Going into this past weekend’s inaugural North Star College Cup, it was hard to know exactly what to expect. That’s part of being new. Little is known. The four teams involved are well known to one another, yet, an in-season Minnesota college hockey tournament at Xcel Energy Center – the State of Hockey’s answer to Boston’s Beanpot – has always been more of a dream.
Variations have happened before, including one in 2008, which didn’t have the success organizers wanted. Realignment this past season saw the five Minnesota schools spread from sharing a single conference to three separate ones.
In hindsight, maybe getting a little space was good for seeing this dream reach reality.
The 2014 North Star College Cup featured two days of entertaining games at the Xcel Energy Center between Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota and St. Cloud State. It culminated with Minnesota defeating Minnesota-Duluth Saturday night in a shootout (officially the teams tied 4-4) to take home the trophy.
“It’s one of the better tournaments I’ve been a part of,” University of Minnesota junior forward Seth Ambroz said Saturday. “It was a great experience. Obviously being the first one, to come out on top, but just how good the teams in Minnesota are – it really showed this weekend.”
The tournament began Friday with UMD freshman Alex Iafallo scoring an overtime winner on the power play with just 26.5 seconds left against the Mavericks for a 5-4 win.
Special teams also played a role in Friday’s second semifinal between two of the top-five teams in the country. No. 5, St. Cloud State threw everything at the Gophers, but No. 1 Minnesota went 2-for-2 on the power play. That, along with 38 saves by Tournament MVP Adam Wilcox, proved to be enough for a 4-1 Minnesota victory.
The Huskies were able to rebound from Friday’s loss to defeat Minnesota State 6-4 in the consolation game. However, the split weekend did not put a damper on St. Cloud’s feelings.
“Just growing up here, I’ve played in 4 state tournaments here in Minnesota high school hockey (for Blaine),” said SCSU sophomore Jonny Brodzinski, who scored 3 goals in 2 games. “ This rink is like a second home to me, I guess. It’s a great rink to play in.
“The atmosphere this weekend was unbelievable.”
Fourteen-thousand fans filled Xcel Energy Center both days to see four teams, which Minnesota head coach Don Lucia believed were all good enough to win. The NHL arena got loud at several points throughout the weekend with the sounds of college bands and fans singing their school’s fight songs. More importantly, the arena showed why it’s one of the best venues and a fitting host for an all-Minnesota college hockey tournament.
Year one of the North Star College Cup did produce some interesting moments that come with a new tournament. It’s expected. Trying to fit 5 teams into 4 spots (Bemidji State sat out this year’s edition and will take St. Cloud State’s place in 2015) is a unique challenge, and even small details like how games would end didn’t come up until the issue was forced.
Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin wasn’t sure of the overtime format until Friday’s game and would have preferred to play out the championship game instead of a shootout. Despite that worry, the pair of games showed the Bulldogs battling back consistently.
It’s a trait in which the team looks to build upon in NCHC play during the stretch run.
“We’re getting a little more consistent in some areas, so it was a good building this weekend before we return to league play next weekend,” said Sandelin.
UMD isn’t the only team that learned something about itself. Minnesota adjusted on the NHL-size sheet while extending its unbeaten streak to 12 games. Players from the Twin Cities, such as SCSU’s Brodzinski and Bulldogs’ forward Caleb Herbert, a Bloomington native, found it special to play two more games in front of family and friends.
The North Star charm even found its way to players hailing from outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Iafallo dropped a Minnesotan “Oh ya” after Friday’s win. For St. Cloud State forward Nic Dowd, an Alabama native, it’s an easy adjustment.
“Ever since I’ve been at St. Cloud you get put in your blood to dislike the other Minnesota teams; especially the Gophers. We have 5 great teams in the state and 4 of them are here,” he said. “It’s a battle every single night going in and playing these elite programs.”
Comparisons to the tradition-rich Beanpot are easy to make, but aren’t accurate. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Although it’d be great to see the North Star College Cup reach that level now that it is a reality, matching a half-century of history doesn’t happen in a year.
That didn’t stop Minnesota State senior Johnny McInnis, though.
“I’m from Boston so we have the Beanpot. I think it’s something that could be better – I’m probably going to get some heat for that back home – it’s definitely, coming out here I see the competitiveness between the schools,” McInnis said. “Year-in and year-out it’s been unbelievable, and the rivalries that it’s going to keep together.”
For that reason the North Star College Cup was better received from players, fans and coaches than past attempts. You can take teams out of WCHA, but the hatred stays with the teams. At a certain point in-state pride takes over.
The play on the ice matched it.
All good intentions aside, plenty of factors could be only answered on the other side of Saturday night’s championship game. Is the fire still burning between the Minnesota schools? Would fans come out in the middle of January for non-conference games? Could the North Star College Cup be entertaining?
Turns out the answer to all three questions are “yes.” Who needs points?
“For the first tournament it was a great start,” Lucia said. “I think it’s only going to grow and get better.”