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Gans: Don’t forget to tune in to the Frozen Four (Mar. 30)

Sam Gans | Friday, March 30, 2012

One of the most exciting annual events on the sports calendar takes place next weekend.

And chances are, almost none of you will watch it.

The Frozen Four of the men’s NCAA hockey tournament commences in not-so-frozen Tampa, Fla., next Thursday night with two semifinal games, followed by the national championship two days later.

Playoff hockey at every level is more than exhilarating, and college hockey is no exception. After a weekend of twelve intense contests in four regionals, the tournament field has been whittled from 16 to four for what should provide some of the best hockey yet in the season’s final three games.

The Frozen Four is typically filled with great moments, as was the case last year. As many might remember, Minnesota-Duluth edged Notre Dame by a goal in the semifinals, while Michigan just hung on to defeat North Dakota in the other game that was in doubt until a late empty-net goal. And in the finale, overtime was needed as the Bulldogs defeated the Wolverines to win their first-ever national championship.

In fact, two of the past three national championship games have gone to overtime: last year’s and the 2009 title game between Miami and Boston University. That instant classic provided a remarkable finish when the RedHawks were up 3-1 on the Terriers with less than one minute left in regulation … and lost. Overall, it has taken more than 60 minutes to decide the national champion seven of the past 16 seasons.

And if there is one thing in this world more exciting than playoff hockey, it’s overtime playoff hockey.

There have been some duds of Frozen Fours in the past, such as 2010, when the closest of the three games was decided by five goals. But that is the exception, not the rule.

And the storylines this season just add to the intrigue.

In one semifinal, there is Boston College and Minnesota, two powerhouse programs that have combined for nine national championships. On the other side of the bracket, you have newcomers Ferris State and Union, each making its first-ever appearance in the Frozen Four, with a combined total of five NCAA tournament wins in their histories.

In a way, it is similar to last year’s men’s basketball Final Four, with juggernauts Kentucky and Connecticut matching in one semifinal and Cinderellas VCU and Butler in the other. Except unlike the basketball tournament, with No. 3, No. 4, No. 8 and No. 11 seeds competing, these four teams might actually be the best four teams in America.

Boston College is the tournament’s top overall seed and Union also earned a No. 1 seed, while Minnesota and Ferris State were awarded No. 2 seeds. All four squads won their respective conferences in the regular season. So even though the Bulldogs and Dutchmen don’t have the name recognition of the Eagles and Gophers, they have proven their ability on the ice this year.

College hockey is a niche sport and one that I really did not appreciate until attending this university and covering Irish hockey. While Notre Dame has good student support for its hockey team, it does not extend to national interest, especially after the Irish did not qualify for the NCAA tournament this season. Therefore, it is quite easy for many to overlook the Frozen Four.

Doing so would be a mistake. The excitement of playoff hockey, the illustrious history of Frozen Four’s past and the unique story of two elite, small-name teams competing with two historically dominant programs for the ultimate prize will combine for incredible sporting drama.

Hopefully, you choose to tune in.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.