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Small schools routinely make big splash in NCAA hockey tournament

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The stunning and feel-good success of Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA basketball tournament is a compelling story. But in Division I men's hockey, this kind of Cinderella/giant-killer/little-engine-that-could tale (choose your metaphor) not only is common but also expected.

Boston College, Wisconsin, Michigan and a few others remain the big kids on the block. But so-called little guys like Quinnipiac and Bemidji State also have a chance. In D-I hockey, you can find Union College and Ferris State cracking the Frozen Four (2012) and Minnesota-Duluth winning it all (2011).

These are among the several schools where athletic programs compete in Division II or III for all sports except hockey. For nine straight years, at least one of these presumed smaller teams has made the NCAA Tournament. As 16 teams face off Friday and Saturday to reach next month's Frozen Four at Consol Energy Center, this year's tournament includes Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Massachusetts-Lowell and Union, which is making its second straight appearance.

Meanwhile, Michigan did not make it for the first time since 1990, and Michigan State, the 2007 national champion, also is absent.

Until Big Ten Hockey starts next season, all D-I hockey teams compete in their own unique conferences separate from their schools' basketball and football affiliations. Most, like No. 1 Quinnipiac, Boston University, Miami (Ohio), North Dakota and other top programs that are D-I in other sports represent schools that do not play in the so-called power conferences.

In this year's NCAA tournament, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Boston College and Notre Dame are the only ones who do.

So you don't have to be big to be good.

“You see it in basketball every once in awhile, but in hockey you see it often,” said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin, whose club earned a No. 1 seed. “That's what makes it the most exciting sport in college. ... A lot of teams that can play with anyone.”

Part of that is a numbers game. Only 59 hockey teams compete at the D-I level — and more than a quarter get into the NCAA tournament.

“There's not a lot of schools,” Rensselaer Institute of Technology athletic director Jim Knowlton said. “I think big schools can have some innate advantages, but there are a lot of hockey players out there.”

“There are a lot of excellent recruiters with good eyes,” added Union coach Rick Bennett. “These days, with the Internet, there's a lot of information you can pick up.”

The ice is furhter leveleld by hockey's intense and passionate following.

“There's a commitment by the fans and the institutions,” St. Cloud State AD Heather Weems said. “That sets the tone and enables success. The schools that play Division I hockey are really committed to the sport.”

In Minnesota and elsewhere, “the population bleeds hockey,” Weems said. That raises interest, the competition level, of course, dollars. Programs have corporate sponsors and fiercely dedicated booster groups.

“That really helps,” Bennett said. “They generate a lot of money.”

Hockey, which is considered a revenue sport, gets more bang for the buck at some places.

“If you're gonna go all in on something, hockey's the way to do it,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Peckhold said. “We don't have a ton of sports. We don't have a lot of teams. We're not spread thin as an athletic department. We don't have football. I think this helps some of these schools, not putting all of their resources in one place.”

Hockey might be a wise investment, but don't expect more D-II and D-III programs to “play up” to D-I hockey. NCAA rules now require athletic departments to move up all of their sports.

Peckhold, meanwhile, had a simple explanation for the ability of smaller schools to compete: Goalies.

“The biggest equalizer in the game of hockey,” he said. “Goaltenders are extremely difficult to evaluate in the recruiting process. You see a kid overlooked, and the next thing you know he's phenomenal.”

Peckhold cited his own goalie, Erik Hartzell, as an example. Peckhold calls him “one of the best players in college hockey.” A senior, Hartzell came out of White Bear Lake, Minn., and somehow slipped through the cracks in the surrounding tundra.

“Five Minnesota Division I hockey schools and they all passed on him,” Peckhold said. “We took him and we developed him, and he's carried us this year.”

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