2020s – No Champion to Start the Decade
In 2020, the NCAA did not crown a national hockey champion for the first time in 72 years. The reason for this was the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was January 20; around the time the second half of the college hockey season was ramping up. The number of cases rose throughout the country but it didn’t affect the college hockey world until March. On March 11, the NCAA issued a statement that all upcoming events, including the men’s and women’s hockey tournaments, would be held without fans to limit the spread of the virus. The very next day, the NCAA decided to cancel all remaining winter sports and spring sports for 2020. This meant that the NCAA women’s Division I tournament that was going to start in two days was cancelled as well as the remaining men’s Division I conference tournaments and upcoming national tournament. Fans wondered why it couldn’t be postponed but with the increased spread of the virus and resulting state quarantines, it wasn’t a possibility. Seniors sadly had their collegiate hockey careers come to an end without a chance to even lace them up one last time.
When looking back at the 2019-20 men’s Division I hockey season, it ended with a lot of questions. Would North Dakota be able to stay on top throughout the tournament and add another trophy to their case? Could Cornell have regained glory and brought home a championship for the first time since 1970? Was it finally Minnesota State University’s turn to make a run within the national tournament? Was the surging Minnesota Duluth team in the middle of a patented late-season run to become the tournament’s first three-peat champion since 1953? Or would an upstart team get hot in the tournament and surprise the hockey world? Fans of North Dakota called for the NCAA to crown the Fighting Hawks the national champions because the season ended with their team at #1 in the Pairwise Rankings. But an important statistic is that only two teams in the previous ten years before 2020 won the national tournament when ranked #1 in the Pairwise at the end of the regular season. And even if the NCAA wanted to name a regular season champion, the waters were muddied by the fact that Cornell was ranked #1 in the final regular season USA Today/USA Hockey and USCHO polls. So in the end, the 2019-20 college hockey season saw a lot of great hockey but everyone was deprived of a true 2020 national champion throughout all levels of college hockey.
The pandemic would go on to affect the following season as well. The beginning of the season was pushed back so conferences could determine how to proceed. The 2020-21 season was unlike any other season the college hockey world had seen before. Early-season and holiday tournaments were cancelled. The Big Ten, Hockey East and NCHC decided to forego non-conference games. In fact, all NCHC teams played entirely within a pod in Omaha for the first half of the season. Ivy League schools and several other programs, such as RPI, Union and the two Alaska teams, opted out of the season altogether due to COVID concerns. ECAC ended up fielding 4 of 12 teams. With no Ivy League games, this ended Yale’s 125-season streak of continuous hockey seasons since the team played the very first collegiate game against Johns Hopkins in 1896. Without Harvard, the annual Beanpot Tournament wasn’t played for the first season since 1952.
Many games were played without fans in attendance and others with only partial attendance. This varied by local, state and school-specific guidelines in place. In fact, Maine didn’t play a home game until the postseason due to state restrictions. The Big Ten added Arizona State to its schedule rotation but not officially as a member of the conference. The Sun Devils played all games on the road throughout the entire season and would not be eligible for the conference tournament as part of the agreement with the Big Ten. Schedule makers throughout all conferences had their hands full due to games that were either postponed or cancelled due to outbreaks within teams.
In the midst of this uncertainty, a new Division I program began on the East Coast: Long Island. The LIU Sharks surprised the hockey world by creating a Division I men’s hockey program from scratch during the middle of a pandemic. Similar to the Big Ten/Arizona State arrangement for the other independent program in Division I, Atlantic Hockey added LIU to its schedule but not officially to the conference. LIU was officially an independent program that would not compete in the conference tournament. Like the Sun Devils, the Sharks also played the entire season on the road. When the season was over, the team ended with a 3-10-0 record.
It was a season of unbalanced schedules with only a mix of non-conference games yet a field was determined for the national tournament. There were assumptions that even the conference tournament champions may not receive the standard automatic bid to the national tournament. That wasn’t the case and all conferences sent at least one team to the tournament as in years past. However, the ECAC tournament champion, St. Lawrence, had to forego the national tournament due to positive COVID tests. ECAC runner-up Quinnipiac went in place of the Saints. On the first day of the tournament, Minnesota Duluth received a first-round bye due an announcement just hours before the game against Michigan. This was due to positive COVID tests from Michigan players shortly before game time. This robbed everyone of a rematch of the 2011 championship game in what would have been the first time the two teams met on the ice since Saint Paul. The same situation happened in Notre Dame’s first game on the second day of the tournament. Positive COVID tests forced the Fighting Irish to forfeit the game against Boston College.
Despite an unorthodox season and some early hiccups, history was made in the 2021 national tournament. Minnesota State won the program’s first Division I game after coming up short in previous tournaments. In fact, the Mavericks made it to the Frozen Four after defeating the West Regional’s top-ranked Gophers team 4-0. In the Midwest Regional Final, Minnesota Duluth defeated the number one overall seed North Dakota in Fargo 3-2 in a 5-overtime game. Luke Mylymok scored 2:13 in the fifth overtime to end the longest NCAA men’s hockey tournament game in history.
The 2021 men’s Frozen Four was historic in that it didn’t include any number one seeds and for the first time since 1992, three of the four teams were from one state: Minnesota. The University of Massachusetts (UMass) was the outlier. The first semifinal game was between two former WCHA in-state rivals: Minnesota State and St. Cloud State. The Huskies defeated the Mavericks to advance to the program’s first Division I championship game. The second game was a rematch of the most recent (2019) championship game in UMass versus Minnesota Duluth. This was the fourth Frozen Four in a row for the Bulldogs. Minnesota Duluth couldn’t hold the lead and the Minutemen won in overtime. The Bulldogs’ quest for a three-peat was snapped as well as the program’s nine game tournament overtime win streak. The 2021 championship game was between two teams who had never won the Division I title: UMass and St. Cloud State. In the end, the UMass Minutemen rolled through St. Cloud 5-0 to easily capture the trophy. Echoing 2019 when UMD was the lone NCHC representative that took down three Big Ten schools, the lone Massachusetts school was the program standing tall over the three Minnesota teams at the end of the 2021 Frozen Four.
On the women’s side, two-seed Wisconsin won the Division I national title by defeating the number one overall seed Northeastern 2-1 in overtime. The Badgers were considered back-to-back champions due to no team being crowned champion during the 2019-20 season. It was the sixth title for the Badgers that tied their rival Minnesota for most NCAA championships in women’s DI hockey at the time.
The pandemic would affect a third college hockey season. When the 2021-22 hockey season began, specific arenas were enforcing mask, vaccination and attendance policies to help mitigate the spread of the virus. However, the precautions were to a lesser extent than the previous year with many arenas fully opening up before the season was over.
Another conference reorganization occurred prior to the season that created a seismic shift in the Midwest. Eight years after the CCHA disbanded, the conference made a surprising return for the 2021-22 season. But in doing so, it meant the end of another historic men’s conference. On June 28, 2019, seven teams announced their intent to leave the WCHA to form a new conference. It was then revealed February 18, 2020, that the new conference would be the reestablished and revived CCHA. The schools stated that this group of teams wanted to play in a conference with a more compact footprint. This left Alaska, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville as the remaining teams in the WCHA. Without a proper number of teams to field a conference, the WCHA announced the 2020-21 men’s hockey season would be its last. This would be the end to one of the most storied hockey conferences that helped pioneer the sport. While the WCHA would live on through the WCHA women’s conference, the final men’s game occurred March 20, 2021, when Lake Superior State defeated Northern Michigan 6-3 in the WCHA Tournament Championship game in Mankato. The WCHA produced 37 national championship teams and 16 Hobey Baker Award winners throughout 70 years. This marked the end of the oldest conference in Division I men’s hockey.
It was announced that the eighth team to join the new-look CCHA would be the University of St. Thomas from Saint Paul, Minnesota. St. Thomas had recently announced the university’s sports programs would leave the Division III MIAC and make the jump to Division I. With this news, the Tommies became the sixth Minnesota program to field a DI hockey program.
In the first season back for the CCHA, the conference boasted the Hobey Baker winner. Dryden McKay became the first goalie to win the award since Ryan Miller from Michigan State in 2001. Dryden also led his team to the Frozen Four. The Mavericks were the first team to represent the CCHA at the Frozen Four since Ferris State in 2012. The Big Ten brought two teams to the Frozen Four – Michigan and Minnesota – and the NCHC was represented by Denver. The lone two seed was Minnesota while the other three teams at the Frozen Four were top seeds in the regionals. Michigan was the number one overall seed for the tournament. The possibility for an All-Big Ten championship game was in play until Minnesota State defeated Minnesota for the second postseason in a row and Denver defeated Michigan in the other semifinal game in Boston. Denver went on to defeat the Mavericks 5-1 in the championship game. The Pioneers prevented the Mavericks from winning the program’s first Division I title and, in turn, leaped into a tie with Michigan for most championships of all time with nine. It’s also worth noting that with this win by Denver, five of the last six champions resided within the NCHC.
On the women’s side, the field for the national tournament expanded from eight to eleven teams. Ohio State met Minnesota Duluth in an All-WCHA title game. The Buckeyes won the program’s first national championship with a 3-2 win. This marked the 19th women’s hockey championship for the WCHA.
For the first time since the 2019-20 season, COVID-19 would not have a strong impact in the college hockey world. There were times when a player would contact COVID but he or she would sit out the specified number of days in quarantine. This looks to be the go-forward approach as it doesn’t appear the virus will ever fully be eradicated.
The 2022-23 season saw the welcome return of the Alaska Anchorage Seawolves to Division I men’s hockey. The Seawolves returned as an independent team and competed for the first time since 2020. The Seawolves weren’t the only new face in Division I men’s hockey. Two new teams began play within the highest level of college hockey: Lindenwood and Stonehill. The Easton, Massachusetts-based Stonehill Skyhawks elevated its program from Division II. The St. Charles, Missouri-based Lindenwood Lions were previously a successful club team having won four national titles prior to the creation of a Division I program. These two new programs increased the number of independent Division I men’s teams to six.
The men’s and women’s Beanpot tournaments took place as scheduled during the 2023 calendar year. However, something happened in the men’s tournament that had never happened in the 70 years of the Boston tournament: Northeastern and Harvard met in the title game. With the same four teams involved year after year, the fact that these two teams had never previously met in the title game was one of college hockey’s most surprising pieces of trivia. Northeastern defeated the Crimson 3-2 in a shootout; the first time a Beanpot had been decided in this manner due to the change in overtime rules instituted in 2020. This was the Huskies fourth Beanpot trophy in the last five tournaments. In the women’s Beanpot, Northeastern defeated Boston College 2-1 to capture the trophy and earn Northeastern the Beanpot sweep in 2023.
The 2023 men’s Frozen Four included three college hockey blue bloods and one team still looking for its first Division I championship. Boston University, Michigan, and Minnesota had a combined 73 Frozen Four appearances and 19 NCAA titles heading into the tournament. Quinnipiac, on the other hand, was appearing in its third Frozen Four in search of its first NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship. It must be noted that this was the first time a team did not represent the NCHC in the Frozen Four since the conference debuted in 2013-14. As with the previous year, there was a chance for an all-Big Ten championship game. It didn’t come to fruition again but this time the Big Ten would be represented in the title game after Minnesota defeated the Terriers 6-2. On the other side of the bracket, Quinnipiac defeated Michigan. This was the second season in a row the Wolverines lost the semifinal game. It was the first win for Quinnipiac in six tries against the Wolverines. The last time Tampa hosted the men’s Frozen Four prior to 2023 was in 2016 when the Bobcats made it to the championship game. History repeated itself in 2023 as Quinnipiac met Minnesota in the 2023 title game in Tampa. Quinnipiac captured the program’s first Division I men’s hockey championship in thrilling fashion after defeating the Gophers 3-2 in overtime. This Minnesota loss meant that the last three times the Gophers lost in the title game, the opposing teams were from the ECAC and it resulted in each team winning its first NCAA championship trophy (Quinnipiac in 2023, Union in 2014, Harvard in 1989).
All three Hobey Hat Trick finalists participated in the 2023 Frozen Four (2 Gophers and 1 Wolverine). The same situation happened in 2022 (1 each from Minnesota, Denver and Minnesota State).
The women’s Frozen Four took place in Duluth, Minnesota, and three of the four teams represented the WCHA. Northeastern was the lone team from Hockey East. Heading into the season, Minnesota and Wisconsin were tied at 6 titles apiece. The championship trophy lead was up for grabs as both teams were in the Frozen Four and faced one another in the semifinal. Wisconsin was victorious in overtime and would meet defending champion Ohio State in the championship game after the Buckeyes blanked the Huskies 3-0. Wisconsin prevented the Buckeyes from winning back-to-back trophies after winning a nail biter 1-0. The shutout victory vaulted the Badgers into first place for the number of Division I women’s hockey championship trophies with seven. This marked the 20th women’s hockey championship for the WCHA. It was the fourth time Duluth hosted the women’s Frozen Four. A Minnesota-based team had won it every time prior to 2023 (UMD in 2003 and 2008; Minnesota in 2012).
In Division III women’s hockey, the Gustavus Adolphus College (Minnesota) Golden Gusties captured the school’s first hockey championship trophy. The Gusties defeated Amherst (Massachusetts) 2-1 in 3OT. The game set the record for longest hockey championship game in Division III history.
In Division III men’s hockey, the Hobart (New York) Statesmen defeated the defending champion Adrian College (Michigan) Bulldogs 3-2 in overtime to secure the school’s first hockey championship trophy.