For many sports enthusiasts, the month of March is about one thing and one thing only: March Madness. The NCAA Basketball tournament is one of the biggest events in college sports and comes with all the fanfare one should expect from such a major to do.
But in the world of Men’s College Ice Hockey there is something much more noteworthy; the Frozen Four – college hockey’s answer to March Madness. The road to the definitive prize in college hockey begins this weekend and Nashville will be proudly represented by four Preds prospects from three different teams; Ben Ryan and Ryan Thang from Notre Dame, Taylor Stefishen from Ohio State and Hobey-Baker hopeful Colin Wilson from Boston University.
Competing at this highest level of college sports takes more than just hard work; it also takes dedication, confidence and maturity on the parts of athletes as young as 18 years old. Stefishen, the youngest of the Preds college prospects in the tournament and youngest on his team, has had a rough season. He has battled illness and injury all season and even had to battle his way back into the lineup after his team went on a winning streak during his forced time off.
Stefishen and his Buckeyes went right down to wire to make this year’s NCAA Tournament but he admits that high-pressure situations like those can force a team to grow up a bit.
|Taylor Stefishen |
“We learned a lot about ourselves,” Stefishen said. “We learned how to play with our backs against a wall. We learned hockey is a game of bounces and sometimes you get the bounces and sometimes you don’t… We learned you can’t take any games for granted.”
Even top-seeded teams have learned not to take anything for granted and have made sure to learn from their past mistakes. Thang and Ryan were part of last year’s NCAA Tournament as their Fightin’ Irish sneaked in as the number-four seed and made it all the way through the Frozen Four and eventually lost to Boston College in the National Championship. This time around, Thang and Ryan bring a maturity and confidence they gained from last year’s run.
“I think (last year’s run) is going to pay huge dividends for us.” Thang said. “Last year we barely squeaked in and we knew what the first round was about but we never knew what the Frozen Four was all about; that was all uncharted waters for us. I think we are not going to be so mesmerized if we are fortunate enough to get into the Frozen Four. Everything is not going to seem like such a big stage and I think we will carry a lot more confidence going in there.
“We looked at the other teams like they were giants compared to us and I think from just the experience factor from the last two years should help us out greatly going into this first game.”
“Last year, going all the way, having the experience of going deep in the playoffs in big exciting games is definitely something that goes a long way,” Ryan added. “The upperclassmen have been through a lot and we have some great leaders on this team. I think we definitely have an advantage over where we were last year.”
Perhaps none of the Predators prospects have been hyped up as much as Colin Wilson – and with good reason. Wilson led the Hockey East in points, was third in the national scoring race and is a serious contender for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top college player. Even with the pressures of the Hobey Baker hanging over him, Wilson is most focused on leading the BU Terriers to their first National Championship since 1995.
“There is a little bit of pressure there but I try not to think about it, especially after talking to some of the Nashville scouts,” Wilson said. “They told me just to worry about the season ahead of me and everything else would take care of itself and that’s what I’ve been doing for the finals. The Hobey Baker is a great honor but I try not to think about it too much.”
All four teams come into the weekend confident, despite the stiff competition. Prospects Stefishen and Wilson will match up in the first round today when the Buckeyes and the Terriers face off at the Verizon Wireless Center at 4:30 p.m. Despite the fact that Ohio State comes in as fourth seed and Boston University number one, Stefishen feels that playing top-seeded Notre Dame and Michigan often throughout the season will help with the tough match up.
“It gives our team some confidence knowing we have knocked off number-one ranked teams,” Stefishen said. “It shows us we can do it. It is possible for us to knock off Boston University if we play our A game.”
None of the Predators prospects seemed too concerned with all the media attention this event is garnering – with all games being broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks and being contacted often by hockey media. Thang has been a part of the media circus since his freshman year back in 2006-2007.
“My freshman year two years ago, we were rated number one and we were sort of the 'Cinderella story' going from worst to best and that brought a lot of attention” he said. “This year, I don’t think it is anything we haven’t seen before and I think that was another thing I noticed – the way we’ve carried ourselves as number one with all the media attention. At first it was like ‘wow, we are number one in the country’ now it is kind of whatever.
“It’s not that much of a big deal to us anymore; it’s more about winning games and setting ourselves up for the best route to potentially get us to the Frozen Four.”
All four Preds prospects will take the ice this weekend, each hoping their team will be victorious and continue on the journey to the Frozen Four and the National Championship. The prospects have been working all year for this event which will culminate with the National Championship Game on Saturday, April 11 at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN.
“We just want to get going,” Wilson said. “This is what we have worked towards the whole season; to win the NCAA. To finally be here is very exciting for the team and everyone is pretty confident and ready to do as well as we can.”