2000s – WCHA Dominates
The WCHA reigned supreme throughout the first decade of the 2000s. Six WCHA teams won Division I national titles throughout this decade beginning with North Dakota in 2000 when they defeated Boston College 4-2. Starting in 2002, there were five years in a row where the champions all hailed from the WCHA. An overtime thriller in Saint Paul saw Minnesota end its championship drought in 2002 when they came back to defeat Maine 4-3 in overtime. The Gophers won back-to-back titles when they beat New Hampshire 5-1 the following year. The Denver Pioneers won the championship in 2004 when they held on to defeat Maine in a low-scoring affair 1-0. The Pioneers earned back-to-back championships in 2005 after defeating WCHA-rival North Dakota 4-1.
The 2005 Frozen Four was especially noteworthy because all four teams represented the WCHA. One semi-final game saw North Dakota take down their long-time cross-border rival, Minnesota, while the other side of the bracket saw Denver defeat in-state rival, Colorado College, to get to the championship game. After this all-WCHA 2005 Frozen Four, it took three years before a lone conference was represented in all four brackets within the national tournament again – which either happened purely by chance or there was an unwritten agreement by the selection committee for several years. It’s worth noting that before these two back-to-back sequences, Minnesota hadn’t won a national championship in 23 years and Denver hadn’t won in 35 years. The following year in 2006, the Wisconsin Badgers won the championship – the fifth in a row for the WCHA – when they outscored Boston College 2-1.
As for tournaments within Division I hockey, naturally, every team sets the NCAA tournament as their ultimate goal. But there have been other in-season tournaments throughout the years that many people feel are just as important, competitive and popular. As highlighted earlier, the City of Boston has the Beanpot. And from 1993 to 2016, the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains had the WCHA Final Five. The Final Five was the culmination of the WCHA postseason tournament where the five remaining teams came together for one weekend to determine the champion. The victor hoisted the Broadmoor Trophy and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA national tournament. Beginning in 2000, the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul began hosting the Final Five tournament and did so until the end of the tournament in 2016. The Final Five attendance record was set in 2007 when a total of 88,900 fans packed “the X” throughout the weekend’s five games. The championship game set a WCHA single-game record for attendance when 19,463 fans witnessed a diving Blake Wheeler score a goal in overtime to vault Minnesota into the national playoffs after defeating North Dakota 3-2.
Lost throughout this WCHA domination, Boston College won two championships in the 2000s. They avenged their 2000 loss to North Dakota by edging them in overtime 3-2 in 2001. Boston College also won in 2008 after defeating Notre Dame. In addition, Boston College was national runner-up three times bringing the team’s total championship game appearances throughout the decade to five.
The NCAA changed its national tournament format in 2003 by increasing the field of teams by four once again so it became a total of 16 teams vying for the trophy. It remained a single-elimination tournament but the top four teams no longer received a first-round bye, setting up a greater chance for upsets to occur. It also allowed the NCAA to host four Regional neutral sites for the first two rounds compared to two in the previous format. This format remains to this day.
A new conference was created in 2003 when the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA or Atlantic Hockey) conference joined men’s Division I hockey. Technically this conference began play in 1998 as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association (MAAC) hockey conference. However, nine teams left this conference and created their own conference no longer affiliated with the MAAC. The teams felt they needed an organization that represented specific hockey needs so they created an ice hockey-only conference for Northeastern teams. There have been additions and departures over the years but at its current state, there are 12 Atlantic Hockey teams that reside from the Northeast to the Rocky Mountains.
Within women’s collegiate hockey, the AWCHA relinquished control of the national tournament to the NCAA in 2001 after three years. The 2001 Inaugural Women’s Frozen Four took place at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs were crowned the first NCAA champions when they defeated the St. Lawrence University Saints 4-2. Minnesota Duluth would go on to win the next two championships. Throughout the decade, all nine champions hailed from the WCHA: Minnesota Duluth (4), Wisconsin (3), and Minnesota (2). The NCAA introduced the first Division III women’s national tournament in 2002. Two New York teams faced off against each other when Elmira College defeated Manhattanville College by a score of 2-1 to capture the inaugural championship. The Division III women’s national tournament continues to this day.