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The agony of defeat at the NCAA Frozen Four

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One team wins college hockey's national title every year, soaking up the glory that comes with it. But what about the other 59 teams that lose?

2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

TAMPA -- Hattricks, a bar near Amalie Arena, was packed on an important Saturday afternoon: the day of the final game of college hockey's Frozen Four, and one of the last days of the NHL regular season. It was the day upon which a number of NHL teams could decide their playoff fate.

The bar was packed, but often silent with the intensity of focus on the games. There were a few fans of North Dakota, Quinnipiac, Boston College and Denver -- the four teams that made the Frozen Four -- sporting their colors at the bar, but for the most part, the fans were local and deeply invested in NHL hockey.

A lone screen had on the Toronto Blue Jays game, but nearly every other television played the two big NHL games happening simultaneously that day -- the Boston Bruins against the Ottawa Senators, and the Detroit Red Wings against the New York Rangers.

Travis Hughes, the editor of SB Nation's hockey coverage, had been nursing a beer at Hattricks since 2 p.m. As Hughes sat at a table with a growing number of empty cups, a group of Red Wings fans near him cheered, mostly for the Senators as they pounded Boston for goal after goal. A table of Bruins fans groaned.

"Don’t worry about us," one Bruins fan said after a particularly bad series of events had the Bruins down 4-1 in the second period, "It’s sucked all season."

At 5:30 p.m. on the day of the Frozen Four championship game, Hughes had a vested interest in each of the NHL games as a Philadelphia Flyers fan hoping to see his team clinch a playoff spot. He survived watching the Bruins game (a 6-1 loss to the Senators, making a playoff spot extremely unlikely for Boston), the Red Wings game (a 3-2 loss that didn't matter for them given the Bruins loss) and the beginning of the Flyers game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The stress of the NHL schedule was just an appetizer, however.

This year, Hughes did not make the journey to Tampa to write about the Frozen Four. He was in the press box in 2013, covering Quinnipiac's last appearance in the national championship. He said that the experience was too emotional for him to return to the press box, and he needed to be down in the stands. This time he's here as a fan, as an alumnus of Quinnipiac University.

"How are you holding up?" I asked him after two periods of hockey saw the Flyers ahead of the Penguins by one.

"Stressing," he said. "Drinking enough so I'm not stressed for the Quinnipiac game."

But even being in the stands instead of the press box took a lot of fortitude.

Heading to the arena after the Flyers’ victory, a playoff-berth clinching 3-1 victory over the Penguins, the streets were crowded with green. North Dakota fans emptied out of their state to attend this game, and the arena was sold out to a crowd that looked about 70 percent UND green.

Hughes’ yellow shirt looked lonely in the crowd.

***

By now, the narratives about the national championship team, North Dakota, are in full spin: how first-year coach Brad Berry is the only rookie head coach to win the NCAA title; how he broke the 16-year championship drought for the school; pulling them within one win of Michigan’s hockey program for all-time winningest; how the 5-1 victory signified the return to greatness of a storied program.

The final narrative, fatal for Quinnipiac, was that there were no surprises. There were no upsets. The "underdog" team that was only seeing its second Frozen Four final berth did not win. Experience took precedence.

By now, the teams have collected their players from their post-game adrenaline crashes, fans have dispersed to nurse their sorrows or continue to feed their buzz and Amalie Arena tidies up in preparation for another playoff event -- this one in the NHL, as the Tampa Bay Lightning invite the Red Wings in for a rematch of last year’s first round.

Four days of competition, preparation and planning were reduced to sixty minutes on the ice. An entire season was reduced to a long weekend. Years and years of practice were reduced to one game, and many teams fell to the wayside along the way to one moment of victory for a single team.

It’s clear what the winners take from the experience. But what about the losers?

Along the path to winning and losing are the moments that got them there -- every practice, press conference, game; every stride out onto the ice and every moment that the fans took to make this journey far south to Florida, well outside of college hockey’s heartland, to watch their teams play.

For the losers -- and there are many more of these than there are winners -- is it worth it?

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Quinnipiac vs North Dakota Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

***

Two days earlier, the script was different. Quinnipiac beat Boston College 3-2 to advance to the national title game for just the second time in school history. Even though Quinnipiac was the first overall seed in the tournament, it was considered the underdog by many due to the perennial powerhouse it faced. Boston College and longtime head coach Jerry York was no newcomer to the event -- in fact, the Eagles had the most appearances in the Frozen Four, and York’s team won the last time it was in Florida, back in 2012.

Yale beat Quinnipiac in the final in 2013, with a painful shutout score of 4-0.

In line for the toilet in the Amalie Arena press box, ESPN commentator John Buccigross stood in front of me. It was intermission, and we both stared at the game highlights broadcast on one of the TVs.

"What did you think of Boston? I thought they came out a little flat," I said. The first period saw BC down 2-0 to Quinnipiac. It certainly wasn’t due to BC’s goaltender, the Mike Richter Award winner Thatcher Demko, but due to QU’s ability to completely snarl up BC’s offense in the neutral zone and create turnovers on the forecheck.

"I think they'll wake up," Buccigross said. He then went into a thoughtful spiel about Boston College’s history, its strong structural game and excellent goalie, Demko. Buccigross clearly loves college hockey, and hearing his enthusiasm about the game throughout the weekend helped fuel my own interest.

A period later, despite Buccigross’s insight and two power play goals, the Eagles lost. So, was it worth it?

Two sacrificial victims were chosen to enter the press room after the loss: team captain Teddy Doherty and senior Steve Santini. It wasn’t sweat beading up their eyelashes or turning their eyes red.

They entered the room with their sweat-soaked jerseys still on over their game-worn pads. They weren’t ready to take off their uniform yet -- it was their last game wearing it, and they were prolonging the final hour before they’d take it off forever.

The hard questions came immediately. Nobody was gentle -- not even to the team captain with tears in his eyes.

"Both of you, can you try to explain why the team came out so poorly, almost looking like a team that had never been to the Frozen Four?" asked one reporter.

Doherty cleared his throat and responded. "They just came out -- they just came out faster than us. There's no other way to explain it. Two goals in the first 10 minutes, unacceptable. And ultimately cost the game."

What is it worth to play a sport for a season, for a team that loses on the biggest stage available? What did Doherty take away from the loss? Why play, when it is more likely that you’ll lose than you’ll win?

The answer was simple enough: because it was fun.

"Such a fun club to be a part of," Doherty said. "I'm so proud to be a Boston College hockey player and represent the school. I can't say enough how important that is to me and how special that is to me. So no regrets, like coach said."

When you’re a writer focused on professional hockey, sometimes something this simple gets forgotten amid the grind of a losing season or the storylines of a winning one. At the college level, when a player isn’t playing for a salary, why play?

Oh, right. For fun.

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Quinnipiac vs Boston College Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

***

Morning practice on the gap day between the elimination games and the final was a study in contrasts.

Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold directed with all the calm self-assurance of a guy who brooks no argument. Everyone has bought into his system, and the team's energy crackled with barely contained excitement as they hit the ice.

The practice, which shifted activities between drills and games, was just as energetic, playful and focused as their last game, when Quinnipiac came out of the gate hard and nearly won it in the first period.

Pecknold had a certain touch with practice. Despite being the calm center of the storm, the players flew around him like a stick-wielding tornado, shouting encouragement and disparagement at each other, chirping and joking as they ran through drills.

North Dakota, which beat Denver 3-2 in the semifinal round to get to the national title game, hit the ice with a practice that was the exact opposite. The playfulness was not there. Instead, they stuck to the routine that worked under former coach Dave Hakstol, and their attitude was much more workmanlike.

The fun came directly from coach Brad Berry.

Instead of staking out a place in the middle of the ice and directing traffic from there, Coach Berry got into the center of drills and basically created chaos. He'd use his size and his stick to obstruct passes, making his players work around him to get the same job done, like a human Roomba.

As loose as Pecknold ran his practice, his on-ice system is the opposite -- a conservative 1-1-3 that has a right wing skating forward, a left wing supporting and the center joining the two defensemen to hold in the puck.

"It's something that allows us to kind of clog up the neutral zone a little bit," Pecknold said, ruminating on his system. "I don't want to get into all the intricacies of running a good 1-1-3, but it definitely caused problems for BC last night. And it's a good equalizer when you go up against three first rounders and three second rounders and teams like that, slows people down a little."

But still, much like the playful, chaotic order of practice, there's room in his system for creativity. "It's not just about our 1-1-3," Pecknold said. "We want to go play offense, we want to go forechecking. We got some good goals off forechecks last night. It's not a passive 1-1-3, it's aggressive, and we want to gap up and create turnovers and deny time and space."

Berry’s system stresses discipline in the face of chaos, and given the nature of Quinnipiac’s style of play, perhaps he had the best possible antidote to a system that emphasized it. Talking about his team’s preparation for Quinnipiac, Berry used the word "discipline" three times and "composure" once.

"First of all, I think the biggest thing is discipline," Berry said in his press conference. "We've got to make sure we have ultra discipline against a very good power play. Quinnipiac has an unbelievable power play. We have to have discipline. We can't take a penalty late in the game like we did last night and then leave it to chance. We've got to make sure we do the right things. Winning a draw, first of all, to get it clear is a big part of it. Face offs are a big deal. And making sure our shifts are short with our tandems and deep pairs and play with a lot of energy and composure."

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Quinnipiac vs North Dakota Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

***

On the day of the final game, Amalie Arena welcomed in two groups of guests. The first set, arriving at 12:30 p.m., came to attend a free open skate on the ice, enjoying the cold air on a warm, sunny spring day. Fans in yellow and green cut the ice with their blades in the same way their teams would do so later in the evening, albeit with a bit less intensity.

Later that night, the building opened again, but this time to welcome in two fierce fan bases with a vested interest in battling for collegiate pride. North Dakota fans overwhelmed the space, but a section of gold glowed in the stands: Quinnipiac fans who traveled far to once again support their team.

After a season of waiting, it was finally time for the biggest game of the year. Hughes sat nervously in his yellow shirt. The arena swelled with noise, with the din of the school bands tuning up in the corners of the stands, with the almost unbearable anticipation of the event to come.

By now, the results are already a well-known story -- the tale of discipline overcoming chaos, methodical systems cutting through neutral zone obstruction in a slow, inevitable rout that had Quinnipiac goaltender Michael Garteig raising his gaze to the arena roof in anguish.

What did Quinnipiac fans gain from their journey? What did Hughes take away from this second painful pilgrimage to watch his team lose the ultimate prize of college hockey?

Perhaps, like senior forward Travis St. Denis, it can't be summed up just by the ending.

"[The] past four years have been the best four years of my life," St. Denis said. "Credit definitely the coaching staff and all the past and present players. They created a culture, and it's our job to maintain it. And, yeah, the culture in our dressing room is just unbelievable."

And just maybe, the journey did not end with this defeat. Maybe it was just one stop on a longer journey -- a journey of years that builds something for the future, for the team and for the fans.

"I think when we came in [four years ago]," senior team captain Soren Jonzzon said, "the seniors were fantastic, and they really started the culture and kind of showed us the ropes. It became our role to pass that culture on. You see the way that we play and the way that guys battled and competed for each other, and I think that it's a special thing -- and we're so proud of it."

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Quinnipiac vs North Dakota Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports