The frozen four, like the Mudville Nine or Daytona 500, sounds like a group of political prisoners. ("Free the Frozen Four!") And the NCAA hockey finals are exiled to a sporting Siberia, on the same weekend as the Masters and a week after the Final Four. Which is a pity, when you consider that college hockey can be even more appealing than college basketball. As University of Denver defenseman Matt Laatsch points out, in hockey "the last two minutes don't take quite as long."
The Frozen Four, unlike the Final Four, doesn't take itself too seriously. Basketball players "pop the jersey," showing off their school name for a vast television audience. But hockey stars are embarrassed by their own greatness, to say nothing of their family's. Ask North Dakota goalie Jordan Parise if his father, J.P., ever boasts about his 13-year career in the NHL, and Jordan says in a dismissive monotone, "He doesn't like to pump his own tire."
Hockey players seldom do. Which explains why the Frozen Four--in which defending champ Denver met North Dakota in the finals last Saturday night--may be the greatest event you've never seen. It's certainly the most fun. At the Providence Civic Center in 1986 the Zamboni broke down during the first intermission of the championship game between Harvard and Michigan State, and another had to be brought in from Providence College. It was given a police escort, and can't you just see that vivid tableau: the Zamboni, surrounded by squealing squad cars, racing to the rink at the stately speed of three miles per hour.
Ten years later, in Cincinnati, the guy drilling the holes in which the net posts are anchored burst a pipe beneath the ice, flooding the rink. And so the double-overtime semifinal between Vermont and Colorado College was completed in deep pools of standing water. Said Vermont star Martin St. Louis, "You would fall down and get up weighing twice as much."
This year's host city was Columbus, Ohio, where Maurice more likely means Clarett than Richard. As I entered the Jerome Schottenstein Center at Ohio State, a man grabbed the press credential hanging from my neck and said, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED? I've heard of that. I get it at my hunting cabin." Then he gave it a small tug, and the laminated credential, on an elastic lanyard, shot up like a window shade, gently chucking me on the chin. Only later did I learn he was Mike Sertich, the 1984 national coach of the year, who led Minnesota-Duluth to two Frozen Fours, including the epic of '84, when the Bulldogs lost a 5-4 final to Bowling Green in what was then a record four overtimes. Sertich had extended college hockey's welcoming hand. And that hand, happily, held a joy buzzer.
The coach's nephew Marty Sertich won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the nation's best player this year. But his Colorado College Tigers lost 6-2 to Denver last Thursday, hours before North Dakota beat Minnesota 4-2. The four semifinalists were from the same conference, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which puts the college back in collegiality: On Saturday night the Pioneers wore the number 28 on their helmets to honor North Dakota defenseman Robbie Bina, who broke a bone in his neck after being checked by Denver freshman Geoff Paukovich in the WCHA tournament three weeks ago.
On the very first shift of the final, Pioneers defenseman Brett (Principal) Skinner was pancaked in a corner by a check. "He separated his shoulder," Denver coach George Gwozdecky would later marvel, "and played the whole game like that."
The second period was twice delayed after checks by hulking Sioux forward Erik Fabian knocked out plexiglass panels. (Both times, the dasher boards briefly resembled a hockey player's smile.)
With the game tied 1-1, Denver freshman Paul Stastny redirected a slap shot past Parise with his stick--the same ancient Sher-Wood model that Stastny's dad, ex-NHL star Peter, once used. "Uh, it went in off my butt," says Stastny, by way of correction, refusing to pump his own tire. But his next goal was definitely scored with that stick, the only wooden one in use on his team, the one whose handle is stamped STASTNY.
But neither Stastny nor Parise had the most intriguing hockey name at the Frozen Four. That belonged to Denver's leading scorer, Gabe Gauthier, who got an empty-netter in the waning minute on Saturday night to ice Denver's 4-1 win. The Gauthiers of Buena Park, Calif., have always pronounced their name GOTH-ee-er. But when the P.A. announcer for Gabe's Canadian junior team, the Chilliwack Chiefs, asked him if he preferred GOTH-ee-er or GOAT-chay (the French-Canadian pronunciation), Gauthier told him, "GOAT-chay is a better hockey name. Let's go with that." And he has, ever since.
Denver's freshman goalie, Peter Mannino, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. But the true standout in Columbus was hockey's unique culture. The Frozen Four gives the game a black eye. And in hockey, that's a compliment. ‚ñ†
• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to SI.com/writers.
The Frozen Four doesn't take itself too seriously. Which explains why it may be the greatest event you've never seen.