BUFFALO, N.Y. – While rookie defenseman Marc Del Gaizo was shooting in the top right corner of the net, he was helping the UMass Minutemen to take the next and most important step in the history of their program. For university men's hockey, this was another part of the long list of reminders that the landscape is constantly changing.
UMass has never played for a national men's hockey championship. Thanks to the overtime goal of Del Gaizo, it will be Saturday. If the Minutemen were to win their match against Minnesota Duluth (8 pm ET on ESPN2), UMass would become the fourth school to win its first men's hockey championship in the last seven years. UMD, meanwhile, is looking to become the first team since Denver in 2004 and 2005 to win consecutive titles. The Bulldogs also won everything in 2011.
The 2018-2019 season is one of the most striking examples of the increasing parity of university hockey, punctuated by a new team that qualifies for the final (UMass) and a team that has gained a new level of prestige over the past 10 years. years only (UMD).
This season, Arizona State's four-year-old men's team has reached the NCAA tournament for the first time, while American International College has eliminated the St. Cloud State, head of series, in the first round of the tournament. While this was happening, many of the long-established programs – the blue blood of college hockey – have been struggling this season.
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"The most difficult thing in college hockey is to maintain success," said Providence coach Nate Leaman, who led the Brothers to their first national title in 2015 and a qualification for Frozen Four this season. "By building in Providence and building and building, once you win, you continue to believe that the hardest thing is to build it, and keeping it is just as difficult – there are many challenges."
Among the teams that did not even participate in the NCAA tournament were Michigan (nine national championships), North Dakota (eight), Wisconsin (six), Minnesota (five), Boston College (five) and Boston University (five). Denver, which holds eight national titles and won the men's Frozen Four this year, despite the country's fourth team, is the only real power to rank. The turn of events has been astounding given the consistency of these programs.
Another thing that almost all these teams have in common? They were among the youngest men's hockey teams in college. The average age of the BU, 20.6 years, has made Terriers the youngest NCAA team.
Where have all the blue bloods gone?
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University hockey has always been a bit older because this sport is uniquely positioned compared to other NCAA sports that send players to major professional leagues. NHL teams can recruit a player who goes to college and retain his draft rights for as many years as the player remains a student. Once a player has completed his last four years and leaves school, he also has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.
At the same time, the NHL has always distorted its youth. Players' desire to contribute to cheap entry-level agreements has only grown among NHL general managers. Meanwhile, as more and more players use the collective agreement to their advantage and become unrestricted free agents, the pressure felt by NHL teams to get players signed earlier is growing.
This created a landscape not unlike university basketball. In this scenario, UMass is essentially 2018-19 Texas Tech basketball, which is in its first national championship game as many of the programs that dominate the landscape for decades collapse while they rely on players unanimously. In observing this fact, a lot of ink has flowed, some decrying the situation of "basketball" basketball, and others simply wondering if teams should focus more on the players they know to be able to keep, sacrificing long-term instant impact talent. long-term sustainability.
According to College Hockey Inc., which assists the university hockey market in the NCAA-independent market, 31 players who played in the 2017-18 NHL season have played only one year of university hockey. 58 others played two years before signing. The one-to-one-to-one issue is not totally prevalent, but it has a disproportionate impact on historical programs such as the aforementioned sensitive groups, as many of these programs have so long been successful in developing – and to attract – NHL. Talent. They get many of the best players, top players or star players from their respective junior clubs, who are better prepared to enter and make instant contributions to the NCAA.
The frequent turnover of the best programs has allowed other schools that tend to woo less-than-advertised players to win and compete thanks to the stability and experience of its staff.
Minnesota Duluth could be the model program for lasting success. However, it took about a decade to get there.
"We've changed some of the hires in 2008-09, looking for some type of player, and the guys you can count on may have been on the program for four years," said Scott Sandelin, who is looking for his third championship title. national as the head coach of Minnesota Duluth. "We have always recruited players who fit our blue-collar mentality."
Recruitment for typing has paid off for the Bulldogs. They won their first national title in 2011 and now that they have enjoyed sustained success, Sandelin noted that they were able to recruit more high-end players in a more consistent manner.
"We do what we do and we get kids who really want to be part of our program and who have the same mindset as us and we were lucky to take advantage of it," he says. "A lot of the credit goes to the players we recruit."
UMass is a slightly different animal, but the team this season shows the advantage not only of landing elite players, but of convincing them to stay more than one. season.
UMass' Marc Del Gaizo sends a ball to the back of the net in overtime, sending the Minutemen to the NCAA Hockey Championship.
Cale Makar was named fourth overall in 2017 by the Colorado Avalanche. He engaged with Minutemen under a different coaching staff, but kept his word to go to school there. After a good first-year season, he was lucky enough to leave for the pros, but chose to stay because he felt he needed more development time.
"From the beginning, my goal was to go play college for two years," said Makar. "I wanted to work on some things and I really thought our team could succeed this year."
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The UMass hockey team has gone from being an eternal loser to one of the best in the country. How? Meet the talented two-way defender Cale Makar.
Now 20, the 20-year-old won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award on Friday as the most outstanding player in college hockey and has helped lift UMass to new heights. He should sign with Colorado shortly after the end of his season and could even be in the Avalanche formation in their first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames.
His presence helped UMass – who only won five games in 2016-17 before the arrival of Makar – to reach new heights never reached before. The Minutemen are now on the brink of a national title. There are many examples showing that getting elite players can go a long way, but there must also be a balance, which is evident with this year's UMass team that is young. but not too young.
"We are getting UMass kids who are not kids of gold," said third-year head coach Greg Carvel, about his Minutemen. "They had a tougher road and they have a chip on the shoulder.We love kids like that.They are competing."
Del Gaizo is one of these players. He was not transformed last season while he was the year defender of the United States Hockey League. He arrived at UMass and was an instant contributor playing alongside Makar, going from unannounced rookie to Frozen Four hero.
Time will tell where UMass is going because some of this year's team players could leave earlier. This is a problem that the school has not had to face too often, but the Minutemen could experience some of the same difficulties as the more established programs of the season.
The biggest challenge nowadays seems to be retaining the players. The more successful your team is, the more searched your players are. University hockey also has the unique problem of not only worrying about early NHL departures, but also avoiding losing recruits in Canada's junior major leagues, where players lose their eligibility for the NHL. NCAA. But the fact that more and more university players are signing agreements in the NHL only highlights the growth and legitimacy of university hockey as a development pathway to reach the NHL.
A record 325 former NCAA players took part in NHL games in the 2018-19 regular season, according to College Hockey Inc., which represents one-third of the entire NHL. These are not just the selected players, as 56% of the NHL's untrained players are from the university ranks, having signed up as stand-alone players.
As these numbers continue to grow – which seems to be a tendency to trend – there could be more and more situations in which players jump early. It will also allow university hockey to continue to attract top talent, as players see more clearly the path that separates them from the NCAA to the NHL, while players such as Jack Eichel, Brock Boeser, Dylan Larkin , Zach Werenski and so many continue to win the title. by the storm.
"We have children who come to UMass and who are not gold children.They have had a harder road and they have a chip on the shoulder.We like children like They're competing. "
UMass head coach Greg Carvel
Meanwhile, parity will prevail in college hockey in the near future. This is not necessarily the worst thing. More and more schools feel that they can now compete and are more willing to invest in their programs to keep pace.
"You see more and more teams continuing to improve and grow," Sandelin said. "Even the teams that are not here – the ones everyone is talking about – will be back," he adds, citing the historic powers that have weakened this season.
"You're going to have cycles, I think there's so much parity, good coaches, that college hockey is really in a very good position."