For the Colorado College Tigers, the comparisons are oh so similar, and oh so daunting.
Last season, the Denver Pioneers had won both the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season and tournament championships and were the No. 2 team in the nation going the NCAA Tournament.
Then they had to go to Yost Ice Arena for the NCAA West Regional, where their Frozen Four dreams were shattered as the home Wolverines pulled off the upset in front of their wild fans.
If things stay true to form, this year’s victim could be Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs with an enrollment of 1,921. The Tigers have been atop the polls for most of the season, compiling a 29-6-5 record and winning the WCHA regular season title. Now they face the prospects – if they defeat Wayne State on Saturday, and Michigan beats Maine – of playing Michigan on its home ice to avoid losing in the NCAA quarterfinals for the fifth time in six years.
But the Tigers aren’t strangers to Ann Arbor. They played in last season’s West Regional at Yost, defeating Michigan State before losing to Minnesota, and skated at a rink the program had not been to since 1994.
“We got a good feel for it,” fourth-year Colorado College head coach Scott Owens said. “We didn’t play the Wolverines, obviously, so we didn’t have to play in that real adverse situation. But when it is a familiar trip and a familiar building and lockerroom, you know how to operate.”
Colorado College is synonymous with the history of college hockey. Its first rink, the Broadmoor World Arena, hosted the first 10 NCAA Championships, and the school helped found the WCHA. The Tigers won two national titles in the 1950s, but then qualified for the NCAA Tournament just once between 1957 (their last national title team) and 1995. Then current Minnesota coach Don Lucia brought the program back to national prominence with three straight WCHA regular season championships. The Tigers made the 1996 national title game against Michigan. But Brendan Morrison scored in overtime to give the Wolverines their first national title since 1964.
Hockey is the only Men’s Division I sport (all other sports except for women’s soccer are Division III) at the school where students are under a schedule called the block plan. They take just one class at a time for three-and-a-half weeks. This leaves four-day breaks at the end of each month, when the team often schedules its road games to minimize missing classes. Owens said that most players are unfamiliar with the plan while they are recruited, but prefer it when they arrive on campus.
“They only have one class and one book to take with them, so they don’t have to shift gears as much. So it’s kind of a plus,” Owens said.
Taking the block plan are some of the best players in the nation. Junior forward Peter Sejna – a straight-A mathematical economics major from Slovakia – is one of the leading candidates for the Hobey Baker Award after putting up 35 goals and 44 assists in 40 games.
Fellow Hobey Baker finalist Tom Pressing, a senior defenseman, is the highest-scoring blueliner in the WCHA with 22 goals and 26 assists. Senior forward Noah Clarke, with 20 goals and 45 assists, combines with Sejna to make the most powerful forward tandem in college hockey.
Sejna, who Owens coached in the United States Hockey League in the 1998-99 season, has scored 90 goals in 124 career games, but has yet to be drafted by an NHL team. NHL scouts think the 23-year-old is a little undersized, but Owens believes he has the “will and desire” to make it to the next level.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” Owens said. “He’s so strong protecting the puck, and he has that NHL shot and passing (ability), so his potential and possibilities are good.”
Sejna could lead the nation’s top powerplay against the nation’s second best penalty kill this Sunday against Michigan, but it first has to face a virtual unknown in Wayne State.
“We’ve had to scramble for information on them,” Owens said. “We had to make many phone calls. They don’t have a tradition, they’ve only played four years, but you have to respect them.”
Facing an unknown opponent in the first round can be dangerous, as Michigan found out two years ago when it played Mercyhurst and trailed going into the third period.
If the Tigers get by Saturday, they could go up against Maine, a team they beat 3-0 in October in Alaska. Or they could face a Michigan team that has won six straight NCAA Tournament games at home dating back to 1991.
No matter what happens, Owens says this is the best season he’s had up in the Rockies, and that it’s not done yet.
“For me, this is the best team talent-wise, and the chemistry has been outstanding,” Owens said. “I think we have everybody on the same page. This has been a low-maintenance season. And I don’t think anyone wants it to end.”
– Daily Sports Editor Courtney Lewis contributed to this report.