It’s a strange, but true, bit of college hockey history that a malfunctioning Zamboni may have helped the NCAA Frozen Four grow into the event it is today.
On March 28, 1986, the Minnesota Gophers were on their way to a 6-4 win over Denver in the third place game of what was then known as the NCAA Ice Hockey Championship (the term “Frozen Four” was first used in 1999) in Providence, R.I., when the ice resurfacer broke down between periods.
There was a lengthy delay while another machine was located and driven to the arena from across town. At one point while filling airtime, the Gophers’ radio team noted a sparse crowd of a few thousand at the Providence rink, which had about 12,000 seats for hockey.
A St. Paul attorney and civic booster named Joe O’Neill was listening while driving and happened to be passing the St. Paul Civic Center at the time. He was struck by a thought that Minnesota’s capital city could be a better host venue for the tournament.
In the 1980s, the Frozen Four was a decidedly smaller-scale event, with arenas like the DECC in Duluth (1981), the original Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks (1983) and the Olympic Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. (1984) playing host.
The folks from St. Paul won the bids for the 1989 and 1991 NCAA tournament. Helped by the presence of the Gophers, who fell to Harvard in the 1989 title game, they sold out the 16,000-seat arena. Two years later they drew smaller but still notable crowds when Northern Michigan out-lasted Boston University for the NCAA crown, with 12,564 tickets sold for the title game and more than 35,000 sold for the three weekend sessions.
“St. Paul was tremendously successful and did push the NCAA to think about the hockey championship differently than it had before,” said Phil Buttafuoco, who was the NCAA’s senior assistant director of championships for much of the 1990s. “St. Paul had a tremendous local organizing committee that was energetic and wanted to make that event as special as it can be. It was tremendously successful in St. Paul.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the tournament still visited smaller venues in Providence and Albany, N.Y., a few times, but notable crowds at NHL-size venues in Detroit (1990), Boston (1998), Anaheim (1999) and Milwaukee (1993, 1997) signaled the beginning of a different era.
“Sites have continued to expand and do more things as the NHL teams have taken a more active role in the Frozen Four,” said Kristin Fasbender, the NCAA’s director of championships and alliances who has been on-site at the Frozen Four every year since 2000. “The bids are coming in from the building and the NHL host institution and the teams are embracing the fact that the Frozen Four is coming there. Those events continue to get better.”
The tournament was in Providence in 2000 and Albany in 2001, and since then has been exclusively housed in arenas with 17,000 capacity or better. Most of them have been home to an NHL team, with one notable exception.
In 2010, the NCAA tried to emulate the football stadium setup of basketball’s Final Four, with overall disappointing results. Ford Field in Detroit -- home of the NFL’s Lions -- was set up for hockey and set attendance records as 37,592 tickets were sold for the title game between Boston College and Wisconsin.
But there were myriad complaints about sightlines, fans’ distance from the ice, the ice surface, and the overall quality of the hockey (the scores of the three games in that tournament were 7-1, 8-1 and 5-0). In the decade since, there has been little to no clamoring for college hockey returning to a NFL venue.
Folks from the NCAA choose their words carefully when asked about the Ford Field event, noting that it was a unique twist on the Frozen Four, while tacitly acknowledging that they don’t have plans for returning to hockey in a mega-venue anytime soon.
“It was a great opportunity for us to really showcase the Frozen Four to a lot of people. The Detroit organizing folks really did an amazing job in working it so 35,000 people got to see the Frozen Four,” Fasbender said, while mentioning the distance from the action did make it harder for many fans to follow the puck. “I think if we were ever to do that again, there were definitely things we learned in the process. We haven’t seen people bidding on it in football stadiums since then. It has been very traditional NHL-size buildings.”
And in most cases, the NHL-size buildings are good fits, although the event can get lost in the larger cities that play host.
In other cities, the Frozen Four is the main event. In Providence, North Dakota fans descended on the city, where they saw their team win titles in 1980, 1982 and 2000. In the hours leading up to the 2000 title game, when North Dakota rallied past Boston College in the third period for the national title, green-clad fans clogged the narrow streets around the arena, and the North Dakota pep band marched to the rink playing the school song.
In considerably larger cities, like recent hosts Boston and Chicago, the Frozen Four is one of several events happening over the weekend -- and headlines from the local baseball team or upcoming NFL draft may relegate college hockey to inside the sports pages.
Team buses have traditionally gotten a police escort to the arena and, starting in St. Paul in 2011, the players enter the arena via a red carpet, surrounded by cheering fans.
“From the fan fest to the red carpet treatment to the greetings at the airport, I think all of that comes into play. It seems like it’s a bigger event than it used to be,” said retired Gophers coach Don Lucia, who took Colorado College to the Frozen Four in 1996 and 1997, and had five Gophers teams get there, most recently in 2014. “It’s become a bigger deal with all of the events going on outside the arena. When we landed in Tampa (in 2012) there was a band that greeted us at the plane. That didn’t happen before.”
It is all vastly different than 35 years ago, said Bill Watson, who played in a pair of Frozen Fours for Minnesota Duluth in the mid-1980s and coached as an assistant with his alma mater in four more.
“That stuff is crazy,” said Watson, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 1985. “The only escort we got was if you got a game misconduct they showed you to the locker room. And there might have been a red carpet in the lobby at the Ramada Inn.”
Coming tomorrow, Part Two: the Present. After years of being one of the true destination events in hockey for years, the 2019 NCAA Frozen Four in Buffalo failed to meet expectations, with more than 5,000 tickets left unsold for the title game between Minnesota Duluth and UMass. A look at what was different in western New York and how the 2020 Frozen Four organizers are learning from Buffalo in hopes of making the Detroit event a return to “hot ticket” status.