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Heroes and Villains

14 April 2019

It has been strange to watch the evolution of the Bulldog men’s hockey program. To go from 2011, when everyone was excited to see a team win their first championship, to yesterday, when we crushed the dreams of a team looking to win their first championship. (Technically we also crushed dreams in 2018, but the Potato Farmers only really care about football anyway.) The program has gone from hero to villain in less than a decade.

I. Freaking. Love. It.

I understand this indicates I am a truly terrible, rotten, soulless person, but we already knew that. So when I read things like “I don’t want UMD to win because of their awful fans, I’m just like

because I know those people are talking about me. I personally am taking some of the fun and enjoyment out of college hockey for a small subset of the fanbase. That’s almost like winning a second national championship, but in the sport of Sea Witchery instead of hockey.

I’ve read a lot about how lucky tUMD has been, as if that’s a bad thing. No one wins a championship without a lot of good luck. No one loses a championship without a lot of good luck, either. This program has certainly dealt with a lot of bad luck along the way. A puck hitting a seam in the boards in 1984 was bad luck. A disallowed goal on a phantom high stick in 2004 was bad luck. Missing the tournament on a single loss to Vermont in 2010 was bad luck. Maybe scoring a goal against Boston University in 2015 was bad luck.

But no one wins on luck alone. The best teams make plays that put them in a position to capitalize on good luck along the way, and to minimize the impact of the bad luck they encounter. It’s not lucky when a guy lifts a stick at the last possible second before a shot at a wide open net. It’s not lucky when a goalie makes a save on a breakaway. It’s not lucky when a player squeaks a puck through a tiny little opening between the goalie and the post. It’s skill, it’s practice, it’s hockey intelligence. Every team has good luck and bad luck in every game. It’s just amplified in a single elimination game, and the difference between a good team and a bad team is what those players do with the hands they’re dealt, the die they roll, etc.

And how do you define luck, anyway? It gets a little comical when people are trying to call everything that happens lucky, in order to downplay the accomplishments of this team. tUMD made the tournament by the slimmest of margins in 2018, but they won four games with skill and strategy, not by accidentally farting a puck into the net. tUMD didn’t have to play St. Cloud in the tournament thanks to AIC (somehow it’s assumed that if St. Cloud had beaten AIC, they would have had a bye into the championship game, as if Denver and UMass weren’t waiting to get a crack at them), but they did beat St. Cloud twice this year, and two of the losses were close. It’s not impossible to think that tDogs could have beat them again. Contrary to popular opinion, a team doesn’t have to beat every single team in NCAA men’s D1 ice hockey, or even every team in the field of 16. There’s no asterisk for not facing St. Cloud, or North Dakota, or whoever.

Now that we’ve gotten all the reactionary stuff out of the way, let’s talk about what really happened these past few days!

I didn’t go to Buffalo this year, so I had the new experience of watching the Frozen Four on television. It wasn’t great to watch on TV, but I also feel okay about the decision. I never felt any real pull to go to Buffalo, probably because I’m cheap, I like sleeping in my own bed, I had a lot of other stuff going on in my life that I needed to take care of (work, a trail race that ended up getting canceled), and a winter storm that cooked itself up practically out of nowhere. Obviously a lot of other people dealt with those things and still made the choice to go, so those are most just reasons/excuses. I suppose one major deterrent was the fact that I have actually made the drive from Minnesota to Buffalo in one day (it was actually Duluth to Buffalo), less than two years ago, and it’s not something that I cared to repeat.

Thursday I watched from home with just the Aaaahj and the cats, but Saturday we decided to meet up with MeanEgirl and go to a watch party. We tried to go to Bennett’s, but it was full of old people having dinner unrelated to hockey, and also the Vulcans were there when we pulled up. So we decided to head over to Tom Reid’s. Reid’s was full (especially because they had some kind of private party in the back room), and the Vulcans also showed up there (fortunately I escaped both groping and greasepaint), but the three of us (the cats did not come) set up camp at the Golden Tee game, which had good views of the TVs, a place to set our food, and a nearby rail to set our drinks (two for ones!). The bar was packed with Bulldogs fans, and it was the perfect place to watch the game.

I have never, ever, ever been so calm during a hockey game. Sure, there were a few moments of nerves, but overall, tDogs came out flying and they really didn’t look back and I could just tell they were going to win. All of the things we complained about during the season – bad penalties (ok there was one of those, but Krieger just got excited for a minute, I can’t blame him), losing face-offs, failing to clear the zone, mixed up coverage in front of the net – they somehow fixed all of those for the championship game. The Minutepeople never got a chance to establish their scary speed and sneakiness, which was key to their win against Denver (and likely to the other 30 or so wins they had along the way). I was pretty nervous to face an unknown team, especially after seeing their excellent passing and deadly power play. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have worried as much because tUMD is a better team than Denver (despite splitting the regular season with them).

Of course nothing will ever compare to the first win, or to an OT win, but I don’t need to compare those things. It’s not fair. Each championship has been incredibly special. I never dreamed that I would ever see my team display such dominance. I’m used to cheering for underdogs, scrappy upstarts that somehow claw their way into a great season here and there. I don’t even quite understand how to be a fan of a team that wins a lot, that wins back to back championships and makes the title game three years in a row and gets to play another year with a target on its back. This makes me wish I was enlightened enough to be a fan of tUMD women’s hockey back when they were in their dynastic phase and went back to back to back (could tUMD become the first program to accomplish 3peats in men’s AND women’s D1 hockey? Let’s make it happen, I am officially greedy).

This has been an incredible season, and a testament to the coaching and support staff for being the backbone of this program. Sandelin sets the tone, and Herter, Krause, Hoppe, Garner, Koelling, Nicklin and Hoagy (among others) carry out that mission, keep that continuity, and help the older players pass along the culture and the expectations that come along with being a Bulldog player. I thought it was telling that Parker Mackay told my friend Jashvina (of Men’s College Hockey News) that they didn’t want the freshmen to feel like they were left out because they didn’t win a championship. So many “traditions” seem to involve hazing of freshmen/new players, but here’s the captain talking about how the philosophy from the team leadership was to make the new players feel included. (Much better than literally leaving their freshmen for dead due to alcohol poisoning, not that any *northdakota* teams have ever done THAT.) I guess the best way to make freshmen feel included is to win another championship. I’ll look to next year’s captains (Tufte???) to make that happen again.

Congratulations on another championship, Bulldogs. Thanks for all the fun, agony, anxiety, rage, and joy you bring me every year, for reasons I can’t explain and don’t really care if I ever understand.

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