March 28, 1998: Those who were in attendance call it the greatest day of hockey ever at Yost Ice Arena. Michigan coach Red Berenson called it a magical time, something that could never be “created, scripted or bought.”
The underdog Wolverines defeated national powerhouse North Dakota, 4-3, in the second round of the NCAA West Regional to advance to the Frozen Four. Michigan went on to win its ninth national championship and complete what has come to be known as one of the most improbable title runs in college hockey history.
Four years later, the West Regional has returned to Ann Arbor, and the 2001-02 Wolverines are once again poised to begin a push for a championship in their own barn.
The striking similarities between this season and what transpired four seasons ago at Yost have not gone unnoticed by anyone. In fact, the parallels have been some of the hottest topics of discussion all year.
This weekend, the Wolverines will make an attempt to extend the parallels even further by capturing two wins at Yost. If they win tonight against St. Cloud, they will have to match up against arguably the strongest all-around team in the nation this season, Denver. Much like when they played North Dakota four years ago, the Wolverines will be young and inexperienced underdogs going up against a heavy favorite.
But if they somehow manage to come out on top with the crowd in their corner, this might go down as another historical night of Yost enchantment.
THE MAGIC OF ’98
The 1996-1997 Wolverines, considered one of the best college hockey teams of all-time, were heavily favored to win a national championship. But a loss to Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinal round ended those hopes. Several talented seniors such as Brendan Morrison and Mike Legg graduated. Without the services of those seniors, and with the addition of 10 freshmen, the ’97-’98 Michigan team was not supposed to make much noise.
“We had a much stronger team in ’97,” Berenson said. “That was the year we were supposed to win, but we didn’t.”
With the West Regional being held at Yost, Michigan knew that if it could make it to the tournament, it would have a significant home-ice advantage to lean upon.
The Wolverines struggled through an up-and-down season, which included four losses to Michigan State, but eventually found themselves in the regional with a first-round matchup against Princeton.
The Wolverines disposed of Princeton 2-1, with North Dakota in attendance. Ohio State also defeated Yale 4-0 earlier that evening to set the next day’s second-round games in stone: Ohio State vs. Michigan State, followed by North Dakota vs. Michigan.
“Those were two great games,” Berenson said. “When Ohio State took the ice against Michigan State, this place was full. We were watching in the lockerroom, but the game just went on and on.”
The game went into overtime before Ohio State put away the higher-seeded Spartans, 4-3. The Yost crowd, which was pulling for a Michigan State loss, exploded.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” said Matt Herr, captain of the ’98 team, and current member of the AHL’s Hershey Bears. “It was the loudest I had ever seen it in four years. Michigan State had just lost to Ohio State, so our fans were screaming and booing the Michigan State fans and players as we took the ice.
“I got chills in pregame warm-ups.”
Excitement quickly turned into despair, as North Dakota jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead. The Fighting Sioux offense had thoroughly dominated the Wolverines till that point, and Michigan needed a jolt to get back in the game.
“We knew North Dakota was going to try and open up the game,” said Bubba Berenzweig, a junior defenseman on the ’98 team. “They had a mature offense, and we knew we had to stop them from opening up the game.”
“We were down, and the fans were kind of shocked,” Herr said. “They were probably thinking how were we going to get back in this game?”
But Herr had an answer for the Yost faithful, as he converted a shorthanded breakaway chance just 47 seconds into the second period to cut North Dakota’s lead in half.
Each team scored another goal, and Michigan headed into the second intermission trailing 3-2.
The Wolverines knew they were in a desperate situation. A comeback against the best team in the nation at this point seemed out of reach, but they refused to lose hope.