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Between Christmas and New Year’s, WCHA teams were involved in riveting action throughout the Midwest, from Minnesota to Detroit to northern Ohio, providing frozen holiday entertainment for hockey purists.
Minneapolis: The Mariucci Classic
The St. Cloud State Huskies must have missed the hype about top-seeded Minnesota State prior to opening puck drop of the Mariucci Classic Saturday in Minneapolis, as the unranked Scouts overwhelmed the national #2 Mavericks 7-2. The WCHA’s flagship franchise was relegated to a mere afterthought by the time the glamorous Golden Gophers stepped onto the ice Saturday night. That left unranked but undaunted Bemidji State representing WCHA pride at this historic All-Minnesota hockey-fest.
Although the Beavers ultimately fell to the Gophers, they were co-stars in the game of the tourney, forcing Minnesota to climb back from two deficits before the home team broke a 2-2 tie with under three minutes to play.
Not only did Tom Serratore’s Beavers deliver its signature defense, including a penalty kill unit that outplayed and outscored Minnesota while down a man, but they showed the holiday crowd that they could skate with any team in the State of Hockey. The final 5-2 score [2 ENG’s] was not nearly as indicative of territorial advantage as was Bemidji’s 30-18 shot advantage. The Beavers enjoyed long stretches of dominance in the prime-time thriller from the epicenter of Minnesota college hockey.
“People got their money’s worth,” said BSU’s Tom Serratore. “We played a heck of a hockey game, I can’t ask anything more of our guys. We could have won that thing seven or eight times.” The Beavers consolation prize was an intra-conference clash with an angry Minnesota State squad, a game between two teams atop the WCHA standings.
The consolation game saw the college hockey world’s axis returned to 23 degrees, as the Mavericks jumped a deflated Bemidji squad with two early goals. Dryden McKay, who had been torched for five goals the night before, salvaged his weekend with his fifth shutout of the year.
Detroit: Great Lakes Invitational
Midwest hockey aficionados projected the Michigan Tech – Michigan State game as the de facto Great Lakes Invitational championship game, based on their winning records and top-20 pairwise rankings, and the game lived up to the fanfare. This time it was the WCHA team that fought back from a pair of one-goal deficits against the 18th ranked Sparties.
The third period began inauspiciously for Tech, as Colin Swoyer took a slashing penalty just 18 ticks into the frame. Down a goal and a man, the game took a dramatic twist. Huskies sophomore Tommy Parrottino won a board battle at his defensive blue line, claimed possession and then motored down the boards on his off-wing. He exploited his superior shooting angle and pitched a knuckleball through State’s John Lethemon to tie the game.
Tech goaltender Matt Jurusik remained unflappable for the next 14 minutes, turning aside a dozen shots until Eric Gotz found the top shelf behind Lethemon, and Tech enjoyed its first lead in the 56th minute. Co-captain Alex Smith buried a dagger into the Sparties with an empty-net goal, and Tech earned its fifth straight trip to the GLI championship game.
College hockey had hijacked one of the NHL’s premier palaces— Little Caesar’s Arena—into a rollicking college hockey house party, complete with the NCAA Championship Trophy on display in its concourse, promoting the Frozen Four coming up in April at the same venue. This version of hockey by true student-athletes did not disappoint: a crowd of over 16,000 fans adorned in four colorful jerseys, two proud hockey programs engaged in a spirited battle, and a plethora of drama in the see-saw contest, one whose outcome remained in doubt until the final minute.
The aura of big-time hockey extended into Tech’s postgame locker room, as former NHL All-Star Game MVP and MTU grad John Scott rolled in.
WCHA clubs had taken a star’s turn in the two biggest tournaments of the holiday season, staged in both college and pro hockey’s premier venues.
Bowling Green Ohio: Bergeron Bowl II
Eighty miles south of Little Caesars Arena lies an aging barn known as the “Madhouse on Mercer,” Slater Family Ice Arena, home of Bowling Green hockey. It is college hockey’s answer to your favorite dive bar, a high-decibel, low-roof venue 50 years older than LCA, but one that contains just as much drama on this unique hockey night.
Former Falcon coach Chris Bergeron, the man who helped rescue the BGSU program from the brink of disbanding, was returning for the first time as coach of an enemy squad.
At the exact time Ferris State and the Michigan Wolverines were battling in the Great Lakes semifinal nightcap, Bergeron, now head coach of Miami of Ohio, was taking a solitary half-mile walk from his hotel to the rink he called home for a decade. His current club is struggling mightily, and Bergeron is burdened with changing the culture of his alma mater. Meanwhile, Bowling Green, a program he resurrected from the ashes, is now the #11 team in the country, stocked with players he helped mold into an elite team.
In a major upset, Bergeron’s Redhawks upset Bowling Green Monday night, claiming only their fifth win of the year, beating an NCAA tournament contender. Bergeron’s win came at the expense of his former protégé Ty Eigner, now enjoying his first year as an NCAA head coach. The two men remain close, but they were enemies for 60 minutes Monday night, all part of the rich WCHA hockey lineup this holiday season.
Some fans might enjoy watching college players parachute off to foreign lands, competing as IIHF mercenaries at the World Juniors before returning to campus. But if you ask the throngs packed into Mariucci Arena, Little Caesars Arena or the Madhouse on Mercer, there’s no substitute for the intensity of these WCHA battles.
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.