Toasting to more Frozen Four firsts
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- The final horn sounded and the on-ice celebration began.
Troy Grosenick quickly found himself face-to-face with 20-plus teammates who simultaneously mobbed and pushed the sophomore goaltender (and his net) back up against the glass at Webster Bank Arena. The congratulatory crush was well worth it to the Hobey Baker finalist as he and his Union College hockey club had just beaten UMass-Lowell 4-2 to capture the NCAA hockey tournament's East Region title and advance to the Frozen Four.
The pure emotions that emanate from athletic accomplishment in the moment are undeniable. But what can make them truly remarkable are when they come from a truly unexpected place.
Boys and girls, the Dutchmen are headed to Tampa. Who, you say?
The Union College Dutchmen. Not exactly college hockey royalty from a name-brand perspective. (Conversely, the first team to qualify for the NCAA men's basketball Final Four was blueblood Louisville.)
To be fair, Union is a No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA tournament, albeit in a which-one-doesn't-belong role alongside the other No. 1s at the start of the tournament: Boston College, Michigan and North Dakota.
And therein lies a great element about this sport.
Union continues a recent college hockey trend of schools making their first Frozen Four trip. Ferris State also earned its first trip Saturday night, winning the Midwest Region after beating Cornell, 2-1. They follow in the footsteps of RIT (2010), Bemidji State (2009), Miami (2009) and Notre Dame (2008). None of those schools went on to win the national championship but playing on the last weekend of the season is a key goal of all 58 Division I programs.
Instead, what the Dutchmen will try to do is duplicate what Minnesota-Duluth did last year. The Bulldogs won the East Region in this same building (it included a win over Union in the first round) and then captured their first national title in school history two weekends later.
Union put itself in a position to play in the national semifinals on April 5 in the Tampa Bay Times Forum thanks to a workmanlike effort against UMass Lowell (24-13-1). The Dutchmen led 1-0 after one period and 3-1 after 40 minutes of play. The game got a little interesting in the third period when a turnover behind the Union goal ended up behind Grosenick to make it 3-2 with nearly 15 minutes to play.
The River Hawks continued to try and pressure Union but only managed eight shots in the third period (21 for the game) and an empty-net goal with 40.6 seconds left made the final 4-2.
"It's a testament to the program and all the hard work that everybody before us put in to really build the foundation," Grosenick said. "Now we've got two more weeks. It's always great to be at the rink, so we're going to enjoy it tonight and tomorrow and then go back to work on Monday."
With the win, Union (26-7-7) becomes the first ECAC school to advance to the Frozen Four since Cornell back in 2003. That ends a relatively remarkable drought for the conference, but that it was the small liberal arts college from Schenectady, N.Y., that doesn't award athletic scholarships that broke that streak may be even more surprising.
Consider that Union didn't become a Division I hockey school until 1991-92 and that the Dutchmen posted a losing record in 12 of their first 16 seasons.
Things started to turn around under former coach Nate Leaman, who guided Union to its first-ever NCAA tournament last season before departing for Providence College. Associate head coach Rick Bennett took over the program and not only continued what Leaman started but moved the program another step in his first season behind the bench.
In addition to Grosenick, whose play this weekend could move him into further consideration for the Hobey Baker Award, Union is led by 6-foot-3, 210-pound center Jeremy Welsh. The junior free agent, who is the object of many NHL clubs' interest, scored his team-leading 27th goal on Saturday night and was named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player.
"I'm really happy we could do this for the program," Welsh said. "It's going to be exciting to put our school on the national stage. It's been a progression. Each year we've taken a step so if this was my freshman year it might be a 'wow' moment but right now we're just taking it in stride.
"We expect to be here and we expect to win."
When Duluth won it all last season it became the 18th different school to skate away with an NCAA hockey championship. If "little" Union can win two more games to become No. 19, it also would be the first ECAC Hockey national champion since Harvard in 1989.
Those two "firsts" would be cause for a real eruption across the college hockey landscape.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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