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Frozen Four a yearly treat for some Blackhawks fans

by Austin Miller / Web Contributor

On a whim 22 years ago, David Wolff, then living in Cleveland, bought a ticket to the 1994 Frozen Four in Cincinnati.

He has not missed an NCAA hockey championship since.

Wolff, who now lives in Aurora, Ill., and is a Blackhawks season ticketholder, is among a number of Chicago-area residents who have impressive streaks of consecutive Frozen Fours attended. For Wolff, a self-described "hockey guy," attending each year is a chance to take in what he says is one of the sport's (just confirming definitely just hockey's most exciting as opposed to all of sports) most exciting spectacles.

Like Wolff, Chuck Sikaras of Warrenville, Ill., has been to every Frozen Four since the mid-1990s. Sikaras has been a Blackhawks season ticketholder for 40 years, and served as the penalty box timekeeper for the now-shuttered UIC program from the early '70s until the program folded in 1996. Sikaras and a friend first bought tickets to the 1993 edition in Milwaukee, which was then simply called the NCAA Ice Hockey Championships, to see a Lake Superior State team that had impressed them during the season.

Since then, Sikaras and a group of friends -- anywhere from eight to 12 each year -- have attended every Frozen Four, making a weekend out of going to the event. Each Friday of the championship weekend, they try to take in the sights of the city they're in, whether that be a baseball game in Boston or Pittsburgh, the tourist spots of Philadelphia, or a minor league hockey game in Tampa. What has kept Sikaras and company coming back all these years is the environment and pageantry that takes over a city during the tournament. This year, Sikaras is thrilled to see the event finally come to the United Center and Chicago.

"It's exciting to be the host after all these years," Sikaras said. "The Blackhawks have done such a great job of reenergizing hockey in Chicago and the state of Illinois. I think it'd be great if [Chicago] gets in the rotation to get it every couple of years."

Bob Bramnik, another Chicago-area resident, went to his first Frozen Four in 1989, and has had tickets to each event since then. Much like Sikaras, Bramnik attends each year with a group of friends, some of whom travel from as far away as Pasadena, Calif.

For Bramnik, having the Frozen Four and his friends in Chicago is "an interesting dynamic… I'm hosting a big dinner party Friday night because everybody's in town."

Also like Sikaras, Bramnik was involved with the UIC hockey program that shut down in 1996, leaving Illinois without a Division I hockey program for the last 21 years. That's something all three want to see changed.

"We need it in Illinois," Sikaras said. "It's a hotbed of hockey that's been influenced by the Blackhawks resurgence. That's really my long-term dream."

"I understand how hard it is, [but] Penn State has done it, and Arizona State has now started a DI hockey program," added Wolff, who has spent many years involved with youth hockey in the Chicago area. "I'd love to see Northwestern or Illinois, who has had good club teams over the years, start a program. The Big Ten would love to see that."

Despite not having a Division I program in the state, 84 Division I hockey players this season hailed from Illinois. The state is becoming a true producer of talent, ranking fifth among the 50 states in players currently playing Division I hockey.

When Wolff saw that number, he was shocked. "We're really producing some great kids," he said. "It's nice to see a Vinnie Hinostroza, a Ryan Hartman, even a kid like Nick Schmaltz from Madison. It's just tremendous to see how good the youth programs are now."

It's not a coincidence that all three names that came to Wolff's mind were Blackhawks draft picks. Chicago led all 30 NHL clubs with 16 prospects playing Division I hockey this season. The next-closest teams, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, had 11 each.

Sikaras said that the Blackhawks' emphasis on developing prospects in college hockey, and the chance to see future Blackhawks while they're in college, is part of what keeps him invested.

"It's pretty easy to get involved as a Blackhawks fan. I tell my Blackhawks season ticketholder partners, 'Come to an event like this.' Last year when we were in Tampa, Nick Schmaltz and Luke Johnson were on North Dakota, Chris Calnan was on Boston College, and Blake Hillman played for Denver."

Hillman, a 2016 sixth-round draft pick of the Blackhawks, will play for the championship on Saturday night following an impressive 6-1 victory over Notre Dame on Thursday night.

It's not just future Blackhawks these guys get to see, but future NHL stars. The best player Wolff says he ever saw at the Frozen Four was Martin St. Louis, who stood out in the 1996 tournament with Vermont.

"Even though he was small, he was fast as blazes and just dominated the game," Wolff said. "You just could tell, no matter how small this kid was, he was going to have a good NHL career."

Bramnik and Sikaras both pointed to the same game as one of their finest Frozen Four memories -- the 1993 championship game in Milwaukee between Lake Superior State and Maine. On that night, Lake Superior State held a 4-2 lead heading into the third period. Maine, led by former NHL superstar Paul Kariya and current Denver head coach Jim Montgomery, rallied for a trio of goals, all scored by Montgomery and assisted by Kariya, to claim the title.

It's games like that, and like Minnesota-Duluth's last-minute 2-1 win against Harvard in Thursday's first semifinal at the United Center, that keep Sikaras, Bramnik and Wolff coming back. All three have now attended over 20 consecutive Frozen Fours, and none of them plan on stopping soon.

"I will keep going until I die," Wolff said with a smile. "I'm hoping for at least 11 more years, maybe even more than that. I've got a 10-year old grandson who has to join the crowd one of these years."

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