The Party Never Stops at the Frozen Four

Whitney“You’re there for one purpose,” Boston College head coach Jerry York told reporters on Wednesday, the day before his team would defeat Minnesota 6-1 to advance to the national college hockey championship game. “Your focus is on winning trophies.”

Asked after that decisive victory whether this Boston College team was among one of the greater ones he’s coached in his 30-year career, he demurred, saying to ask him again after the finals on Saturday. But after BC’s 4-1 victory over the Ferris State Bulldogs to clinch the Eagles’ third national championship in five years, no one had to ask: York answered the question unsolicited during his postgame opening statement. It had clearly remained on his mind.

“They asked me what was my favorite BC team,” he said. “And I said I had to wait because you can’t be measured unless you win that last trophy, I think. So now … they’ve joined that group of teams that I’ve coached that are remarkable.”

It took York all of two sentences after defeating Ferris State to bring up the name Bob Johnson, the legendary coach whose son Peter was on the staff of York’s NCAA champion Bowling Green squad in 1984. “He called me the next day [in 1984] and said, ‘Jerry, I’m going to tell you one thing, that when you win a national championship, now you have a blueprint as to how to win more of them.'”

It’s no wonder York was described in 2009 as “the modern-day Badger Bob Johnson.”

More, more, more. York takes pride in all big wins, of course, whether it’s the Beanpot or the Hockey East titles. But when you’re the 900-plus-game-winning coach of a Boston College program that has now won four titles since 2001, hoisting that NCAA trophy has become not so much a goal as a baseline expectation.

And expectations are what Jerry York is all about: He expects his players to be gentlemen. To shave their beards. To learn the BC system. To get good grades. To submit to the idea that, as he puts it, “no player is above the Eagle.”

In 2008, when that BC national championship squad won it all and got a trip to the White House as a result, York first diverted them to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a two-hour trip. “I told the guys you can’t just visit Walter Reed,” he told Sports Illustrated‘s Kevin Armstrong. “You gotta earn your trip there.”

The best teams can live up to even the loftiest expectations, and Boston College, whose seniors now have two national titles (along with a Duck Boat load of other accolades) to their names, has managed to do so. Before the season began, York sat down with his seniors. While he says he didn’t know if this year’s team had as good of a chance as some of his other squads, that didn’t change his vision, his dedication to the winning blueprint, one bit.

“Right from the get-go,” York said, “we thought, Hey, let’s win some trophies. But more important, let’s win the big one, the most shiny trophy there is.

Here are five other big winners to come out of this year’s Frozen Four:

1. Johnny Gaudreau: Boston College has a history of having diminutive but deadly players move through its program, from the 5-foot-7 Brian Gionta (now the captain of the Montreal Canadiens) to the Buffalo Sabres’ Nathan Gerbe, currently the NHL’s shortest player at 5-foot-5. The latest tiny terror, 5-foot-6 BC rookie Johnny Gaudreau, is 18 years old but looked about five years younger than that as he sat on the postgame podium between Boston College captain Tommy Cross and goaltender Parker Milner. And he sounded it, too, when asked to describe his highlight-reel goal in the third period that gave the Eagles a 3-1 lead and all but put the game away. “I was thinking in my head, Maybe I should probably get this deep, with four minutes left in the game,” he said. “I didn’t go with what I was thinking.”

Instead, New Jersey native (yeah, Jerz!) Gaudreau glided past Ferris State’s Kyle Bonis and Brett Wysopal as he skated in and backhand-shelved the puck over the Bulldogs’ talented goalie Taylor Nelson. Ferris State coach Bob Daniels called it exactly what it was: “A big-time goal by a big-time player.” It was the second big-time play Gaudreau had made in his two Frozen Four games: During the Eagles’ semifinal win over Minnesota on Thursday, Gaudreau made a sweeping pass across the crease while sliding on his stomach to find a wide-open Paul Carey, who netted the fourth Boston College goal in their 6-1 win.

The Frozen Four was a fitting end to a rookie campaign for Gaudreau that included 21 regular-season goals and 44 points, Beanpot MVP honors, a place on the Hockey East All-Tournament team, and the Bill Flynn Trophy as Hockey East’s most valuable player. Admittedly, I had been secretly hoping during the finals that Ferris State could tie the game at 2-2 (as the Bulldogs repeatedly came close to doing), but it was impossible not to be left dazzled and a little bit delirious by Gaudreau’s coffin-nailing theatrics. That is, unless you’re a fan of a certain other Boston-area team: Gaudreau had originally signed a National Letter of Intent with Northeastern before decommiting after head coach Greg Cronin, who had recruited him, left the university to work for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Man, that NHL team ruins everything.

2. The boys in net: I wrote at length on Friday about the somewhat unexpected rise this season of both BC’s Parker Milner and Ferris State’s Taylor Nelson, so I won’t repeat myself here. But both players were at the top of their games on the national championship stage. Parker Milner, who in four tournament contests allowed only two goals on 112 shots (!!!), was named the most outstanding player of the Frozen Four. His .982 save percentage was the third best of all time, and best since the tournament expanded beyond four teams.

On the other end, Taylor Nelson stopped 33 of 36 shots to help keep Ferris State firmly in the game against the heavily favored Eagles. “What a year,” Nelson said after the game. “What a year we’ve had, and I’m extremely proud of every individual in that locker room … All season long, we sacrificed for one another. We bled for one another. And as far as what it means to the program, I mean, I think in our minds, we’ve made history.”

3. The class acts: On Thursday night during the semifinal games, it was announced that University of Minnesota-Duluth captain (and Duluth native) Jack Connolly was the winner of the 2012 Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, which stands for “Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School” and is given to the top senior student-athlete in a number of NCAA sports. The next day, Connolly — who was part of last season’s UM-D national championship team — received an even bigger honor: The Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player. (The other two finalists were Maine’s Spencer Abbott and Colgate’s Austin Smith.)

The Hobey was presented at nearby MacDill Air Force Base in conjunction with a special ceremony in which a posthumous military award was given to the descendants of Baker, a former Princeton player who went on to become a World War I fighter pilot before dying at age 26 while test-piloting a plane in France. Connolly was visibly shaken when his name was announced, doing what looked like borderline Lamaze-style breathing, but his acceptance speech was classy and composed, as he repeatedly thanked his teammates, his family (his brother Chris also won a national championship with Boston University in 2009), and his hometown community of Duluth. “I share this with all of you,” he said. Whether or not it was intentional, it dovetailed nicely with the signs hanging at the Air Force Base: “One Team, One Family, One Community.”

Team, family, and community were also the center of attention back at the Channelside complex in Tampa, where the Hockey Humanitarian Award was given to Yale senior captain Aleca Hughes for her work in establishing the Mandi Schwartz Foundation in honor of her former teammate and one-time line mate. Schwartz died on April 3 last year after a long fight with leukemia that was widely publicized thanks to the efforts of Schwartz’s team, which organized blood marrow donation drives and “White Out for Mandi” nights at Yale’s Ingalls Rink; and her family, which includes Colorado College All-American (and now St. Louis Blues goal scorer) Jaden Schwartz. “It’s an honor to accept it because it’s an opportunity to share Mandi’s story with the world and with the hockey community,” Hughes said. “So many great people have done work in her name, so I am accepting it on their behalf.”

4. Jeremy Welsh: Heading into the tournament, Union College junior forward Jeremy Welsh was one of the most talked-about college free agents: at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds he’s already got NHL-ready size, and he led the Dutchmen in scoring with 27 goals and 44 points in 40 games. While his team’s loss to Ferris State in the semifinals was not the end to the season that Welsh was looking for — particularly because Union failed to play like the team they had been throughout the rest of the postseason — even the losers get lucky sometimes, and he got some pretty hefty consolation just hours after the end of the Thursday game.

The Carolina Hurricanes beat out other suitors like Boston and Chicago and inked him to a $832,500 entry-level contract with a signing bonus of $92,500, then shipped him across the state to compete in Carolina’s final regular-season game against the Florida Panthers. Welsh played center with Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu, got a couple of shots on goal and a couple of penalties, won four of 13 face-offs (hey, it’s a start!) and will now return to Union to finish up his junior year and, over the summer, his degree. There’s a student-athlete for ya.

(Related side note: As of now, BC junior Chris Kreider, the New York Rangers’ 2009 first-round draft pick whom the team has been trying to sign since last season, has still not come to terms with the team, even though it had been widely expected that he would have signed by now. The Rangers sent a contingent down to Tampa that included Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton to woo Kreider, but there hasn’t been much movement. As with any of these decisions, the whispers on Kreider vary widely in tenor: Some people I chatted with thought that he’d be back to complete his senior year, while [most] others felt that Kreider knows he has little left to prove — or improve upon — within the NCAA game. As for me, I change my mind on this daily: I thought that if BC won the title, he’d sign. But the delay, which may have something to do with discussions around what his role on the team would or could be as the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, is starting to make me wonder if he’ll end up back in Boston.)

5. The city of Tampa: This was my first Frozen Four, so admittedly I have no frame of reference. But top to bottom it was a remarkably well-executed weekend for a location that had many doubters going in. Sean Frazier, the head of the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, told the Tampa Bay Times‘s Laura Keeley that the attention to detail throughout the weekend was “off the hook” and that it “put Tampa in a position where it’s clear that this is a place that we would come back to.”

In a few conversations with players, NCAA officials and coaches, and even some fans who make the event an annual trip regardless of location or the teams playing, I heard almost zero negative opinions on the venue. The lone dissenter: one schvitzing college hockey writer I spoke to during the off day as we sat at an outdoor bar. “I’m not a fan of the heat,” he said, wiping his damp brow. Fans packed the bars and restaurants at the Channelside plaza next to the Tampa Bay Times Forum as well as the hotel pools — many of them selfishly saving multiple deck chairs for their slow-to-get-out-of-bed friends, those jerks. (Can you tell I had to awkwardly perch on a bar stool instead, with my face tilted back toward the sun? My neck is still sore.) There was live music at almost all times. Everything was walkable. And seeing the last two remaining teams sitting along the water for an off-day autograph session, in their smiles and sunglasses, was evocative of shades-wearing hockey players raising the Stanley Cup during late-June parades.

Skeptics could point to the games not being complete sellouts (the championship game sold roughly 1,000 tickets short of one) but the attendance of 18,818 for the finals was the highest ever for a first-time host. And it wasn’t just college hockey die-hards who took in the games — props to Maine and North Dakota fans, by the way, for winning my unofficial count of “most jerseys of non-competing teams spotted” — it was the locals as well: On a night where Steven Stamkos scored his 60th goal of the season on the road, a great many of his sweater-wearers were back home, enjoying the championship game at the Forum. The next two Frozen Fours will be in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, cities that were great fun for the last two Winter Classics. But one Inside College Hockey columnist — who was originally among the doubtful — wouldn’t mind coming back to western Florida again and again. “Why not make Tampa the permanent Frozen Four host?” he wrote. “Scoff if you must.”

Filed Under: Frozen Four

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes