Ten years ago today, March 24th, 2006, the greatest upset in college hockey history occurred when Holy Cross defeated Minnesota 4-3 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This game wasn't just a surprising, crazy result. It was a 'cultural moment'. It was a was a "Where you were you when..." moment. I'm not sure college hockey had ever seen anything like it before, and certainly has not seen anything close to it since.
To understand this game, and what it meant in the world of college hockey, you have to understood who this Minnesota team was. I get asked about this game from time to time because, as hard as it is for me believe, I was doing this thing ten years ago(as evidenced by my detailed, nuanced write-up of this game). Somebody asked me earlier this year if I thought that was one of the best Minnesota teams ever. It's a tough question to answer. They certainly had their nights when their amazing collection of talent looked unstoppable, but also many when they looked lazy and extremely beatable. They didn't even go into the tournament as the top overall seed after eventual title winner Wisconsin beat them in the Final Five third place game.
History hasn't been as kind to them to either. It seems silly to say that team "only" had three guys still playing in the NHL--Kessel, Wheeler, Goligoski-- and making a combined $17 million per year doing so. But the offensive stars of that team, the duo of Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen, never came close to meeting their potential as third round draft picks. A gaggle of NHL drafted D behind Goligoski never amount to much at the pro level. But that's usually the case with any good team, as most NHL draft picks don't work out.
As Davids go, Holy Cross was a pretty good one too. They had a veteran team that had played in the NCAA Tournament two years prior. They may have been an autobid out of Atlantic Hockey, but had floated around 20th in the Pairwise most of the year. They were a legit team.
But ultimately, it's not the quality of the two teams that make this such an iconic moment. It's enduring memorability isn't because that Minnesota team was the greatest college hockey team. It was because they were the greatest bad guys in college hockey history.
The college hockey landscape of 2006 in which that game occurred is almost unrecognizable today. But when you hear old-timers bemoaning the current state of college hockey and waxing poetic for the glory days of the old WCHA, this is the time period they are talking about.
The WCHA of that era was a perfect storm of a number of factors that came together to bring interest in the league to a peak. The NHL had canceled their season the previous year due to a lockout. That had the dual effect of bringing more interest to the college game, and also keeping some talented players that would have otherwise signed pro contracts in the NCAA an extra year, bringing the league's talent level to an unprecedented level.
The league was stocked with first-class coaches in or nearing their prime--George Gwozdecky, Don Lucia, Mike Eaves, Scott Owens, Dave Hakstol, Scott Sandelin. The talent they brought in and developed was exceptional. The league was loaded with names that still mean a lot in the NHL today--Toews, Oshie, Zajac, Stafford, Kessel, Wheeler, Goligoski, Pavelski, Elliott, Stastny, Carle, Backes, even John Scott.
And their success as a conference was unparalleled. The league had won four straight national titles thanks to back-to-back wins by Minnesota in '02 and '03 and Denver in '04 and '05. The 2005 Frozen Four featured four WCHA teams. It was hated by fans nationally for obvious reasons, but also hated by WCHA fans because the Frozen Four felt like a pale imitation of the far superior WCHA Final Five held two weekends prior. Watching this video of the 8-7 overtime win by St. Cloud State over Minnesota in 2006 really brought into focus why reactions to last weekend's conference tournaments ranged from "It just isn't the same as the old Final Five, is it?"(NCHC) to outright anger and hostility(Big Ten).
And at the center of this perfect storm of peak WCHA was Minnesota. The Gophers had won national titles in '02 and '03 under Don Lucia and had come close in the next two seasons losing to WCHA teams in a regional final and the Frozen Four. With Minnesota's recruiting was taking off with superstar players like top-5 NHL picks Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler. It seemed to be a matter of time before they added to their list of national titles; something Minnesota fans at the time made well-known to anyone that would listen.
But more important than their success was their exposure. Minnesota's television deal with Fox Sports North put Minnesota on television in the upper midwest nearly every weekend. If you were a WCHA fan of that era, you watched your team play when they were at home, and you watched Minnesota on TV when your team was on the road or had a bye week. Whether you loved them or hated them, you had an opinion about Minnesota, and felt very strongly about it.
And this specific Minnesota team had some extra notoriety attached to it. It started the spring prior when Phil Kessel ended the most public recruitment college hockey had ever seen before, and some might say ever since, by choosing the University of Minnesota. Kessel had been the United States' star at the 2005 World Juniors, held in the US and televised nationally with the NHL locked out. It was unprecedented for a recruit to draw that much attention prior to enrolling in college.
But the quintessential example came in the November of 2005 when Fox9 News in Minneapolis ran a special investigative report on the primetime news detailing members of the University of Minnesota hockey team being given free cover and drinking while underage at Blarney's Pub on the Minnesota campus. The story itself turned out to be not much of anything. Minor violations occurred and a few players missed a weekend of games, but high-profile high college athletes, or any student really, drinking while underage came as a shock to no one. Still, for those that already didn't care for the Gophers, it was yet another example of the team looking privileged, cocky, and in need of being taken down a peg or two.
Minnesota stumbled out of the gate that season with a 3-3-2 record. It wasn't for lack of talent. Despite being loaded with star players, the Gophers had a reputation for laziness. Their terrible practice habits became public knowledge. They seemed to only play hard when they really felt like it, and despite that, were good enough that they won most of the time anyway, which was all the more infuriating to those that didn't care for them.
For their part, Minnesota seemed to embrace their role as heel and played into that image. In December of that season, Minnesota traveled Grand Forks for a series with North Dakota. Two of Minnesota's top players, Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen were natives of North Dakota. Irmen had been a Gopher fan since he was young, and Potulny's brother had scored one of the most famous goals in Minnesota history a few years prior. But regardless, seeing two native sons wearing the maroon and gold stung for North Dakota fans. In the second game of that series, Minnesota was looking for the weekend sweep and had a 3-1 lead late in the second period when Danny Irmen scored to make it 4-1 and ice the game. After the goal, Irmen skated to the North Dakota student section, taunting them by pulling at his 'M' on the chest of his jersey and waving his stick around. He was assessed a two-minute unsportsmanlike penalty for the celebration to stave off a riot.
It was a similar scene in late-January when the Gophers made the trip to Madison to face Wisconsin. It was the first trip back to the Badger state for Phil Kessel since he spurned his hometown team to choose Minnesota. Badger fans at the sold-out Kohl Center registered their disappointment in Kessel's decision frequently and enthusiastically. Minnesota won on Friday night and was leading 2-1 in the third period on Saturday. Kessel came streaking down the left wing and with his now signature quick release snap shot, beat Wisconsin back-up goalie Shane Connelly to ice the game. Immediately after the goal, Kessel literally pushed teammates aside to take a victory lap around the Kohl Center ice with his hand to his ear.
Some things weren't even Minnesota's fault, and they still managed to take the blame. At the Final Five that year, the WCHA handed out a poster featuring the team picture of all five participating teams. The only problem was that North Dakota was incorrectly identified as rival 'North Dakota State University'. It was a simple, honest mistake but one that cut deep for many North Dakota fans. The posters never would have been handed out if the misprint involved alleged WCHA favorite son Minnesota went the popular complaint. By the end of the tournament, I think conspiracy theories had moved all the way to Don Lucia himself running the cursed printed press.
I can't stress enough that if you were a Minnesota fan that year, you loved these guys, but if you weren't a Minnesota fan, you absolutely hated them. You hated their arrogant attitude. You hated hearing about their recent national titles. That was the team that skated onto the Ralph Englestad Arena ice March 24th, 2006 in front of 11,000 people that were decidedly not Minnesota fans. Holy Cross was perfect in the underdog role, but anybody shy of al-Qaeda would have had a big home crowd advantage that night.
My preview of the game stands up well against history. I started out with maybe the biggest understatement ever:
Nobody is expecting this to be much of a game, but the Crusaders of Holy Cross are a veteran team that could surprise some people.
But it was hard to be optimistic with a scouting report like this:
In goal, the Crusaders have senior Tony Quesada who made a name for himself two years ago in the NCAA tournament by throwing up in the crease during his team's first round game against North Dakota.
My final analysis set the stage for the tone of the game:
I see this game as going one of two ways. Either the Gophers get a couple powerplays early and score to jump on top of Holy Cross and cruise to a blowout victory, or Holy Cross keeps the game tight throughout and the Gophers win it late in the game. Either way I think the Gophers advance. The first goal of the game will be critical in every game this weekend, but it will be especially so in this game. If Minnesota gets a lead, I don't see Holy Cross catching up, but if Holy Cross finds a way to get the first tally, it could be an interesting hockey game.
Minnesota got their early power play just 1:38 into the game on an interference call. But the Crusaders killed it off and drew a power play of their own. Holy Cross was outshot 13-10 in that first period, but certainly did not look over-matched in the least. Still, it felt like an incredible long shot at best that Holy Cross would win the game. Watching felt like a matter of waiting until Minnesota inevitably pulled ahead.
Things started to get interesting in the second period. Holy Cross struck first on a goal by Dale Reinhardt at 8:49 of the second period. The Crusaders killed off another penalty shortly after, and went on a man-advantage of their right after. A two-goal lead and all of a sudden, things start to get interesting. Instead, Minnesota's Mike Howe scored short-handed to tie the game. Okay, this is it, I thought. Holy Cross had a nice run, but Minnesota's talent is too much. This is where they turn it on and run away with the game. In fact, I remember leaving the room to go do something else once Howe scored.
I came back quickly, however. Phil Kessel was whistled for a high stick 14 seconds later, and with a 5-on-3 power play, it took Tyler McGregor seven seconds to put Holy Cross back on top 2-1. Take that lead into the lockerroom for the second intermission, I thought, and maybe there's a chance they pull off a miracle in the third period. But Kessel answered back for the Gophers a few minutes later when he caught Holy Cross on a bad line change and after forty minutes, the two teams were tied at two.
Starting the third period tied was exciting, but the possibility of a Holy Cross win still felt remote. As in my preview prediction, I still expected Minnesota to turn it on late and escape with the win. That suspicion only increased 2:17 into the third period when Alex Goligoski put Minnesota ahead 3-2. Shortly after, the Crusaders would have 1:38 of 5-on-3 power play and fail to score the tying goal. It was an interesting two hours, but this felt like the end of the road. The cocky, lazy Gophers would survive a close scare on the basis of their talent alone.
But the Crusaders refused to stick to the pre-written script. Pierre Napert-Frenette tied the game 3-3 with 12:08 left in regulation. If there's one thing that stands out about this upset more than just about any other I've seen in the NCAA Tournament, it's how many times Holy Cross took a major punch from the mighty Gophers, and still managed to come back. This wasn't the case of a team parking in front of their own net, frustrating the other team when they failed to get a lucky bounce, and then getting lucky to win. Minnesota outshot Holy Cross 38-28 for the game, but this was a back-and-forth hockey game with both teams holding a lead. That's rare to see in any NCAA Tournament game these days, let alone in a 2/15 match-up.
The teams traded power plays--I had forgotten how many penalties this game had--but neither team scored and the game headed to overtime. Twitter didn't exist in 2006--technically, it had been up and running for a week, but nobody used it--but in whatever the college hockey world used to communicate, carrier pigeons, there was already snickering about Minnesota being taken to overtime by little Holy Cross. Partly because of the shock of it all, and partly because I think didn't expect this to last long before Minnesota potted the overtime winner.
It didn't take long for the game-winner to come. Holy Cross defenseman Matt Burke has maybe the shift of his life. He chases the puck into the corner with Ryan Potulny. He loses his footing, but gets up immediately. He knocks the puck away from Potulny in the corner, then picks it up and immediately transitions up the ice on the breakout. He draws Minnesota's third forward to him and slips a pass off the boards to Tyler McGregor on a 2-on-2 down the left wing. McGregor skates to about the left faceoff dot and tries to make a backdoor pass to Blair Bartlett who is charging hard to the right post. But the puck bounces off the skate of defenseman PJ Atherton and right back to McGregor.
Like all great moments, time seemed to slow down. Re-watching the play this week, I was surprised how quickly it all happens. Focusing in on the puck, I missed just how much goalie Kellen Briggs commits on the pass, leaving the near side of the net open. McGregor takes the shot. Between the play happening on the opposite side from the TV cameras and my 20-inch standard definition TV, it wasn't entirely clear had happened at first. 'That's a goal' I mumbled to myself reflexively, still trying to process what had just happened. McGregor skates around the net, raising his stick and the celebration is on.
Holy Cross goes crazy. The North Dakota fans go crazy. I'm sure this is apocryphal, but I swear this North Dakota lady is literally wiping tears of joy from her eyes in this split second clip:
Television announcer Clay Matvick opts for silence. He doesn't say a word for 37 seconds, simply letting the moment, and the celebration sink in. You can hear the full highlights of the game from the Holy Cross student radio broadcast, and I promise you will not spend a better nine and a half minutes today, or any other day, listening to the entire thing. But their call of the final goal: "Are you kidding me!? Are you kidding me!? We're not going home yet, baby!" is something that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Of course the magic couldn't last. The next night the Crusaders had to face home team North Dakota in the regional final. Jonathan Toews scored two minutes into the game and North Dakota built an early lead. Holy Cross fought valiantly and made it a one-goal game in the third period, but without the crowd on their side, they just didn't have enough in the tank to pull off another miracle. The Frozen Four would have been sweet, but they had already cemented their place in history.
More than a few North Dakota fans purchased Holy Cross jerseys in the aftermath. Arenas around the WCHA played the radio call of the game-winning goal when their team faced Minnesota the next few seasons. Somebody immortalized the final score in license plate form. Even today, little more than 'Holy Cross' needs to be said in the college hockey world, especially in the upper Midwest, and it's understood exactly what you're talking about. College hockey has seen upsets since, ones that you could argue, mathematically, were bigger. It has seen big moments since then. But there has never been another moment like that Friday afternoon when the little guys from Worcester went toe-to-toe with mighty Minnesota and stunned the Gophers.