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Persistence pays off for Robert Morris in landing Frozen Four

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 11:40 p.m.

The four accomplished teams that reach the NCAA men's ice hockey championships at Consol Energy Center will have survived the grind of a long, tough season. But next month's event, better known as the Frozen Four, took much longer than that to get there.

The seeds were planted long before Robert Morris University — with considerable help — secured the bid three years ago to bring the Frozen Four to Pittsburgh and serve as the host institution.

The process began in 2003 when RMU added Division I men's hockey and hired Derek Schooley as coach. Not long afterward, Schooley and athletic department officials attended a Penguins game at Mellon Arena. It was there that Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications, floated the idea of RMU hosting the Frozen Four, which had become a major happening since its inception in 1948.

Aging and outdated, Mellon Arena was unsuited for a Frozen Four. A new Penguins facility was basically a dream. Still, Schooley, who had yet to coach a game for the Colonials, embraced the notion. The others had doubts.

“I thought, ‘I don't know about that,' ” recalled Marty Galosi, RMU's associate athletic director for marketing and sales. “We hadn't even dropped the puck on the first season, so to consider doing something like that was pretty far-fetched at the time. But things change, times change.”

The biggest change was the arena. After funding for a new Penguins facility was passed in March 2007, the Frozen Four notion took a giant leap forward. The Penguins threw the weight of the arena and their name behind RMU, and the tourist promotion agency VisitPittsburgh and other entities joined in.

“Things really started spinning,” Schooley said.

“We put the bid together as a team,” VisitPittsburgh CEO Craig Davis said. “Robert Morris showed all the responsibility and really stepped up.”

RMU president Greg Dell'Omo said he considered the idea “interesting and intriguing.” But, he added, “There were a lot of unknowns.”

Bidding for the Frozen Four is an arduous, complicated process that requires extensive time and energy. But school officials saw far more pros than cons, especially after Galosi attended a Frozen Four in Denver and experienced the scope of the event.

“It's a whole different brand of hockey,” he said.

“If the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh are all behind this effort, why not?” said Dell'Omo. “Let's give it a shot. We've got nothing to lose.”

RMU sent representatives to subsequent Frozen Fours, not only to observe but also to push its name. Galosi said the number of cities that were bidding posed a concern but added he was comfortable with the bid package and the partners.

“We stayed visible,” he said.

“The sense at RMU was, “We're a hockey town, we're a budding hockey program, let's go for it,” athletic director Craig Coleman said. “We were in a unique position to bring a national championship to Pittsburgh. We feel like we're part of a growing hockey community, and we wanted to do something big to draw attention to that.”

After what Coleman described as “several intense months,” RMU submitted the bid in February 2010. The good news came in July.

The bid process was “fairly large and lengthy, the specifications and the requirements and the forms,” Galosi said. “You have to give a lot of background. Financial arrangements, a budget, letters of commitment, whether it's from the governor, Atlantic Hockey (RMU's conference), the county, the mayor. Just a whole lot of people getting behind us and backing our bid.”

The Penguins, who avidly promote area hockey at all levels, were instrumental. For several years the club has invited the RMU hockey team to play in its building.

“I can't overstate the wonderful relationship we have with them,” Dell'Omo said.

“Without the arena, this isn't happening,” said Coleman. “They were amazingly generous with their personnel support and moral support and working with the NHL on scheduling.”

Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse said the pitch for a new arena included using it for purposes other than the club's games. That this was a hockey event made it even more appealing.

“It was borne from a casual conversation, but it fit everything we'd been thinking about,” he said. “Hockey in general was becoming more popular. The arena was the linchpin to bring big events here.”

Hosting the Frozen Four never occurred to Ed Nicholson when he expanded RMU sports. In fact, he said, “I didn't know anything about sports.” But as RMU president, Nicholson understood what athletics could mean in the context of an entire university.

Amid cutbacks elsewhere, Nicholson added six sports, including men and women's Division I hockey. The men would start right away; RMU already had a successful club team.

“It was part of a larger strategy to build the university, to recruit students from a wider geographic range, to be able to get much more attention from the press and build a reputation,” said Nicholson, who stepped down as president in 2005 and teaches a management course at RMU.

“One of the advantages is that we were a small school that played Division I sports, and there was no Division I hockey team in Pittsburgh,” he said. “If we went in that direction, it was certainly going to give us some attention.”

Just as Consol was key to landing the Frozen Four, RMU's purchase of the Island Sports Center, which it previously had rented, made the big hockey plans feasible.

“There was really wasn't the ability to field a Division I hockey program unless we controlled the ice,” said Nicholson, under whose reign RMU also built a new football stadium.

Not all the new sports and even some of the older ones were well funded. Schooley showed up for work at an empty desk with just a telephone and no computer. But RMU, which had dropped all of its two-year associate degree programs and was transitioning into a university that offered more than business courses, needed to publicly redefine itself.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter at B_Cohn@Trib.

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