By Shane Frederick
The Frozen Four is supposed to be a coast-to-coast celebration, with all of College Hockey Nation coming together to see a champion crowned.
In 2005, though, the WCHA had its own private party in Columbus, Ohio — perhaps to the dismay of the rest of the country.
The midway point of the first decade of the 2000s was a pinnacle for the WCHA, as the final four teams still alive at season's end all hailed from the storied conference. It was the first time in NCAA history — in any sport — that all of the national-tournament semifinalists came from the same conference.
Denver won the championship, defeating North Dakota 4-1 in the final. Colorado College and Minnesota were the other two teams in Columbus.
The WCHA was the king of college hockey.
"That was a crowning achievement," then-Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
Lucia's Gophers were the last of the four teams to qualify for the Frozen Four that year. Prior to their regional final game, Lucia said, he received a call from the WCHA commissioner. It wasn't just a wish of good luck.
"Bruce McLeod called me and said, 'The pressure's on,'" Lucia recalled with a laugh.
Minnesota indeed came through, but the Gophers needed overtime to get past Cornell, 2-1, and make it a WCHA foursome.
The decade lasting from 2000 to 2010 was indeed a heyday for the WCHA in terms of growth, talent and popularity. Denver's 2005 championship was the second in a row for the Pioneers. That followed two straight national titles by Minnesota. Wisconsin won the 2006 crown to make it five in a row for the WCHA.
"It seemed like everybody had it going at that time," Lucia said. "There was a real commitment to the league. Recruits wanted to play in the league. The passion of the fans seemed to be at a zenith."
Then-Denver coach George Gwozdecky agreed.
"There's no question that decade between 2000 and 2010 was as competitive as I ever coached in," said Gwozdecky, a three-time WCHA Coach of the Year and 2005 Spencer Penrose Award winner as the country's top coach. "There were no easy games on your conference schedule."
Gwozdecky laughed as he recalled offseasons in which he and his staff set out to put together a challenging non-conference schedule, taking on top teams from the east, and later regretting the plan because the WCHA schedule was such a grind.
"There were so many memorable rivalries and memorable games," he said. "Games were fatiguing and exhausting. There was always something unique and different, whether it was at home or on the road. We had longtime rivalries with CC, North Dakota and Minnesota, but some of the very memorable games didn't even occur against our archrivals."
Case in point: a 8-7 loss at Minnesota State in 2003 in which the Mavericks erased a 7-1 deficit over the game's final 32 minutes. The Mavericks would go on to win just 10 games that season, while the Pioneers captured the national title.
Besides the five championships, WCHA teams took second in the nation three times (North Dakota in 2001 and '05 and Wisconsin in '10) and, in all, 14 teams made it to the Frozen Four. Only once in those 10 years did a Frozen Four take place without a WCHA representative.
"How good the WCHA was and how dominant it was in that era was a little bit like what the SEC is now in football," Gwozdecky said. "It was one notch above everybody else, and when those teams would get together and go against each other in the regular season or in the postseason, it was special. It was really special."
Minnesota started the run of national titles right in its backyard with a 4-3 overtime victory over Maine in St. Paul, Minn., with Grant Potulny (now a WCHA head coach at Northern Michigan) scoring the game-winner. A year later, the Gophers beat New Hampshire, 5-1, in Buffalo, N.Y. There were still overtime heroics, as Thomas Vanek scored to knock off Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinals.
Denver edged Maine 1-0 in Boston the following year, as goalie Adam Berkhoel got the shutout and Gabe Gauthier scored the lone goal. The Pioneers had to beat WCHA foe Minnesota Duluth in the semis.
Denver pulled off the trifecta in 2005, winning the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champion (sharing it with Colorado College), the Broadmoor Trophy as the conference's postseason winner and the national title.
The Pioneers defeated North Dakota, 2-1, in the Final Five semifinals on a Gauthier overtime goal and then goaltender Peter Mannino shut out Colorado College, 1-0, in the championship game. Three weeks later in the Frozen Four, Denver played its two biggest rivals again but got to breathe a little easier in the process, beating CC, 6-2, in the Frozen Four semifinals and North Dakota, 4-1, for the national championship.
"The rivalries," Gwozdecky said. "We had the geographic one with CC, but we developed a strong one with UND in the 2000s. You respected them but wanted to beat them so bad. That rivalry was unique. I never experienced anything else like that in all my years coaching at the collegiate level. It bordered on hatred. It was like that on the ice; I don't think it was like that off the ice … We had a lot of respect for Hak [UND coach Dave Hakstol] and his staff. But it was intense."
North Dakota knocked off one of its main rivals to get to the final, defeating Minnesota, 4-2.
"The coaches were really good," Lucia said. "We all got along, but we were as competitive as hell."
Wisconsin, led by coach Mike Eaves and goaltender Brian Elliott, carried the mantle for the WCHA, in 2006, defeating Boston College 2-1 just down the road with the Frozen Four in Milwaukee.
Denver won three MacNaughton Cups during the decade ('02, '05, '10) and three Broadmoor Trophies ('02, '05 '08) before big crowds at Final Five in St. Paul. North Dakota also won three MacNaughton Cups ('01, '04, '00) and two Broadmoors. Minnesota captured two MacNaughtons ('06, '07) and three Broadmoors ('03, '04, '07), while Colorado College won three regular-season titles ('03, '05, '08). St. Cloud State ('01) and Minnesota Duluth ('09) also won playoff titles.
Seven winners of the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to college hockey's top player, came from the WCHA in that decade: Minnesota defenseman Jordan Leopold, Colorado College forward Peter Sejna, Minnesota Duluth forward Junior Lessard, CC forward Marty Sertich, Denver defenseman Matt Carle, North Dakota forward Ryan Duncan and Wisconsin forward Blake Geoffrion.
There were also players who would go on to become household names in the NHL: North Dakota's Jonathan Toews, Zach Parsie and T.J. Oshie; Wisconsin's Joe Pavelski Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh; Minnesota's Thomas Vanek, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel; Denver's Paul Stastny; Minnesota Duluth's Matt Niskanen; and Minnesota State's David Backes — just to name a few.
"Every team had their gamebreakers," said Gwozdecky, who coached the Pioneers for 19 seasons. "Some didn't have as distinguished a professional career as they had in college … but they certainly left their legacy in the WCHA, that's for sure."
For anyone who followed the WCHA, 2000-1 to 2009-10 was a special time to be a college hockey fan.
"It was so competitive," Lucia said. "It was such a fun league to be part of. … I'm really glad I got to coach at that time and be part of it."