They will hang another banner in Duluth. The hockey-loving folks Up North along the shore are getting used to this championship stuff.
Minnesota Duluth is king of men’s college hockey. Again.
For the second time eight years, the Bulldogs are national champions. The last at-large team added to the NCAA tournament field became the last team standing Saturday night with a 2-1 victory over Notre Dame in wonderfully tense, physical and fast-paced finale at Xcel Energy Center.
Take a bow, coach Scott Sandelin and your Bulldogs program. You have become college hockey royalty, with two national titles and three championship game appearances since 2011.
That achievement stands as further undeniable proof that the landscape has changed in college hockey and for Gophers hockey in particular as that program begins the Bob Motzko era.
Two powerhouse programs reside in the state of Minnesota. The Gophers remain a blue-blood in terms of facilities, resources and visibility. But the UMD Bulldogs don’t take a back seat to anyone in pursuing championships right now.
“We’ve had a good run here,” Sandelin said.
Make that a defining run. Winning a national championship changes the perception of a program. It brings exposure, builds confidence internally and provides an attractive sales pitch to recruits. The Bulldogs also moved into a new facility during their 2011 championship season.
“[The first title] put us on the map,” Sandelin said. “But you can’t get lazy with it. You’ve got to keep working.”
Sandelin isn’t one for complacency. His staff recruits players that fit their program, which is easier to do with a championship pedigree but also with the understanding that the entire sport has evolved.
Don Lucia often referenced the parity that exists in college hockey nowadays. His detractors viewed that as excuse-making, but it’s the truth. The talent pool is spread more evenly throughout the 60 Division I programs than previously.
Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik believes the biggest reason is a relatively new trend of recruiting kids as young as 13. That’s created opportunities for programs that hustle in recruiting to establish stronger relationships with elite prospects.
“That’s a big part of why you see teams starting to even out across the country,” Rohlik said. “There’s no off switch. You’ve got to go, and if you don’t, you’re going to get passed up.”
Sandelin has his foot on the gas and isn’t letting up, 18 years on the job. This marked UMD’s fourth consecutive trip to the tournament and its fourth Frozen Four appearance under Sandelin.
Here’s the most impressive part: Sandelin led a veteran team to the championship game last season and then made it back again this season despite losing 10 players to graduation or the pros.
That’s the mark of a healthy, stable program. National title game appearances in consecutive seasons with two vastly different teams in personnel doesn’t happen without a solid foundation.
“It just tells you how great of a program this is,” sophomore forward Riley Tufte said. “It’s on the rise.”
Sandelin joked that coaches “live year to year.” He knows things can change quickly with players leaving for the NHL, injuries or just natural cycles within the sport.
UMD’s lineup Saturday included 13 underclassmen, including five freshmen on defense. Let’s repeat that for emphasis: a national title with five freshmen on defense.
“Everyone said this was going to be a rebuilding year,” freshman defenseman Louie Roehl said. “We said, ‘Why rebuild when you can go right back to the national title game?’ ”
Sure, why not? The Bulldogs survived some tough spots early in the season before finding their footing. They needed some help to make the tournament but then took advantage behind a tough, spirited group.
Back in 2011, Tufte watched the Bulldogs win the national title on TV at his friend’s house. A new crop of aspiring hockey players throughout Minnesota did the same thing last year and again Saturday.
“It’s awesome for young kids to get to see Duluth,” Tufte said. “We’re standing pretty good right now.”
They are standing tall, as national champs again. The view must look nice up there.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org