The NHL is not the only hockey undergoing realignment this season. As Wild fans adjust to a new division in 2013-14 with new opponents, so are the five Division I men’s hockey teams in the State of Hockey.
Once all in one conference – the WCHA – college hockey realignment has now spread the Minnesota schools across three. The University of Minnesota is in the Big Ten, which is in its first season sponsoring hockey. Bemidji State and Minnesota State both remain members of a new-look WCHA. Meanwhile, St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota-Duluth joined the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).
Having the schools in different conferences is a major change, but it also means the creation of a new in-season college hockey tournament, the North Star College Cup (NSCC), Jan. 24-25 at Xcel Energy Center.
“We didn’t want to our great rivalries with the four other in-state Division I programs – many of which began 50 or more years ago – come to an end,” Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin said, when the tournament was officially announced last March.
Coming one week after Hockey Day Minnesota, the North Star College Cup attempts to maintain the rivalries and appreciation to grassroots hockey that is so important for fans throughout the state. Minnesota produces more college hockey players than anywhere else in the United States. Many grew up dreaming of playing for one of the in-state schools.
Losing that history and games against one another would be difficult for both fans and the programs.
This year’s inaugural tournament features Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State. Bemidji State will make its debut in 2015 as the Huskies sit out that year followed by Minnesota-Duluth in 2016 and Minnesota State in 2017. (The Gophers will be the permanent host of the NSCC.)
The tournament follows a bracket-style structure with all four teams playing Friday with the winners facing off in the championship Saturday night, while the losers play in a consolation game earlier in the day. It’s a tournament structure similar to the famous Beanpot out in Boston, except instead of stretching over two Mondays, Minnesota’s version will be one weekend.
In addition to getting a chance to face some its biggest rivals in Saint Paul, the games themselves feature some of college hockey’s best, as every team participating in the tourney has been ranked at one point this season.
One highly anticipated matchup is this year’s second semifinal where conference leaders and two top-five teams for much of this season, No. 3 ranked St. Cloud State and No. 1 Minnesota, face each other. The speedy Gophers have reloaded after losing five players early, including Wild forward Erik Haula, from a squad that was upset by eventual national champion Yale.
So has SCSU. Last year the Huskies made the Frozen Four for the first time in school history and despite losing 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc, returns a core of players who can do so again. Facing Minnesota, a team that also has a high-powered offense and good goaltending, in the North Star College Cup should provide some entertaining hockey.
Before those two square off, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State play in the first semifinal. UMD has spent much of the first half searching for consistency. While the Bulldogs have several big wins, including a 6-2 road victory over Minnesota, it was preceded by a 6-1 loss to the Gophers. UMD was swept by St. Cloud State earlier this season, and finally earned its first sweep on the season topping the University of Nebraska-Omaha in a two game set this past weekend.
In order to avenge those losses, the Bulldogs need to get past the Mavericks from Mankato first, which won’t be a small task. Minnesota State entered the season as the trendy pick to win the WCHA. Despite early struggles the team has looked the part lately, winning its last seven games before the holiday break against WCHA foes.
All four teams have skill and exciting players that could be seen at the next level. There are 30 drafted players; including 2013 Minnesota Wild draft pick and UMD freshman defenseman Carson Soucy.
In addition, each NSCC semifinal game features a pair of brothers hailing from the State of Hockey. In the first, Lakeville natives Aaron Crandall, one of three UMD players left on the 2011 National Championship team that won at Xcel Energy Center, and leading goal scorer Justin Crandall will play for the Bulldogs.
The second game is a little different, though. St. Cloud State sophomore forward Jonny Brodzinski, who currently leads SCSU with 19 points (11-8=19) and his brother, Mike, will also be participating in the game—the just not for the Huskies. The Ham Lake native is a freshman defenseman for the Golden Gophers.
In a way it’s fitting, as the two teams shared last season’s WCHA regular season championship. Even more, having brother face brother in the State of Hockey is what the sport, and the tournament, is all about. The five universities may no longer be in the same conference, but some things do not change with realignment. Getting that upper hand and bragging rights on the other Minnesota schools will always remain.
North Star College Cup Schedule:
Semifinal #1: Minnesota State vs. Minnesota-Duluth (4 p.m.)
Semifinal #2: St. Cloud State vs. Minnesota (7 p.m.)
Consolation Game: Consolation of Semifinals (4 p.m.)
Championship Game: Winners of Semifinals (7 p.m.)