MINNEAPOLIS - That famous block M on the front of Kent Patterson's hockey sweater was a source of immense pride for the native Minnesotan the first time he slipped it on to wear in a game for the Golden Gophers.
As Patterson's first three seasons ended without an NCAA tournament berth, that M ? as recognizable in college hockey circles as the interlocking N and Y is in baseball, and sometimes as hated ? started to carry more weight.
Few programs in the insulated world of college hockey face more demanding expectations than Minnesota, and the Gophers simply weren't living up to them.
"It was really tough, especially having to deal with all the criticism from year to year," the senior goaltender said Wednesday. "Coming in and proving everybody wrong and just coming out and doing what we've done so far this year, it's great."
The Gophers are back where they belong. They play Boston College in the NCAA semifinals in Tampa, Fla., on April 5, the first time the proud program has advanced to the Frozen Four since 2005.
That seven-year drought may not seem like much to newcomers Ferris State and Union. But it's a lifetime in the "State of Hockey."
"This program has made a lot of tournaments and won five national championships," star sophomore Nick Bjugstad said. "There's a little pressure from the fans and everyone else. We put that pressure on ourselves, too. We realize we've got a big fan base here and we've really got to show a lot of pride because it's a big program."
Missing the NCAA tournament for three straight seasons, including last year when they were beaten in the first round of the WCHA tournament by Alaska-Anchorage, turned up the heat on everyone connected to the program.
Coach Don Lucia, who led the Gophers to national titles in 2002 and 2003, was facing questions about his job security and the players heard the discontent from all angles.
"It doesn't matter whether they're fair or not, it's just the way it is," Lucia said. "We have a passionate fan base. We have high expectations. When you're winning it's great. When you're losing it's tough. That's just part of the deal."
That hasn't surprised anyone. Of the 27 players on the roster, 23 are from Minnesota and a 24th ??? Finnish forward Erik Haula ??? played at the prestigious prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault.
They grew up watching the Gophers. They know the profile and importance the team has to hockey-loving families all over the state.
"This program has got a lot of tradition, a lot of history behind it and a lot of Ws," senior forward Jake Hansen said. "This year we feel we've kind of put it back on the map. The last three or four years have been a struggle for the program and we got close at times. ... Just didn't get it done."
After finishing fifth in the WCHA in 2008-09, seventh in 2009-10 and fifth last season, the Gophers led from wire to wire to win for the school's first conference title since 2007.
They then beat traditional power Boston University in the NCAA West Regional semifinal and on Sunday avenged a WCHA tournament championship defeat to bitter rival North Dakota with a convincing 5-2 victory to advance to the Frozen Four.
"Just to hear some of the guys on the bench in that third period on Sunday, the urgency, the passion, how bad they wanted it," Lucia said.
"And then to walk into the locker room on Sunday night and look into their eyes and see the satisfaction that they all had of a special achievement, that's what makes coaching worthwhile and fun when you can see that joy in the locker room."
But they're not done yet. This is a program that isn't just happy with reaching this point. Now a team that dealt with so much criticism over the last three years has a chance to bring home the school's first national title since 2003.
"They understand what the expectations are of the program and they want to live up to those," Lucia said. "They want to, during their time here, be able to add to the tradition. The kids come here because of the tradition, but they want to leave here having added to the tradition."
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