HAT TRICK | Celebrating the year in college hockey
Between that and a lack of space on the calendar, it seems a fitting time to try and wrap up the year in college hockey. Obviously with just three points to make, there is only so much that can be covered here. Still, a few things stood out in 2016 that might warrant one last mention before the ball drops.
Celebrating three highlights for 2016 on ice:
NORTH DAKOTA RETURNS TO THE TOP
Since 2000, North Dakota has been a Frozen Four regular, but they have struggled to close the deal. The Fighting Hawks were one of the most frustrating powerhouses in college sports in that time period, but in 2016 the Hawks managed to break through.
UND won the NCHC regular season title, but fell in the conference playoffs with a heartbreaking loss to Minnesota Duluth in the semifinals. Their next game would be a NCAA Regional game against one of the hottest teams in the country.
The Fighting Hawks blew right past them, and everybody else. They were hardly challenged throughout the tournament en route to a dominant victory. Drake Caggiula won MOP honors, and Brad Berry delivered North Dakota their eighth title. It was the first time that a first year coach won the championship. With another strong team this year, UND isn’t out of the question to repeat in 2017.
NORTHEASTERN'S UNEXPECTED RUN
Before Jim Madigan took over at Northeastern, the talk was exclusively about whether or not the Huskies would win a Beanpot in any given season. Their long absence of trophies has been a painful sticking point for fans, students, and alumni alike. Yet, when Madigan arrived, he refused to put things in terms of the Beanpot, always setting his sights on larger trophies.
In 2016, that talk turned from optimism to something incredible. Northeastern lost a light handful of games between New Year’s Day and March, falling in the Beanpot to Boston University but not letting it derail their season. The Huskies, having long been haunted by Beanpot losses, after which they tended to fall apart, pulled themselves together and played their best hockey after that, earning their way back to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals, where they beat Boston College in a cathartic burst of scoring.
Northeastern then pulled themselves over Norm Bazin and UMass Lowell, which had proven themselves formidable in tournament play over the past few years. They can finally get out of the shadow of an empty trophy case and move onto the next step of the Madigan era, though there have been mixed results thus far this season.
COLLEGE HOCKEY GOES PRO
College hockey has always had a bit of a unique relationship with the NHL. As the one sport that drafts their players before those players go to college by and large, some of the top programs sometimes take on a sort of developmental team feel to them.
This year more than ever, the NHL felt the impact of college hockey. Dave Hakstol has the Philadelphia Flyers headed in the right direction, thanks in large part to Shayne Gostisbehere. Johnny Goudreau and Jack Eichel have become fearsome scorers in the league. John Scott grabbed headlines around All-Star Weekend and handled himself incredibly. That all adds to existing league stars with college pedigrees such as Jonathan Quick.
It makes sense why professional teams might be taking a harder look at making the college game a bigger part of the development process. College hockey players get tournament experience and rivalry experience that no other part of the process can boast. This in turn helps players like Nick Bonino get used to playoff hockey.
With more NHL-bound players in college hockey by the year, and more college products in the NHL than ever, expect that college footprint to continue in the pros for a long time to come. Likewise, the pro game continues to make its impact known in the NCAA ranks. Former scouts and former pros are all over the college hockey coaching landscape, and their teams often tend to recruit a lot of players who turn pro themselves.
Sometimes college sports fans and analysts bristle at the idea of college sports and pro leagues acting like partners, but in this case the pragmatic approach seems to be working very well for both sides.
Tim Williams is a freelance writer based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @TimWritesSports.