By Ray Biggs, Brian Krosky, and Matthew Webb
So, How'd We Get Here?
At this point, we're sure you know about what the draw to Utica was when planning an event like this. The Utica College Pioneers have led Division III in attendance each year for over a decade, the Aud now has a bevy of pro-level upgrades that were put in place for an American Hockey League franchise, with more coming soon as we've been told, and it happens to be in the middle of New York, with easy access to Interstate 90 and airports to accomodate commercial flights and private charters.
|Elimination didn't stop this Hamilton fan from showing up to see the championship in his backyard.
Photo: Brian Krosky
What you may not know is that the bid to host the NCAA Division III Ice Hockey Championship started as a class project. Yes, Utica's former director of hockey operations, Alex Dawes, wrote the original proposal to satisfy a course requirement.
But wait, there's a lot more connecting everything together. Alex is Stevenson head coach Dominick Dawes's brother. Dominick was a member of Norwich's 2003 NCAA championship team, a team that featured future NHL player Kurt McLean. Both brothers also played high school hockey at the Utica Memorial Auditorium as members of the Thomas R. Proctor High School Raiders. While the events at the Aud were taking place this weekend, Alex was winning the first NCAA tournament game in Penn State history as their director of hockey operations, so his good work was on display in more than one arena.
Whether they were involved in building Norwich's championship tradition, writing the championship bid, or just doing their part to build up Utica's status as a hockey town, tip your cap to those two, whether they were in the building or not.
As teams and coaches arrived at the Utica Memorial Auditorium for Thursday practices, they got their first taste of one of the largest home rinks in Division III. For some, it's the biggest rink they've ever played or coached in. For others, it's just one of many they have been part of a game in during their careers. Either way, the start of Frozen Four weekend gave the renovated historic arena a great chance to make an impression on the participants.
For Adam Krug, he explained Thursday that playing in the Aud is a continuation of the practice situation his Bulldogs had in the week leading up to the championship, which prepared them well for the environment they saw Friday.
|Adam Krug at thursday's pre-tournament press conference.
Photo: Lance Catamaran
"So far it's been great," Krug said, "Utica College and the City of Utica have been very helpful, the hotel is great. It's a good situation just a couple of blocks from the arena. Coming into a building like this knowing the history, we've all seen Slap Shot 150 times and I can just picture the brawl in the arena and fans hanging over the glass. At the end of the day, coming into a pro atmosphere feels good. Over the past few weeks with our women hosting the Frozen Four, we were able to get on the road and practice in Toledo, which is a real nice ECHL building with 6,000 seats. On our way to Stevens Point we stopped at Notre Dame which has 4-5,000 seats. They're just good feeling buildings. Yesterday when we got off the plane we skated at the AHL rink in Binghamton. I think whether it's been on purpose or not, we've been preparing to be under the big lights."
Trinity, meanwhile, has had the luxury of winning a game in the building before with a December win in 2014 over Utica. With a championship on the line, head coach Matt Greason didn't see it as much of an advantage going into the weekend.
"I don't think it's necessarily an advantage," Greason said. "It's just nice to be here but it's a lot different than playing Utica in December. The stakes are higher, even if the intensity is probably pretty similar. It's more the experience of your senior class than experience in a particular building. Still, we're excited to be here and Utica has done a great job getting this building ready for this event."
For St. Norbert, this was their first experience in Division III's best-attended venue, and represented a stark contrast from their past tournament trips to the Empire State.
"We've been treated really well," Noah Nelson said. "You see the stands, and the lights, and the ice was great today so you can tell it's a great place and just a great professional rink. Comparing to where we've been, going to Lake Placid there's a lot of surrounding things that are really interesting that pull you away from the hockey aspect. We got to see a lot of cool things and it was a great trip. Coming in here, it seems to be way more of a hockey trip like 'yeah we're here for the Frozen Four.' It's different than going to the 1980 Miracle on Ice Rink, it's just a different feeling. No better, no worse, just different."
"Coming in here, we knew it was going to be a bit different than going to Lake Placid with the events that happened there," defenseman Blake Thompson said. "We've been treated well since we got here, the dressing room has been nice, the ice was great today, so everyone's looking forward to getting this thing started."
"Why Didn't You Tell Us That, Dad?"
As the Cadets and Bantams ready to battle for the national title, an appropriate story was told by Norwich coach Mike McShane after his team's semifinal win on Friday. Past and present collided this weekend for the Norwich head coach when he rode in the same elevator as Trinity forwards Brandon and Ryan Cole. Their father spent time at Dartmouth with McShane years ago, leading the Norwich coach to open up with some colorful stories.
“The Cole boys, they’re something else. I coached their father at Dartmouth one hundred years ago," McShane said. "He was tough as nails and they are, too, so I know how good they are. I rode down with them in the elevator and I told a couple stories about their father so I think they’re having a little fight tonight."
Reliving the Marathon
As St. Norbert approached a second straight NCAA semifinal and their 11th frozen four, they did so with a lot of players who were part of one of the most memorable NCAA tournament games ever last year, a 8-7 prizefight that went into double overtime against UMass Boston. When asked about his memories of his breakaway goal that brought that game to the finish line, Noah Nelson tried to put one past all of us in one of the more amusing moments from Media Day.
"I'm pretty sure it was bar down," Nelson said.
That's partially because it was such a blur that he hardly remembers the play itself.
"I don't remember the play itself too much actually, I just remember the room and how positive everyone was," he said. "The biggest play of the night actually is when we scored to make it 3-1 with two seconds left in the first. That was one of the bigger goals just because it calmed us down. 3-0 vs. 3-1 was such a big difference, we went into the room like 'okay, we got one.' We played a poor period, but we had a lot more.... I just remember the room. I thought it was going to be a wild game, but that we were going to end up on the right side of it and we did. So I think to just take from that and use that experience in this tournament is going to be big."
The Sibling connections have been at an all-time high at this year's Division III Frozen Four. Adrian head coach Adam Krug has brother Matt on the bench with him as an assistant while other sibling Torey Krug of NHL fame watched from home. The Trinity Bantams have been seeing double from faraway places, with the Cole brothers of Anchorage, Alaska, and the Johnson brothers of Dallas, Texas, to name a few.
Trinity assistant coach Paul Kirtland went to work Friday night with a familiar face close by: his brother Patrick. Patrick is now an assistant at Utica after completing a four year career and an eventual captaincy at the University of Connecticut. When Patrick was at UConn, Paul moved to Hartford to take the position at Trinity after his own collegiate career at Ohio State. Patrick's move gave rise to the latest opportunity for him to display his own magnetism with regards to his brother after Paul's Bantams punched a ticket to Utica. Paul enjoyed that time in the Nutmeg state during his brother's college career, and cherishes his relationship with all of his brothers.
"It was great," Paul said. "How it happened, it happened really fast when I got the job. I had been away from family for a long time, so it was nice to get back, see some people, and be around people for a change. We have a great relationship, three brothers and Pat has a twin. We're really close and it made for some competitive sports growing up. It's nice to have him here and while I wish he was playing, we're just glad we're here."
For the record, Patrick's twin brother was a Division III player. John Kirtland played for the University of St. Thomas last season as a senior defenseman for Jeff Boeser, and suited up in 101 career games for the Tommies. Even with his experience, Paul left his brother on the hook when asked if he got any advice on adjusting to Division III.
"He didn't tell me anything, he was actually zero help," Paul said.
Then there's the historical threads tying Trinity forward Tyler Whitney and older brother Joe at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. Tyler had three assists on Friday in the first NCAA semifinal of any kind to be played in the Utica Memorial Auditorium in over 50 years.
When the American Hockey League returned to Utica in the fall of 2013, Joe was in on the action as a member of the Albany Devils when the venue held its first AHL game in over two decades. That doesn't even bring to the table the fact that he actually scored the first goal against the newly-christened Utica Comets in their inaugural home opener en route to a two goal evening and a 4-1 road win. Needless to say, the Whitney boys were born for this building.
As usual, one of the things we love doing every year is to see what kind of college gear floats about among the fans in attendance. This year, we saw representation from a bunch of schools, and even ran into some coaches, such as Oswego's Ed Gosek, seen below with wife Mary. The list of schools we saw is as follows:
- St. Norbert
- New Hampshire
Photos by Brian Krosky, D3hockey.com
The Weekend of Unsung Heroes
This weekend was the weekend of the un-sung hero. On Friday night, the Norwich and Trinity got plenty of help from the not-so-familiar-faces.
Ian Williams, who scored the game-winning goal for the Cadets on Friday night, said it was the biggest of his life. “I have never scored as big of a goal in my career, that’s 100% for sure,” he said. “I have scored a few in juniors, but other than that I just don’t really come in clutch all that often.”
Coach McShane offered his thoughts… “He was saving it!”
Along with Williams, freshman defender Jake Erickson, who was named to the All-Tournament team, scored a pair of goals. “Never,” Erickson said on the last time he scored two goals in a game.
“He was saving it for the right time!” McShane reiterated again.
The Bantams got some help from a familiar face, but in an unfamilar role as Sam Johnson netted his team's game-winner on Friday.
“I remember all of my goals,” he said with a chuckle. His game-winning goal at 18:26 of the 2nd period was the first of the season and only his third career collegiate goal. “I focus on getting the puck to the net. In today’s case, I had a little more time than usual.”
Ostepchuk - The Definition of Perfection
Braeden Ostephuck won the Elite 90 Award this year for Norwich at the Division III men’s ice hockey banquet before championship weekend. Always be weary when tossing around the word ‘perfect’, unless you’re around Braeden.
Ostepchuk, who finished 16-0-0 on the year, has a not-too-shabby 4.0 GPA in Mechanical Engineering. So he’s literally been perfect this whole year. Impressive.
Division III Hockey Matters
This past week, the NY Times had a story on the growing impact of hockey growing within the United States. More kids are getting involved, junior hockey is at its highest talent level and there are too many D-I caliber players, and D. III is getting the benefit of this trend.
“I want to thank all of you for being here to support Division III college ice hockey,” Trinity coach Matt Greason said to the media in his opening statement on Friday. We went on to thank Utica for their work in hosting the Frozen Four and the community support. “We couldn’t have great events like this without the help of a lot of people, so I want to thank them for that.
In the story you can read here, Air Force’s coach Frank Serratore said “There are more Division I quality players than lockers available.”
With the amount of D. I programs remaining stagnant at 60, the amount of USA hockey players has increased 24 percent, which means the trickle down to Div. III has created less disparity between the two.
American International College coach Eric Lang, who formerly coached at Manhattanville, even said “The real beneficiary is Division III.”
We can all agree on that, right?
Short on Shorthanded
Norwich finished as one of two teams in Division III this year without a shorthanded goal. The only other team? Finlandia. Yes, 0-25-0 Finlandia, and national champion Norwich were the only two teams without a shorthanded goal. Go figure.
A Last Farewell
17 Seniors played their last collegiate hockey game on Saturday, with ten from Norwich and seven from Trinity.
“They’ve done a lot of little things behind the scenes,” said Norwich head coach Mike McShane. “They’re leaders on campus and they’ve improved each year."
“It's just a special group, Too many to number," Trinity head coach Matt Greason said when asked what he would remember about his seniors. "It’s the best senior class in the history of the college. I’m gonna miss these guys. Coming to work with them every day, it’s the best part of being a hockey coach.”
For some, they’ll have the chance to play at the next level in semi-professional leagues in the United States, Canada, or overseas. For others, it’s the beginning to the real world, as it will be for Trinity's Ethan Holdaway.
“Ethan is going to be an investment banker in a few months, and he’s going to make a hell of a lot more money than I am,” Greason said. “He just played 100 hockey games, went to three NCAA tournament games in a row, won two NESCAC regular season championships, two NESCAC [conference] championships, two Frozen Fours, and a national championship. Are you kidding me? Find something better than that.”
Congrats to all of the upcoming graduates.
Speed, Speed, and More Speed
Norwich used their speed to get by the physically intimidating Adrian Bulldogs on Friday night. Despite their smaller frame, they danced around Adrian and found their way against a like-minded team in Trinity.
“That’s what we got. We have a lot of speed. We have a bigger-sized rink at Norwich,” Mike McShane said. “So when we recruit kids, we do try and emphasize that we play a fast game.”
“You’ll get a scoring chance, and then they’ll have three guys hunting on a 3-on-2 and you’re trying to get back figuring out how the heck that happened," Trinity head coach Matt Greason said. "They’re always looking to attack. They use their speed unbelievably well.”
Speed kills. And Norwich had plenty of it.
Two of A Kind
All year Norwich coach Mike McShane has rotated a pair of goalies in net with junior Braeden Ostepchuk and senior Ty Reicenbach. On Friday, McShane started Braeden Ostepchuk who finished his season 16-0-0. On Saturday, McShane stuck true with his rotation as senior Ty Reichenbach got the nod and didn’t disappoint.
“I do it because they make me; They’re good! I’m an old-school guy, but they’re both great. They were concerned early on in the year, but they bought into it," McShane said.
Leave Nothing Behind
Norwich had so much success this year in their own rink, they wanted to bring every part of that atmosphere they could to Utica.
“We’ve got a sign that’s above the brick as we leave to go on the ice that says ‘Leave nothing behind’," McShane said. "We took it down and we brought it with us; it’s in the locker room. That’s a signature. They were determined not to leave anything behind."
Leave nothing behind. Not even the signs.
Norwich became the first team to win the national title while only suffering a single loss since… Norwich in the 2009-10 season.
This is the first time since 2007, when Oswego State defeated Middlebury, that there hasn’t been a West team in the National Championship game. From 2011-2016, Trinity was the only East team from the six champions to be from the East. With the East winning two out of the past three titles, the tide may be shifting back over in favor of the Atlantic Coast.
Matt Greason, Press Conference Scholar
When asked about his reaction to this year’s final being the first in 10 years to feature a pair of teams from the East, Greason had an interesting response.
“The thing i love about the press conferences the most is I always learn something new,” Trinity coach Matt Greason said. “I’m always getting better at these press conferences.”
Greason also gave our very own Ray Biggs a shout-out for being a stats czar.