By Shane Frederick
As great as WCHA teams and players were on the national stage between 2000 and 2010, it was their own stage that often stole the show.
In 2000, the Minnesota Wild officially began play in the National Hockey League. Their home arena, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., also opened
that year. It was quickly praised as an ideal hockey arena, one of the best of its kind in North America.
Besides housing the Wild and the famed Minnesota state boys hockey tournament, the X also became the perfect home for the WCHA's postseason tournament, the Final Five, which was played there for 13 consecutive years and 14 in all between 2000 and 2015.
"It was the best tournament in college hockey at that time," former Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "It was a letdown to go to the NCAA regionals a week later, going from crowds of 19,000 to 1,500."
In 2007, a record 88,900 people packed the X over three nights for the Final Five, and the championship game, played before a record crowd of 19,463, was treated to one of the greatest finishes of a game in WCHA history.
Lucia's Gophers and rival North Dakota were deadlocked at 2-2 after regulation. A little more than three minutes into overtime, Minnesota's Jay Barriball stole the puck and tried to hit teammate Blake Wheeler with a long stretch pass up the middle of the rink.
Barriball appeared to overshoot Wheeler, but the lanky, 6-5 forward dived to the ice, seemingly to prevent an icing. Sliding across the ice past a UND defenseman, Wheeler took a one-handed swipe and somehow popped the puck over goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux's glove and into the net for the Broadmoor Trophy victory.
While the St. Paul crowd certainly had more than its fair share of Gophers fans, being just a few miles down the road from the University of Minnesota, it was full of fans from all of the WCHA schools. St. Paulites often observed the invasion of North Dakota fans, who descended upon Minnesota's capital city every March for the popular tournament.
"The Final Five is what really made the league special," Lucia said. "That was the heyday. Looking up into the seats and seeing the jerseys of all the teams, it was a destination. It didn't matter if you were a Tech fan or a Mankato fan or a Gopher fan."
Although some fans did decry the potential of the Gophers having home-ice advantage at the X, the Final Five truly became bigger than just one team.
"It became such a huge event, whether Minnesota was there or not, whether Minnesota had a good year or not," said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, whose team won three conference playoff championships at the X. "It really didn't matter."
Denver won the 2005 Broadmoor Trophy by defeating rival Colorado College 1-0. Even though the two teams hailed from Colorado, there were still more than 16,500 people in the arena.
"It became, in many ways, as good as any national tournament, including the Frozen Four," said Gwozdecky,. "That WCHA Final Five was such a great spectacle for everybody — the players, the coaches, the fans. It could stand on its own."
The WCHA went to its "Final Five" playoff format in 1993. Following a first-round series at home rinks, the remaining five teams went to a single location for a single-elimination tournament. The Final Five rotated between the St. Paul Civic Center and Milwaukee's Bradley Center for six years before going to Minneapolis' Target Center for two years.
Then it moved into the Xcel Energy Center, and officials quickly decided the location needed to be the permanent home.
St. Cloud State won the first championship in the building, beating North Dakota in a 6-5 overtime thriller. UND rallied from three goals down late in the third period to tie the game, but the Huskies' Derek Eastman netted the game-winner at 11:33 of OT.
It was the first of three title games that went to overtime. Minnesota's 2007 victory was next, and then North Dakota knocked off Denver 3-2 in double-OT in 2011 on a Matt Frattin goal.
"I just remember how physical it was (at the Final Five)," Lucia said. "It was for men only. But there were so many moments, so many great games."
The Xcel Energy Center was a special spot for WCHA teams in the Frozen Four, too. Minnesota won the 2002 title there, and Minnesota Duluth won championships there in 2011 and 2018.