Commentary: How should UND recognize this hockey season? Hang a banner. . . with a twist
One of the best men's hockey seasons in UND's decorated, 74-year history ended Thursday afternoon when the NCAA announced it was canceling all of its national tournaments because of the coronavirus outbreak.
It ended with the players sitting around a table in Ralph Engelstad Arena's players' lounge, wearing street clothes, scrolling through Twitter on their cell phones -- not with them putting on their uniforms and playing a game.
It ended with them sitting at No. 1 in the Pairwise Rankings, the ranking system used to seed and choose the NCAA tournament field.
It ended with them as the odds-on favorite in Vegas to win the NCAA national championship, a distinction that won't be awarded in 2020.
It ended with UND holding an .800 winning percentage, a rare achievement in the sport. Only four other teams in program history finished with a winning percentage better than .785. Three of them won the national championship. This team never got the chance.
That leaves a problem for UND's athletic department.
How does it properly recognize this team?
We know UND will raise a white banner to the ceiling of Ralph Engelstad Arena as Penrose Cup champions. It will sit next to all the other Western Collegiate Hockey Association and National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season league title banners.
The NCAA will not be awarding a national championship trophy this season. It is hard to find precedent for what to do in a season like this. It has never happened in college hockey.
The closest thing may be major college football.
To this day, the NCAA does not award a national champion in major college football. That's why the trophy does not look like it does in every other NCAA sport. It has always been awarded by different entities.
That has never prevented programs from proclaiming themselves, and being recognized, as national champions.
Look at college football's history.
From the 1930s to the 1990s, teams were recognized as the national champions based on where they were in the polls when the season ended.
For example, in 1994, both Nebraska and Penn State had perfect seasons. However, because Nebraska was on top of the major polls at the end of the season, it claims that it was the national champion that year. Penn State does not.
In 1997, Michigan and Nebraska both had perfect seasons. Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. Nebraska was atop the USA Today/ESPN poll. Both are recognized as 1997 national champions today.
In that sense, UND and Cornell (which is USCHO's No. 1) are every bit as deserving of the national champion label as Nebraska's 1994 football team, Michigan's 1997 team, all those lauded Notre Dame football teams and so many others.
UND was No. 1 in the most important ranking system when the season ended, just like those football teams. UND won't be recognized as 'NCAA' champs, but neither were those football programs. There is precedence to claiming a national championship without the NCAA recognizing it.
Does that mean UND should hang a ninth green banner on the north end of Ralph Engelstad Arena?
I think we can all recognize that this season was different.
The eight green banners -- signifying national championship teams in 1959, 1963, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000 and 2016 -- were all titles officially recognized by the NCAA. Those teams all won postseason tournaments to claim their championships. This team did not.
There must be a differentiation between those teams and this one.
What's the answer?
Hang a banner. But make this one black.
For starters, it rightly distinguishes itself from the other eight green banners. It also rightly recognizes this team as the nation's No. 1 when the season ended and avoids unfairly characterizing this team as one that didn't win a national title when, in fact, it was the top-ranked team but never had the chance.
The color of the banner also provides more significance.
It was the signature look for a team whose season ended with a dark cloud hanging over it as the world battled a global pandemic.
The season started with UND making a special request to wear its black jerseys at home in Game 1. It did so because it wanted to set a tone for the season. In UND hockey world, the black jerseys are known as the team's business suits, and the team has been dominant in them for more than a decade.
UND routed Canisius 5-0 in that first game wearing the black jerseys, kicking off a historic season.
In what turned out to be the final game of the season, UND also happened to wear its black jerseys. It also won that game 5-0 at Omaha.
The season started in the black jerseys and it ended in the black jerseys. In the middle, UND completed its first series win at Denver in 16 years and it finished its second road sweep of rival Minnesota in 40 years while wearing black jerseys.
UND would have to decide the exact label that goes on the banner. It cannot say NCAA national champions, but it could say No. 1-ranked, Pairwise No. 1 or just simply have the year and record, 26-5-4, on it.
It also would have to decide where to place it. It could be permanently at the end of the green or white banners -- never going between them even when UND raises more. It could be on a different side of the rink, too, completely on its own.
This was a historic UND hockey season that ended in an unprecedented way. It should be recognized as such.
So, hang a banner and make it black.
It will forever tell the story, for generations to come, of how one of the greatest teams in school history never got the chance to play for a green one.
Five best seasons in UND hockey history
.833 -- 1986-87 (NCAA national champions)
.825 -- 1998-99
.818 -- 2015-16 (NCAA national champions)
.800 -- 2019-20 (Pairwise No. 1 when season ended)
.788 -- 1979-80 (NCAA national champions)