Brandon Veale column: Not even UMD can win 'em all
Even in the midst of its "golden era," Minnesota Duluth hockey's peaks and valleys are worth celebrating.
DULUTH — On Sunday evening, a Twitter account called "ISS Above" posted a short video of the International Space Station passing over the Great Lakes region, starting at Mille Lacs Lake, passing directly over the Twin Ports, then the Apostle Islands and finally the western edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
I feel like I traveled in that direction a lot last weekend.
Michigan Tech, a school whose men's hockey program I became rather familiar with during seven winters in the Copper Country, was drawn against Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCAA tournament. There were just enough ties between then and now to inspire nostalgia.
UMD won that one, as I expected, but lost to Denver two days later, bringing a seemingly premature changing of the seasons. No, it's not quite spring, as it looks like another late-winter slop-fest is headed our way. I'm referring to the offseason.
In March? How peculiar.
Do I wish Denver had won on a 'cleaner' goal in the third period on Saturday? Sure. But I think you'll find few clearheaded analyses that would have found UMD to be the better team. It was a fair fight and it was Denver's day.
The old adage goes, 'You can't win 'em all,' and given the nearly random nature of the single-elimination NCAA tournament format, it's mind boggling how many times UMD has probably beaten both its opponent and the odds.
I can assure you that it's odd even for me. If we throw out the pandemic-aborted 2020 season, UMD's season last ended in March six years ago. I hadn't even lived in Duluth a year yet. You know what was in between: two national championships, a national runner-up and a national semifinal, and that's before we start hypothesizing how far 2019-20 might have gone.
Meanwhile, on the same day we were preparing for an NCAA regional final in Colorado, we were sending staff to UMD to find out if Gabbie Hughes would win the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award for the best player in women's college hockey after a season in which those Bulldogs went to the Frozen Four for a second consecutive year, and played in the national championship game.
Sure, there are graduations, losses to the professional ranks, such as those of Noah Cates and Ryan Fanti this week, and the puck always bounces in mysterious ways, but there's reason to think we might be right back to working on travel itineraries instead of post-mortems at this time next year. Besides, the 2023 Men's Frozen Four is in Tampa, a fact that our beat writer Matt Wellens has repeatedly noted already, and the Women's Frozen Four is in Duluth.
I assure you, absolutely no one in the world of college hockey feels bad for the UMD Bulldogs.
If you'll travel east with me and back in time, I am reminded that Michigan Tech won, in a period between 1960 and 1976, three national championships, three national runner-ups and two other trips to the Frozen Four under the legendary John MacInnes. Many of you reading this probably remember those teams coming into the DECC Arena and before that, the Duluth Curling Club. After all, Tech and UMD had met 232 times before Thursday afternoon, and never in the postseason, like ore boats passing in the night on Lake Superior.
I bring up the Huskies not to wax nostalgic about my time in the Copper Country, which crossed the 300-inch mark for snowfall again last week, but to remind you to enjoy the good times while you can. MacInnes' Huskies got one more Frozen Four in, at the DECC in 1981, before he retired due to health reasons in 1982 and died in 1983. Tech had eight coaches and three winning seasons between 1983 and 2014 and still hasn't won an NCAA tournament game in four tries since Mel Pearson rejuvenated the program and handed it off to current coach Joe Shawhan.
Yes, there's more competition than existed in college hockey in the early 80's. But any suggestion of a downward trajectory in Duluth would be severely premature, considering the levels of elite junior talent coming in and professional prospects coming out of Amsoil Arena on an annual basis. Until then, the NCHC postseason championship trophy seems like a nice consolation prize for 2021-22, especially since UMD won it without the benefit of home-ice advantage and without giving up a goal in either of the two Frozen Faceoff games at Xcel Energy Center.
Fictional Cornell graduate Andy Bernard once said, "I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them."
Except in the case of UMD men's and women's hockey, there is, because it's readily apparent that the good old days are still here.
Brandon Veale is the sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.