Sports

UMass-Lowell, Yale, Quinnipiac lead New England contingent at Frozen Four

Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell laughts during a news conference at the university in Hamden, Conn., Tuesday, April 2, 2013. Quinnipiac will face North Dakota in the opening round of the NCAA hockey Frozen Four. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell laughed during a news conference in Hamden, Conn., on Tuesday. (AP)AP

Four Cinderellas. One glass slipper.

Quinnipiac, UMass-Lowell, Yale, and St. Cloud State are the fresh faces in the 2013 Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, which begins Thursday at Consol Energy Center.

Three of the four teams have never made it this far, and Yale’s only other appearance was in 1952, when it lost in the semifinals.

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Since the start of the NCAA Tournament in 1948, New England has failed to send a representative to the final four only eight times.

But 2013 marks just the second time that three squads from New England have made it to the final weekend. The last time was in 1999, when Maine, New Hampshire, and Boston College joined Michigan State, with the Black Bears bringing home the crown.

It is the first time in NCAA Tournament history that the traditional super powers — BC, Boston University, Minnesota, Wisconsin, UNH, Denver, Michigan, Maine, and North Dakota, which have 46 championships between them — have been shut out.

For Lowell, it is the latest accomplishment for a rapidly expanding university.

“All of this visibility gives us an opportunity to tell a much wider audience the story of a growing and advancing institution,’’ said athletic director Dana Skinner. “It is certainly clear that we wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun had we not hired coach Norm Bazin. He has returned to his alma mater and he’s led the institution to certainly what’s been a memorable run, and it’s not finished yet. I can’t say as I’m all that surprised at the success Norm is experiencing; that’s why we hired him. I will admit, though, I never thought this would happen this quickly. It’s certainly been a fast run to the Frozen Four. This is a campus on fire.’’

Lowell chancellor Marty Meehan said he is proud of the hockey team’s accomplishments because when he arrived in 2007, things didn’t look very good for the River Hawks.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about the future of the program,’’ said Meehan. “One of the things I committed to was if we were going to have Division 1 hockey, just as if we were going to have an academic program, we want excellence. If we aren’t going to have excellence, we don’t want to do it. There were some of the UMass Board of Trustees who felt that maybe only Amherst should have a Division 1 hockey team. But when I got here, I was sure we could increase attendance and increase interest in the program, and we have every year. What is great about it is our faculty and our deans understand how achieving excellence in athletics contributes to the academic reputation of the institution. There is a connection. Sometimes people say to me, ‘You’re the luckiest guy in the world.’ I say, ‘The harder we work, the luckier we get.’ Did I expect to be at the Frozen Four now? No, but the coach wants things done a certain way and it’s my job to support him.’’

Meehan said the performance in the classroom by the hockey team rivals its achievements on the ice.

“They have a higher [grade-point average] than any other men’s sport,’’ said Meehan. “So, it really is in line with our mission.’’

As thrilled as Lowell is, there is also plenty of celebrating at the campus of No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac, which also has had a dream season.

“What a magic ride this has been,’’ said athletic director Jack McDonald. “It’s more a Cinderella [story] for the university. The team is a great team, and obviously they’ve held up to their No. 1 ranking very well. But for the [school], it’s been a Cinderella story, no question. I’m thrilled the athletic department can contribute to the phenomenal growth of Quinnipiac.’’

McDonald said Quinnipiac has a special kinship with Yale, which is on the same street (Whitney Avenue) and fewer than 8 miles away.

“This is the BC-BU of New Haven,’’ said McDonald. “We’re probably the exact same distance from each other that BC is from BU. I could say that Yale and Quinnipiac tickets are going to be sold out for the next 10 years. So, it’s really magical, even the thought that Yale and Quinnipiac could be playing for a national championship.’’

Because they are so close, with Yale in New Haven and Quinnipiac in neighboring Hamden, it has caused the relationship to blossom because of the hockey programs.

“The best of friends become the best of rivals and I think that’s what is happening here,’’ said McDonald. “It’s very similar to what you experience in Boston. It’s probably even more special because it’s not as if you have a whole bunch of colleges in New Haven. You’ve only got a couple. In Boston, you have one every other block.’’

In fact, the schools were even closer in 2005-06, when Quinnipiac played its home games at Yale’s Ingalls Rink, and again in the first half of 2006. The Bobcats opened their new rink in January 2007.

This is the first time there have been two ECAC schools in the Frozen Four since 1983.

“We have tremendous respect for Yale and we wouldn’t be in the ECAC without Yale,’’ said McDonald. “We played our first ECAC season, our home games were in Yale’s rink.’’

In the Northeast Regional, Lowell took out Wisconsin and UNH. In the East Regional, Quinnipiac beat Canisius and Union. In the Midwest Regional, St. Cloud State bested Notre Dame and Miami. And in the West Regional, Yale eliminated Minnesota and North Dakota.

“I think the real dynamic for us are our work ethic and our compete level,’’ said Yale coach Keith Allain, whose team will face Lowell in the semifinals. “And you compound that with a team game, which is what we try to play, and I think it makes us a formidable opponent.’’

Yale is the first Ivy League team to make it to the Frozen Four since Cornell in 2003. Allain said it’s a testament to the level of hockey in the Ivies given their unique challenges.

“I think we all feel that Ivy hockey is as good as any Division 1 hockey in the nation,’’ said Allain. “We don’t have any scholarships and our admission standards are a little bit different than everybody else. But our student-athletes are as committed or more committed than anyone anywhere in the country. And we want to compete at the highest level both in our sport and academically.’’

All four teams are carving their own path toward giving their schools the highest achievement in college hockey.

“It’s Cinderella Quinnipiac University, Cinderella ECAC, Cinderella UMass-Lowell, Cinderella St. Cloud, and Cinderella Yale,’’ said McDonald. “It’s very special. It goes to show you the parity in college hockey. Many people are happy at the uniqueness of this Frozen Four. It’s not the dominant powers we’ve seen before. To have three brand-new Frozen Four teams is just a great statement. It’s pretty amazing and I think it’s a great statement for hockey.’’

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