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NCAA Hockey 101: Familiar Frozen Four field just fine

There's more parity in college hockey these days than there probably ever has been. Nontraditional powers like Providence, Union, Yale and Minnesota-Duluth have all won their first national titles since 2011. Teams like Quinnipiac and UMass Lowell regularly make it to regional finals and beyond.

This is part of the reason why the traditional powers in the Big Ten are so scared of 21-year-old freshmen: The playing field is more level than it ever has been, and it's eating into the perceived success of the more established, multiple-time national champions. Minnesota didn't make the tournament this year. Wisconsin is a disaster. Michigan hasn't been actually good for years. Et cetera.

However, that doesn't mean that all traditional powers are somehow less successful on a regular basis. Look no further than the Frozen Four.

Yes, No. 1 seed Quinnipiac made it once again — for the second time in four years — but if you feel like the field in Tampa is strikingly similar to those you've seen before, you're right. Denver has been the odd team out among national powers for a while now, because this is its first Frozen Four since 2005. But this is still the Pioneers' 15th appearance as they go for their eight national title.

North Dakota is now heading to its 22nd Frozen Four in search of its eighth title.

BC is at the Frozen Four for the nation-leading 25th time, trying for trophy No. 6, but also trophy No. 5 since 2001, and trophy No. 4 since 2008.

Quinnipiac is the new kid on the block in this regard, but has made the tournament each of the last four years, with a Frozen Four appearance in 2013, and conference regular-season titles in 2013, 2015, and this year. They also won the ECAC tournament for the first time this year. That is to say that while Quinnipiac is not a traditional power (it only moved to Division 1 in 1998), it is very much chief among the new powers insofar as it has a demonstrated capability for winning a lot of games every year; they average 27 wins a year over the last four seasons, and they're still going this time around.

If that's what the credentials you need to be accepted as “new blood” around here are these days, then I guess the sport is setting an absurdly high bar. But hey, Quinnipiac doesn't have a title yet, so we get to be hopeful about it or something. It would certainly be better than seeing one of the sport's old-money teams get another title to throw on the big pile in the basement.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about the long-time power schools all making the Frozen Four simultaneously, nor with what the norm has been the last few years: largely the mix between old and new. Last year featured BU and North Dakota in addition to Providence and Nebraska-Omaha. The year before that was Union beating Minnesota, BC, and North Dakota. It goes on like that more or less since 2009, when Miami, Bemidji, and Vermont all made it, but bowed to BU. The only outlier was, of course, the 2013 Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, where none of the teams participating had ever won a national title.

But what this group tells us, mostly, is that there's no reason for the Big Ten age proposal to go through. All but one of the teams that made it in this season have been great for years, or decades if you prefer. The problem, one suspects, is that none of them are in the Big Ten, and even the addition of Notre Dame in in 2017-18 (which may, in turn, bring Quinnipiac to Hockey East) probably isn't going to help them very much in that regard. The other power schools support the legislation only because it helps them knock down the upstarts like Quinnipiac, who have infringed upon the old boys club in recent years.

Once again, one has to believe that the ability of non-traditional powers to level the playing field and more-than-occasionally make it to the Frozen Four by taking older recruits is generally good for the sport. It is of course not good for BC, North Dakota, and Denver, necessarily. But at least the latter two teams have seen their coaches come out and repudiate the rule proposal, saying it would be bad for the game. Jerry York, of course, knows from whence the butter for his bread comes, and supports the rule because it likely means fewer losses to Lowell, Northeastern, Providence, and so on.

By any reasonable examination, the sport of hockey is more popular than it has ever been at the college level, and that's because there are more seats at the table. Here's a list of all the teams that appeared in the Frozen Four from 2000 to 2009, next to a list of all the schools that appeared from 2010 to present:


That's 17 participants taking just 40 Frozen Four spots over the course of 10 seasons, compared with 19 of a possible 24 who have done so in the last six.

You can come up with a pretty decent list of reasons why the teams that stopped making the Frozen Four on an individual and regular basis actually did so. In Maine, the passing of a legendary coach and continual budget cuts have taken a former New England power and brought it quite low indeed. Wisconsin has seen its recruiting go in the toilet, UNH and Michigan's coaches had the game pass them by, Michigan State saw its coach retire, and so on.

This are not the fault of schools that bring in 20-year-old NAHL players. A lot of the teams that have replaced them are well-coached to an almost unbelievable extent, systems-rich clubs that keep players for three or four years far more often than not, and therefore can expect continuity that only the best-run big clubs (BC, North Dakota, etc.) can compete with as they take on half a dozen legit NHL prospects a year to replace everyone leaving.

Those are the clubs that rely on a healthy mix of skilled-but-not-too-skilled older players and high-end talent alike, meaning there's some continuity there, but not so much that it crowds out the ability to score on a whim like the Eagles and Fighting Hawks can.

Of course, if I were picking a favorite for the national title right now, I'd probably have to say it's Quinnipiac.

And maybe that's the problem, if you come from a certain point of view.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Quinnipiac (won the East regional)

2. North Dakota (won the Midwest regional)

3. Boston College (won Northeast regional)

4. Denver (won the West regional)

5. UMass Lowell (finished second in the East regional)

6. Minnesota-Duluth (finished second in the Northeast regional)

7. Michigan (finished second in the Midwest regional)

8. Ferris State (finished second in the West regional)

9. Providence (lost in the first round of the Northeast regional)

10. Yale (lost in the first round of the East regional)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is hereand his Twitter is here


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