Last year the Bemidji State Beavers were the Cinderella of the Frozen Four hosted in the nation’s capital. This year another relative newcomer to Division I hockey, the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers, stunned the college hockey world by winning 12 straight games late this season — currently the longest winning streak in the nation — to advance to Detroit and the Frozen Four.
RIT started its impressive run by upending Denver in a nail-biter, then dominating New Hampshire this past weekend, becoming just the fourth 4-seed to make it to the Frozen Four. Guess how students and supporters celebrated at a Rochester watering hole while watching the upsets? By eating free chicken wings.
So which D-I newcomer is the bigger Frozen Four surprise? On Monday we asked the local resident college hockey expert, the Capitals’ Nate Ewell, who is a founding member of the Inside College Hockey team.
“I think RIT’s a bigger surprise. The thing that struck me was that they hadn’t beaten a team outside their conference all year. I think their conference combined only had seven wins outside of the conference.
“Bemidji had at least played with some of the big boys — or at least big conferences. They had beaten St. Cloud State and UMass, lost to North Dakota in OT. RIT is much more out of nowhere,” Ewell noted.
“But one thing that’s consistent between the two is that they are both proud hockey schools, at Division II or III levels, that have tremendous support on campus.”
RIT announced its decision to go D-I in December of 2004 and joined the fledgling American Hockey Association. They won national titles at both the D-II and III levels, and so brought a rich hockey tradition to the transition, as Ewell noted. The school first became eligible for the AHA postseason — and the NCAAs — in the 2007-08 season. Just two seasons later the Tigers are in the Frozen Four.
Bemidji transitioned to D-I little more than a decade ago and is a mover and shaker among D-I programs today. They’ll christen a brand new, 4,000-seat rink on Lake Bemidji next season — and also join what many believe is college hockey’s best conference, the WCHA. The Beavers qualified for the NCAAs again this year and lost to Michigan in the first round over the weekend. Still, that’s a remarkable two-year run for the relative newcomer to D-I.
For schools like the Naval Academy and Penn State, who’ve toyed and flirted with the idea of moving up to D-I, the stories of Bemidji and RIT ought to be powerful inducements to getting on with it at long last, and at last giving the Mid-Atlantic region some opportunity to witness college hockey at its highest level. It’s expensive as heck making that jump, but the experiences of these two Cinderella schools the past two Frozen Fours proves that there can be big payoffs for making it.
Our DC Sports Chick had a brother who went to RIT in the early ’90s and has lived in Rochester ever since. We asked him for his thoughts on RIT making it to the Frozen Four:
“Well, let’s hope Cinderella gets back to Tigersville before midnight.
Ranked #15 in the 16-team field and yet made it this far!!! First AHA league team to make it to the Frozen Four. Win or lose, they’ve already done an incredible job and turned quite a few heads outside the area. Their magical march through March sure got hotter thanks to their 12-game winning streak, peaking at the precisely right time. I’m just hoping their peak keeps up another two games. The goalie has been hot, standing on his head lately. I just hope the long wait between last and next game doesn’t get to them; mind games can be bad.
ESPN put it so well: “RIT? Yes, and thanks to these Tigers, it also stands for Really Interesting Tournament.” Right on! Well, we’ll see . . . they’re up against some respectable opponents. Win or lose, the Tigers have exceeded already-high expectations and done a great job.
P.S. A funny joke around here, even if on the puerile side, is that since RIT is technically in the south part of Henrietta (the town) and is an institute of technology, shouldn’t they be South Henrietta Institute of Technology? But I think that joke is taking a backseat for now; Tiger mania has definitely taken hold, biiiiiig time. The newspaper said this is the only Division I program at any of Rochester area’s colleges/universities. RIT’s known for being a hockey school with a strong fan base. I’ve seen it up close since 1992, so I concur.”