1990s – Frozen Four Rebrand and Rise of U.S. Women’s College Hockey

Previous: 1980s – Miracle on Ice

In the 1990s, the NCAA Division I men’s national hockey tournament became the second highest revenue-producing tournament within the NCAA behind only the March Madness of men’s basketball. Large crowds packed the big arenas during the semi-finals and championship game. It could also be watched at-home on cable TV through ESPN. In 1999, the NCAA officially rebranded the final weekend of the tournament as the Frozen Four, mimicking the NCAA basketball’s Final Four. This included the semi-finals and championship game. The Frozen Four moniker had been used throughout college hockey circles for years prior to 1999. In fact, ESPN’s Steve Levy referenced it at the beginning of the telecast of the Michigan and New Hampshire semifinal game in 1998. But it didn’t become official until 1999. This term caught on and still stands to this day with many fans incorrectly believing this is the name that’s been in use since day one. Not only is the Frozen Four a great experience for the spectators, but it also is a hotbed for NHL scouts hoping to get a closer look at the leaders and skill players that carried their teams that far in the tournament. The root of all of this began in the 1990s.

Marcus Gustafsson of Maine reacts to his championship-clinching goal in overtime against New Hampshire April 3, 1999.
The first championship game under the official Frozen Four rebrand was a thrilling 3-2 overtime win for Maine against New Hampshire.

A new men’s Division I hockey conference called College Hockey America joined the fold in 1999. It began with three teams that were previously in Division II: University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), Bemidji State University and University of Findlay. Three independent teams joined as well: United States Air Force Academy, United States Military Academy (Army) and Niagara University. Wayne State University was an inaugural member of the conference when it introduced Division I hockey at their school. The conference was granted an automatic bid to the NCAA conference in 2003 so their conference tournament champion was guaranteed a chance at the trophy from then on. The most successful team throughout the conference’s history was Bemidji State in 2009 when the team went to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., as a four seed.

Three Division I men’s hockey programs stood out throughout the 1990s when they combined to win six of the ten championships during the decade. Lake Superior State University, University of Maine and Michigan all won two championships yet none were back to back. Many consider the 1993 Maine Black Bears to be the most dominant collegiate hockey team to ever play the game. The team went 41-1-2 on the season with their lone loss coming in a 7-6 overtime game against Boston University. The team was led by freshman Paul Kariya who scored an astounding 100 points throughout the season. Kariya was awarded the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman that season and ultimately left for the Canadian national team partway through his sophomore year. He was drafted fourth overall in 1993 and decided to turn pro instead of returning to college the following season. Later in the decade, an interesting note about the 1999 Frozen Four was that three of the four teams were from Hockey East. Maine defeated its conference-rival New Hampshire 3-2 in overtime.

The men’s Division I national tournament format changed in 1992. The field was still set at 12 teams but it became a complete single-elimination tournament. There would no longer be a best-of-three series within the tournament. While it’s not an official reason, this change – in theory – would create more chances for upsets to occur. It also allowed the NCAA to create two neutral-site Regionals for the first two rounds as a set of mini-tournaments to get into the Frozen Four.

The American Women’s College Hockey Alliance (AWCHA) was formed in 1997 as a program funded by the U.S. Olympic Committee and NCAA. The purpose was to develop women’s varsity hockey teams at colleges and promote women’s ice hockey throughout the NCAA. In 1998, the AWCA crowned the first women’s hockey national champion when New Hampshire defeated Brown 4-1 in the championship game. Harvard and Minnesota would win the following championships, respectively, before the AWCA relinquished control to the NCAA. The creation and success of the AWCHA was a turning point in women’s hockey in that it solidified the fact that women’s collegiate hockey was here to stay and paved the road for the 1998 Olympics. The Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 marked the first time women’s hockey was included as a sport in the Olympics. The United States captured the sport’s first gold medal when they defeated the favored Canadians 3-1. All members of the gold medal-winning team had ties to college hockey.

Embed from Getty Images

The men’s Division II hockey championship was resurrected in 1993 when Bemidji State defeated Mercyhurst University in a best-of-three series. The championship was eventually discontinued permanently in 1999. At that point, some Division II teams – such as Bemidji State – made the leap to Division I. To this day, only one conference remains within NCAA Division II men’s hockey: Northeast-10 Conference.

Next: 2000s – WCHA Dominates