It’s that time once again to figure out what we learned in college hockey during 2016, the year where you read “2016” and out of reflex get ready to be angry at a political take or another celebrity dying.
What. A. Year.
2016 in college hockey came in with plenty of questions and vitriol. Not everything has been answered in one neat package. If anything, more got added to the pile.
It was the year where Notre Dame decided to join the Big Ten, for goodness sake!
2016 saw line names ranging from skate brands to news networks to monster movies become en vogue. Kyle Connor became the latest freshman to dazzle and dominate college hockey, turning in, along with his CCM linemates JT Compher and Tyler Motte, an offensive performance fit for the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.
He wasn’t alone with the “B” in CBS line, UND’s Brock Boeser, one of the Pacific Rim linemates in DU’s Dylan Gambrell, Colin White, Luke Kunin and a plethora of players without line names. 14 freshmen scored 30 points or more.
Freshman goalies from Hunter Miska to Joseph Woll to Tyler Wall to others with less appropriate goaltender last names did their part as well to show the learning curve is not as steep in 2016, but that doesn’t mean seniors haven’t found success. Jimmy Vesey came back to try and lead Harvard to a title. He left with a Hobey Baker and angering folks from Michigan to Nashville.
Union’s Mike Vecchione might be doing the same with this season’s top line (which in the spirit of the year still needs a cute name) and getting the Dutchmen harkening back to 2014 glory days.
Parity went away and came back. 2016 further put in motion the belief that upsets continued to be less and less shocking. No one blinked an eye when Ferris State took down St. Cloud State. Some B1G names once again stayed home from the NCAA Tournament. College hockey royalty represented the Frozen Four.
North Dakota weirdly proved all those #firehak fans right and got over the semi hump to win its eighth national title.
Records were set. The NCHC had its first national champion, two Frozen Four participants and two of the top teams to end the year. Denver and Jim Montgomery took part in both.
Quinnipiac once again did the ECAC well by appearing in the national championship game.
In 2016 there was a group success in two of the big three “M” states. Northeastern could not be stopped to start the year (until the Huskies were) and all four Beanpot schools went dancing. Led by UMD, Minnesota’s five schools all spent time towards the end of the year in the top 20.
Twelve months after three collegians were top-10 picks in the NHL Draft, it was the quantity which defined this past year. St. Cloud State and UConn each had its first ever first round pick as a record 11 current and future collegians were drafted. Wisconsin, with the addition of head coach/new student Tony Granato, announced itself back with two first rounders.
Boston University did two better, becoming the first team in 10 years to have four 1st rounders in one draft.
Neutral site conference tournaments got placed on the shelf out West. Frank Serratore didn’t - between the Vikings crushing his soul and Army’s resurgence in Atlantic Hockey behind Parker Gahagen, 2016 brought out some of the best in the service academies.
Tears were shed. Again and again. Our collective hearts still mourn the loss of WCHA and NCHC referee Butch Mousseau and former UConn head coach Bruce Marshall among those taken far too soon.
We said goodbye to some quote machines, a gabber or two, and longtime coaches. Mark Morris crossed the line in the North Country to coach St. Lawrence. Arizona State crossed the country to play everyone all the while not having a home. For now.
Colgate opened a new one.
Penn State went from its first D1 recruiting class graduating to shooting its way to a one loss, home-heavy first half. Other 2016 surprises include Ohio State (for those in the “F*** you Big Ten for ruining college hockey” category), Harvard (doing it again for those outside the “Vesey does it all” category) and Western Michigan (for...well those who aren’t lying and said they saw it coming).
To be surprised in 2016 is to no longer pay attention. Every week brings another story, whether it’s the Alaska schools fighting for their survival, or Lake Superior State getting off to a hot start, or Holy Cross being early season giant killers, or ticky tack officiating making a quick 2016 cameo.
Players, along with most of Boston College, left early in droves to get to the next level. Many have already succeeded in their goal to reach the NHL and become future superstars. (Or at least have their parents celebrate like they are already ones.)
They weren’t alone. There seemed to be a lot of striving and searching. On the ice, 2016 felt like the year where college hockey seemingly reached that next level of respect in the hockey world.
In a year where not much changed off of it - besides Notre Dame’s decision in March, overtime rules and realignment changes wait for everyone in 2017 (much to the chagrin of Minnesota State) - and relations between big and small schools remain somewhat testy, the game was able to shine away from the infighting inside the college hockey bubble.
Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup with a record 13 college hockey alums on its roster, a feather in a cap of the number of players developed in the NCAA going up every year. A longtime college hockey coach came into the NHL and made the playoffs his first year. Three years after no player with college hockey ties was drafted in the first round it was hard to go three picks without running into one.
The CHL, as the CHL does, came calling for players college-bound. They all stayed in college this year.
But it’s not just Americans, or the NHL, who joined in with student sections everywhere to sing the praises of college hockey. 2016 showed off internationally as well. The stigma for elite Canadians choosing to leave the Great White North for college hockey seems to be lessening. With more in the pipeline, two Canadian freshmen - North Dakota’s Tyson Jost and BU’s Dante Fabbro - made Team Canada for the World Juniors.
Both Slovakia WJC goalies - UConn’s Adam Huska and North Dakota’s Matej Tomek - came from college too, along with an explosion in the number of Finns, Swedes and other Europeans. 2016 was a year where seeing two teams play without at least one should be the exception. The same goes with Americans from “non-traditional” areas. The year that was had a bit of good news for everyone from Washington (DU’s Gambrell) to Utah (Minnesota State’s Daniel Brickley) to Florida (BC’s Austin Cangelosi and a Frozen Four in Tampa).
However much the sport itself remains hyper regional and a tough sell on television with minuscule ratings, the impact college hockey has had globally, from recruiting to mentions in NHL arenas nowhere near a college rink, can be seen by the far corners of puck civilization.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate