On Saturday night in Tampa, Florida, North Dakota defeated the Quinnipiac Bobcats 5-1 to claim the program’s eighth Division I men’s ice hockey national championship (first since 2000). That victory ended years of near misses on college hockey’s biggest stage, including eight frustrating appearances in the NCAA Frozen Four with just two wins to show for them (semifinal victories in 2001 and 2005).
But on the other side of that coin, is it really reasonable to claim that a team hoisting an eighth title “finally got the monkey off their back”? As Twitterer @Kirkacola points out, it sounds like a headline from “The Onion”. Part of that mindset is fueled by a fan base that has come to expect a championship-caliber team every season. A closer look at the last two decades might reveal why that is. Let’s turn the clock back twenty years…
March 2nd, 1996. Game two of a WCHA home playoff series against Wisconsin (one night earlier, the Badgers won 6-5 in OT). North Dakota netminder Toby Kvalevog lets a puck dribble past him late in the second overtime. A collective gasp from the hometown fans, and another disappointing season in the books. UND finishes the year at 19-18-1 and misses the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive time.
Exactly eight months later….
November 2nd, 1996. The Fighting Sioux finish off a home sweep of Northern Michigan to bring their record to a perfect 6-0 (with earlier sweeps of Denver and Michigan Tech). I distinctly remember standing with my group of friends among the green and white seats at the old Ralph Engelstad Arena, looking up at the pieces of fabric in the rafters, and saying (almost incredulously), “This could be a banner year.”
Not only would that 1996-97 squad come out of nowhere to win 31 games and capture the WCHA regular season and playoff titles, but Dean Blais would take that team all the way to a national championship in his third season behind the Fighting Sioux bench.
That season kicked off an incredible two-decade run of success. Over the past twenty campaigns, UND has averaged over 27 wins per year against 11 losses and 4 ties.
North Dakota fans have had to endure only one down year in that entire stretch: a 16-19-2 (.459) record in 2001-02. That season also marked the last time that a North Dakota men’s hockey team failed to advance past the first weekend of the league playoffs or earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.
UND has such a loyal and dedicated fan following (at home and on the road) because the coaches and players have created a tradition of excellence. After all, it is much easier to renew season tickets when the team on the ice continues to win games and hang banners. North Dakota enjoys such a large and vocal crowd in the Twin Cities each March because fans circle the dates on their calendars and have come to expect (and rightly so) that the Green and White will advance to the second weekend of the league playoff tournament. This passion is contagious, and every year brings more and more supporters into the mix as new players and coaches write their names and accomplishments in the history books.
The 2015-16 edition of University of North Dakota hockey won 34 games while earning the NCHC regular season title and the program’s eighth national title. First-year head coach Brad Berry guided the team to the program’s 14th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance (the longest active streak in Division I men’s college hockey). UND’s seniors finished with a career record of 110-43-17, the 11th consecutive recruiting class to notch at least 100 wins. North Dakota’s juniors have already collected 88 victories (against 30 losses and 10 ties).
It remains to be seen what Brad Berry and the newly-minted Fighting Hawks will be able to achieve in the future, but this year’s roster added their accomplishments to an impressive and ongoing tradition of excellence. Here’s the full resume for the past twenty seasons:
Combined record: 548-228-76 (.688), including 7 thirty-win seasons
(1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2011, 2016)
9 regular season league titles
(1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2016)
6 WCHA Final Five/NCHC Frozen Faceoff titles
(1997, 2000, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012)
14 consecutive WCHA Final Five/NCHC Frozen Faceoff appearances
(active streak; 2003-2016)
19 NCAA tournament appearances
(every season except 2002)
14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances
(active streak; 2003-2016)
11 NCAA Frozen Four appearances
(1997, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016)
5 NCAA championship game appearances
(1997, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2016)
3 NCAA titles (1997, 2000, 2016)
As always, thank you for reading. I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Follow me on Twitter (@DBergerHockey) for more information and insight. Here’s to hockey!