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The Frozen Four: the pinnacle of college hockey

Butcher, Rooney and Anderson reflect on past NCAA championship victories

by Amanda Stein @amandacstein / newjerseydevils.com

"It's the 'Bread and Butter' of the NCAA."

That's how New Jersey Devil defenseman Will Butcher described the NCAA college hockey Frozen Four tournament. 

Butcher is one of three current Devils to know what it's like to celebrate on the ice with the NCAA Championship trophy. Butcher won with his Denver team in 2017, forward Joey Anderson won a year later with Minnesota Duluth in 2018 and Kevin Rooney won it back in 2015 with Providence. For all three, it was the pinnacle of their careers at the time and bonded them with their college teammates and schools for life.

"We had such a special group of guys in Providence," Rooney said. "You can see the team is doing well now too, and I think our class set the tone and culture for Providence going forward."

Prior to Rooney and his team winning the national title, Providence had not made it to the Frozen Four since 1985 when the college finished second. The team Rooney played on brought home the only NCAA college hockey title in team history.

"When I was playing our first round was in Providence, so I was playing for Providence, in Providence and the Frozen Four was in Boston," Rooney added. "To have it 'at home' was just so awesome and then we went on to win it and I was able to be there to celebrate with all my family and friends. That was just incredible. It was just so special."

Another Devil who had a similar experience was Minnesota-native Anderson. Anderson is the most recent to have won the NCAA championship, hoisting the national title trophy in 2018 just days before signing his first professional contract with New Jersey.  

"Other than winning the championship, it was just being in Minnesota," Anderson responded when asked about his favorite memory. "That was pretty cool. I grew up under 10 minutes from the [Minnesota] Wild's rink [where the tournament was held]. I had so much support from my family, it was incredible to see everyone come out and support our team. It made the whole experience all that more special."

The victory is still fresh for Anderson, who a year ago was gearing up for the big game himself.

"Any time you can win a championship it's hard to put into words," Anderson imparted. "The whole year you work for it. The feeling of relief, excitement and joy… you just can't really believe it. It took a while to set in that it had happened. Just the joy it brings to the fans and the city of Duluth. People really rallied around our team, it's a neat thing to go through, follow and see."

Just as Rooney did, Devils defenseman Will Butcher won the tournament in his senior season. He ended the very last game of his college career with the ultimate prize.

"It was unbelievable," Butcher reminisced. "It was my senior season, so it was kind of like one of those fairytale things. You go out your senior season on a win, it's hard to do. It was cool. We had such a good team, our team won a bunch of awards, the coach, our goalie, everyone was playing unbelievable. To go out with that win was great."

You're kidding me. Love these guys #nattychamps

A post shared by Will Butcher (@willbutcher_4) on

For Butcher, the NCAA Championship capped off an incredible senior year. He captained the Pioneers that season, scored seven goals and added 30 assists. His 37 points were second by a defenseman in the nation. Add to that being honored as the NCHC Player of the Year, Offensive Defenseman of the Year and named to the first team All-Conference for a second consecutive year. 

The accolades did not stop there. Butcher was named the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner, handed out to the top NCAA men's ice hockey player - college hockey's top individual prize. Butcher was just the sixth defenseman to win in the award's 37-year history.

To win was one thing, to celebrate it was another. What ensued after the ceremony provided the Devils defenseman with his favorite, long-lasting memory of the entire tournament.

"We had the Hobey Baker Award ceremony after we had won the semis," Butcher said. "We beat Notre Dame the first night, the next night was the Hobey Baker ceremony and the night after that was the championship game. We had the ceremony and we also had out goaltender Tanner Jaillet, who was in the [Mike Richter Award] Ceremony (awarded to the top goaltender of the regular season) and he had won right before I won the Hobey.

"We then we went with our coaches to a team dinner to hang out with the guys," he continued. "Me and our goalie walked in at the same time and the boys just started going nuts for us. That was probably my favorite moment, the guys were just so jacked up."

One of the best weeks of my life #pioneer4life

A post shared by Will Butcher (@willbutcher_4) on

Butcher also remembers the tournament rolling out the red carpet, quite literally. 

"My first year [the Frozen Four] was in Tampa, we pull up on the tarmac and there's a red carpet for us," Butcher said through laughs. "You never see anything like that. Usually, you're flying economy and checking your own bags. It's a really cool experience and every guy that gets the opportunity would say the same thing, it's done really well. It's done the right way."

You're kidding me. Love these guys #nattychamps

A post shared by Will Butcher (@willbutcher_4) on

All three Devils are excited for what lays ahead for this year's crop of Frozen Four participants, all three aware of how going through a championship run can bond players together for life.

"We had such a good group, we still keep in contact," Rooney disclosed. "There are about 10 of us who have a group chat, we always keep in touch. I'm always talking to [head coach] Nate Leaman just to see how he is doing and he's always checking in on me so it's a pretty good family that we built there. I'll follow that program forever now."

All three Devils continue to keep an eye on their alma maters. Butcher expressed that he will make the six-hour drive from New Jersey to Buffalo if Denver is in the championship game, Rooney expects to do the same if Providence is there as well. Rooney says he might drive up with teammate Mackenzie Blackwood who was also thinking about going, with one of his friends from back home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Billy Exell, playing in the tournament with Minnesota-Duluth. 

As for Anderson, he will want to be there to support his younger brother, Mikey, who currently plays for Minnesota-Duluth. 

And naturally, all three believe their former teams will take home the championship.

Because that's what being a member of the team - past or present - is all about.

Frozen Four Tournament Schedule
Buffalo, New York

Semi-Finals - April 11th, 2019
Minnesota Duluth vs. Providence - 5 p.m. ESPN2
UMass vs. Denver - 8:30 p.m. ESPN2 
Championship Game - April 13th, 2019
TBD vs. TBD - 8:00 p.m. ESPN2

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