“How’s your bracket coming?”
That question could be heard in every office and sports bar this past week as March Madness, also known as the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament, kicked in.
After selection Sunday, college basketball fans studied the odds and bracketology predictions to pick the final winner in the 68-team tournament.
But here in the State of Hockey, March Madness should be about pucks and sticks, not dunks and threes.
The Gophers’ last appearance in the national basketball tournament was in 1997. Bill Clinton was president, the Dow closed the year at 7,908, gas cost $1.22…and you could still shop at Woolworth’s.
Hockey’s doing a little better. Consider the facts in the State of Hockey.
St. Cloud State University’s men’s hockey team has been ranked No. 1 among the country’s 60 Division I hockey programs for most of the season. They captured the Penrose Cup by winning the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. No matter what happens at the NCHC tournament this weekend in St. Paul, the Huskies are headed to the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in 10 years, including one Frozen Four appearance. You can watch the Frozen Four starting April 5 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Minnesota has five Division I men’s teams – SCSU, Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji. Four were rated in the Top 20 this season.
Women’s college hockey is doing pretty well too. The University of Minnesota women were national champs in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. When the Gophers weren’t winning, the Bulldogs were, bringing the national title home to Duluth in 2008 and 2010.
And then there’s the Wild. The team continues to set records for the number of sellouts. Last season, all 41 regular-season home games were sellouts with 34 contests topping 19,000 in attendance.
The past two weekends, the state girls’ and boys’ hockey tournaments filled the X and Ridder Arena with the boy’s attendance rivaling the Wild crowds.
If you couldn’t attend a game in person last weekend, you could easily burn out the batteries in your remote control flipping from the Wild to the high school tournament to the Huskies.
And there’s more.
In January, the St. Cloud area hosted Hockey Day Minnesota. The St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association rounded up more than 250 volunteers for the weekend. Organizers estimated more than 20,000 people attended events on Saturday, Jan. 20, including high school and college games on the rink adjacent to Lake George. The next day, about 1,500 youth hockey players competed in rinks on the lake.
Fans of any sports won’t find a more thrilling contest than the Olympic Gold Medal game won by the USA women’s hockey team in an emotional rematch of the 2014 championship. The Americans beat Canada 3-2 in an overtime shootout. Seven team members were Minnesotans.
A few years ago, a Sports Illustrated writer referred to the National Hockey League as a “niche sport” without much nationwide appeal. That dismissive comment doesn’t explain sold-out arenas far from the frozen north, including the league’s newest expansion team, the division-leading Las Vegas Gold Knights.
So, sports fans, don’t be distracted by the brackets and betting pools. Keep your eyes on the real March Madness here in the State of Hockey.