Ready for close-up (cont.)
The NCAA has wisely moved to protect this tradition. The ticket lottery is weighted toward applicants who have attended previous Frozen Fours. If you attended the last dozen Frozen Fours, you are tabbed "Priority 12" by the NCAA and assured to get a seat. "It rewards the people who were there in Providence and Albany," says Mark Medics, associate director of media coordination and championships. "And it helps create this atmosphere."
Hockey aficionados have long understood the charms of the event, but this Frozen Four, with the unconventional final pairing of powerhouse Boston College and newbie Notre Dame, may mark its arrival as a national happening, worthy of stay-home-from-work frenzy that accompanies the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Tossing the Irish into the mix elevates interest in the game beyond the usual hockey enclaves.
The game itself is an interesting variation on the rivalry between the two schools. The Eagles have long played spoiler to the Irish's football dreams. Now Notre Dame gets a chance to return the favor in Boston College's dominant sport. The Irish are significantly less talented. Their best player is freshman defenseman Ian Cole. Boston College is quicker and, in Nathan Gerbe, has perhaps the top player in the nation.
Notre Dame, in the role of likeable underdog, is difficult to digest. But coach Jeff Jackson took over a downtrodden program that won five games in 2004-05, the year before he arrived in South Bend. The Irish play in an atrocious venue, with miniscule locker rooms no better than what you'll find at your local rink. Before Jackson was hired, there was little reason for local fans or students to pay attention to the team.
"I had students ask me if we were Division I," Irish captain Mark Van Guilder said.
Notre Dame was the last team into the tournament and the first No. 4 seed to make the Frozen Four. If the Irish were to upset the Eagles, it would be comparable to Boston College's upset of then-No. 1 Notre Dame football team in 1993.
It might have benefited the NCAA's coffers (and local vendors) to have North Dakota and its rabid fan base stick around for another game. And, a Boston College/Michigan matchup in the final would likely have supplied prettier hockey. But everyone loves an underdog, even if the underdog is a school that never lacks for exposure.
"It's the time of year when everyone jumps on the bandwagon and you want to make sure the bandwagon doesn't roll over," says Jackson.
Next season, the Frozen Four will be staged in Washington, D.C. It is a non-traditional site with no proven college hockey program nearby. It will be hosted by the Naval Academy, where hockey is only a club sport. But the NCAA believes the event has moved past regional ties, and the following year it will be staged at Ford Field. The NCAA is not calling it "a test" but it is exactly that. Men's basketball has moved to larger venues, can hockey make the same jump? By 2010, we will know the answer.