By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We don’t have many chances to see championships awarded in Western New York.
The Bills, we assume, will never win a Super Bowl here. The game is always played in a neutral, warm-weather site. That’s not Buffalo. The Sabres have reached the NHL Finals twice in 49 years, and twice we’ve seen a team skate around the ice while holding the Stanley Cup. However, it was the Flyers (1975) and Stars (1999) did the skating. Maybe it will happen someday.
On the college level, the football championship follows the Super Bowl rules. The men’s basketball title game is played in a dome, and we don’t have one of those. The women’s tournament has never made an appearance here, even for the non-finals. Maybe someday.
That might be why it’s so much fun to go to a championship game in high school. The feelings from the players, coaches and fans are the same as the ones in other classifications; it just comes on a smaller scale.
However, we get a taste of what the Big Time is like starting on Thursday when the Frozen Four comes to town. Just start with the name – is there a better way to describe the final three games of the national championship in men’s hockey than the Frozen Four? You instantly know what the event is.
What’s more, the competition is usually terrific. It seems as if every game in the Frozen Four is close. In fact, it would be disappointing if at least one of this week’s three games didn’t go into overtime. The games are filled with intensity, and the fans can’t wait to see if their favorites are going to win it all.
We had the Frozen Four here in 2003, played in HSBC Arena. (I had to look to see what we were calling the place back then.) My biggest memory was watching Thomas Vanek play for the champion, Minnesota. He was the MVP of the tournament, and every Sabre fan in the building that week thought Vanek would be a great fit in a Buffalo uniform. It turned out every fan knew their hockey. Vanek became a first-round pick for the Sabres, and had some great moments here.
I offer no insight into what might happen this week in terms of favorites and underdogs. I just know everyone in KeyBank Center will be happy they went. We host few sporting events with such a guarantee, and this is one of them.
We start at 5 p.m. Thursday with Minnesota-Duluth and Providence. Then at 8:30 or so, it’s Massachusetts and Denver. The winners play at 8 p.m. on Saturday. All three games are on ESPN2.
A few notes about the teams and events:
- * The Bulldogs have been in the tournament six straight times, and they have two straight appearances in the championship game. Duluth won over Notre Dame last year, and lost to Denver the year before.
* Minnesota-Duluth has been on a nice roll, winning its conference title and then knocking off Bowling Green and Quinnipiac to get here. But both were close games; the win over Bowling Green came in overtime.
* Hunter Shepard has started 79 straight games in goal; that’s a school record. His NCAA tournament record is 6-0.
* Parker Mackay has three goals in his last three games.
* Sabre fans certainly remember Derek Plante, the leading scorer on the 1996-97 team. He played college hockey there, and then returned to the university as an assistant coach from 2010 to 2015. Other professional players who were Bulldogs: Mark Pavelich and Brett Hull.
- * The Friars were the fourth seed in their regional after losing in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament. But they caught a break when they were assigned to play in Providence, and won two games to advance here. The Friars trailed Minnesota State, 3-0, but rallied to take a 6-3 win.
* Won the national championship in 2015. Providence hadn’t reached the Frozen Four since then.
* The Friars lost to the Bulldogs in 2016 in an epic 2-1, double-overtime tournament game.
* Hayden Hawkey has eight shutouts this season, including a 4-0 win over Cornell in the regional final.
* Jay O’Brien is a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers. Eight other NHL draft choices are on the roster.
* Some good hockey executives have played for Providence, including Brian Burke, Ron Wilson and Bob Nicholson.
- * It’s the university’s first-ever trip to the Frozen Four. The Minutemen earned it with back-to-back 4-0 wins over Harvard and Notre Dame in the regional.
* Defenseman Cale Makar leads the team with 32 assists and 48 points. He was drafted by Colorado.
* Freshman goalie Filip Lindberg has grabbed the starting job for UMass in the postseason, going 4-1 with three shutouts.
* The Minutemen went 2-1 against Frozen Four teams this season, and are third in the nation in scoring (3.77 goals per game).
* The school’s leading hockey alumnus: Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings.
- * New coach David Carle, at the age of 29, has had a nice run with the Pioneers. He’s guided Denver to its 16th Frozen Four, and he’s hoping to help the school take its ninth national championship. The Pioneers have been in the tournament 12 straight times, the longest active streak in the nation.
* Denver defeated American International in the regionals; A-I beat Niagara in overtime at HarborCenter to reach the tournament.
* Goalie Filip Larsson is another top freshman goalie. He has two shutouts in the tournament, making 50 saves in the process.
* Pioneers’ top scorers are Liam Finlay (36 points), Emilio Pettersen (30), Jarid Lukosevicius (29), and Ian Mitchell (26). Six players are back from the 2017 national champions, including Pettersen and Lukosevicius.
* There are familiar names to NHL fans who were Pioneers: Chris Butler, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Dineen, Bill Masterton, Peter McNab, and Craig Patrick.
* We’ve come from 16 teams when the NCAA tournament to the four that are left. Six teams received automatic bids, while the other 10 came from national rankings. It’s a fast tournament, as the field went from 16 to four at the four regional sites two weeks ago. Niagara and Canisius played in Atlantic Hockey, one of the qualifying conferences.
* The Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the best college hockey player in the country, will be awarded on Friday at HarborCenter. I’m told that Cale Makar of UMass is considered the favorite. Can you name the Sabres who have won that trophy? Eichel is the easy one. The list includes Tom Kurvers, Robb Stauber, Brian Holzinger, Chris Drury, Ryan Miller, and Jordan Leopold.
* Michigan has won the most national championships with nine. North Dakota and Denver are right behind at eight.
* A couple of current Sabres made it to the Frozen Four, and they were on the same team. Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues were part of the 2015 squad from Boston University, which lost in the championship game.
* The Frozen Four will be played at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit next year, followed by stops in Pittsburgh and Boston.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)