate and Michigan in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Denver edged Bemidji State, then cruised past New Hampshire in the Northeast Regional.

''I'm not all that surprised,'' Lucia said of the all-WCHA Frozen Four. ''I certainly knew it was a possibility. If you can be in the top half of the WCHA, you're going to be just fine in the national picture.''

The four teams have 20 national titles among them, with North Dakota leading the way with seven.

''I'm not overly surprised by it,'' first-year Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said. ''Coming through the regular season, it's no mystery the quality of play in our league. At the (WCHA tournament), we all saw four or five teams playing extremely well.''

The Gophers can attest to that. They won back-to-back national titles in 2002 and '03, but lost to North Dakota in the third-place game of the WCHA playoffs this season. Despite that, Minnesota still was granted a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, and now has a chance at its third championship in four seasons.

''It definitely proves that the WCHA is one of the top leagues in the nation,'' said Gophers forward Barry Tallackson, who scored the game winner in overtime against Cornell to get Minnesota to the Frozen Four.

''There are a lot of powerhouses out there, including the East Coast. But this year it proves how dominant the WCHA is. Everybody should take pride in that.''

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