How to get your hockey fix: NCAA
Boston College, Minnesota and Michigan are the class of the college ranks
The Minnesota women are the defending champs and could win it all again
Chicago's Soldier Field will host the outdoor Hockey City Classic Feb. 17
No NHL, no problem. While the lockout drags on, there's plenty of topflight hockey to follow across the sport's sprawling landscape. Much of it is already underway. Here's the best of what to watch, and where.
College hockey's roots stretch as far back as the game itself. Students at McGill (Canada) University played the first indoor ice hockey game in 1875, and it didn't take long for the game to travel south of the border and gain footholds at places like Princeton, Dartmouth and Harvard. Today 63 Division I men's teams and 37 D-I women's programs from Alabama to Alaska vie for a national championship each spring.
Though many top NHL prospects still opt for Canadian junior leagues, the college talent pool has grown. In 2011-12, more than 30 percent of NHL rosters had come through the NCAA ranks, including the last two Conn Smythe Trophy winners: Boston goalie Tim Thomas (Vermont) and Kings netminder Jonathan Quick (UMass). Other notables from the college circuit include Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (North Dakota), Wild winger Zach Parise (North Dakota) and Duncan Keith (Michigan State), the 2010 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman.
Boston College (Men's): The defending national champs, who open their season on Sat. Oct. 13 at Northeastern, are also USCHO.com's preseason No. 1, returning 15 lettermen from last year's title team. Though the Eagles lost forwards Chris Kreider and Brian Dumoulin to the NHL, they retain senior goaltender Parker Milner, last year's Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player. Head coach Jerry York is a living legend and should become the winningest college hockey coach midway through this season.
Minnesota (Women's): The unanimous favorite in every poll, the Gophers have already gotten off to a dazzling start, winning their first four games by a combined score of 29-1. Junior Amanda Kessel (yep, Phil's little sister) leads the team after scoring 80 points last season in helping the Gophers claim their third national championship. Though she narrowly missed making Team USA in 2010, Kessel is almost certain to be a star (perhaps alongside her brother) in Sochi in 2014.
Minnesota (M): The lady Gophers' counterparts aren't too shabby themselves, topping the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll last week. Minnesota might have fallen to Boston College in the semifinals last spring, but the Gophers return 13 of their top 15 scorers from the most potent attack in the NCAA in 2011-12. The only question surrounding them as they go for their first NCAA title since 2003 is at goaltender. After losing Kent Patterson to graduation, Minnesota will look for junior Michael Shibrowski or freshman Adam Wilcox to seize the starting job.
Michigan (M): Despite earning the second seed in the NCAA Tournament last spring, the Wolverines failed to make it out of the first round. But they're in a position to atone for that failure this season behind a stacked defense corps. Even with Devils prospect Jon Merrill (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) expected to miss at least six weeks after suffering a cracked vertebrae on a hit from behind in an exhibition game this week, the still-formidable blueline will be led by freshman Jacob Trouba (6-2, 195 pounds), a first-round pick by the Winnipeg Jets. Meanwhile, up front, the Wolverines return their top scorer from last season, Alex Guptill, a Dallas Stars prospect who scored 16 goals -- five on the power play -- as a freshman last season.
C Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota, Jr.: The 6-6, 220-pound junior could have easily made the leap to the Florida Panthers this season (if NHL teams had begun training camp and regular play, that is). But he's returning to a loaded Minnesota lineup, where he will be the offensive engine. He's smooth for a big-bodied pivot. And while he doesn't quite have the speed of Chris Kreider, Bjugstad has a similar power forward game. He's an early favorite for this year's Hobey Baker.
F Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin, Jr.: This undrafted center out of Rochester, N.Y., was second among underclassmen with 1.35 points per game last season. The 5-11, 180-pound junior has caught some NHL attention for his vision, patience with the puck, good speed and grit.
F Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College, So.: He may be undersized at 5-8 and 153 pounds, but there is something very big about the sophomore's game. As a freshman, he earned most valuable player honors at the Beanpot Tournament and the Hockey East Tournament, then led BC with five points in the NCAA tournament. He is a clutch scorer who uses his relatively small frame to his favor.
G Troy Grosenick, Union, So.: As a sophomore, the netminder out of Brookfield, Wisc., led the Dutchmen to an unlikely trip to the Frozen Four last season with his 1.65 GAA (No. 2 nationally) and .936 save percentage (No. 3).
G Noora Raty, Minnesota, Sr. (W): The senior netminder led the country last year with a dazzling 1.35 GAA. In three years (101 games) as the Gophers' starter, she has a .943 save percentage, a 1.48 GAA and 26 career shutouts, a school record. Oh, and she is also an Olympic bronze medalist, having backstopped Finland to its first women's hockey medal in Vancouver in 2010.
D Danny DeKeyser, Western Michigan, Jr.: Scores of NHL teams were clamoring to sign the defenseman, but the 22-year-old native of Clay Township, Mich., decided to return for his junior year in part to fill out his 6-3, 198-pound frame. He's a good puck-mover and uses his stick to break up plays well, and another year under former Blues and Kings coach Andy Murray should bring his game to an NHL level.
NBC Sports Network will carry 16 games nationally, starting with the Ice Breaker series Oct. 12. From January to March, the network will air college games each Friday night. For your area's team, check your local listings or click here.
Nov. 24, Michigan vs. Cornell: The Big Red knocked the No. 2 Wolverines from the first round of the NCAA tournament last spring in an overtime thriller. Now, Michigan will have another chance at Cornell in this Thanksgiving weekend matchup at Madison Square Garden.
Nov. 30/Dec. 1, Boston College vs. Boston University: There won't be anything neighborly about this home-and-home series between crosstown rivals. The Eagles hold the historic edge with an overall 43-31-11 record against the Terriers.
Feb. 6/13, Beanpot Tournament: TD Garden, home of the Bruins, hosts this popular four-team tourney, which is in its 61st year. The Boston College Eagles will be defending their title against Harvard, Northeastern and Boston University.
Feb. 17, Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: The headliner of the Hockey City Classic will see the Gophers and Badgers invade Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, for an outdoor game. Soldier Field is one of three outdoor venues scheduled to host games this season, though of course that could change if the NHL cancels the Winter Classic. The Feb. 17 undercard will see Notre Dame take on Miami (Ohio).
April 11-13, NCAA Men's Frozen Four: The 2013 national champions will be crowned at the CONSOL Energy Center this spring, but at this point it's anybody's guess who will make it to Pittsburgh and ultimately come out on top.