‘I don’t think anybody envisioned’ four titles in six years for NCHC teams, Fenton says

Minnesota Duluth’s Jade Miller walks off the KeyBank Center ice (photo: Melissa Wade).

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin sat in front of a banner proclaiming his Bulldogs as national champions. His players sat to his left adorned with hats saying the same thing, while they wore shirts and uniforms with the familiar growling dog head.

It was a continuation of the UMD celebration, one with which the team and school is becoming synonymous after repeating as national champions.

It made it very easy to overlook the most obvious sign of the team’s success: the NCHC logo adorning the upper right chest area of its uniform. This year’s championship represents the fourth consecutive national crown for the eight-team conference in only its sixth season of play.

“We didn’t foresee four national championships in six years,” commissioner Josh Fenton said. “I don’t think anybody envisioned that. We felt like we could have parity across the league from a competitive standpoint. We felt it would be tough, and it wouldn’t be easy on any given weekend. We knew the competitiveness would be there, but certainly the success of the national championships, I don’t think anybody envisioned that.”

The NCHC began play in 2013 as a downstream impact from the creation of the Big Ten, and it rose out of college hockey’s radical realignment earlier this decade. It formed as something of a superleague, pulling a number of teams from the WCHA while absorbing Miami and Western Michigan from the CCHA. It made an immediate impact by sending teams to the Frozen Four, but it watched other leagues, including ECAC Hockey and Hockey East, celebrate at its expense.

That changed in 2016 when North Dakota became the first NCHC team to make the national championship game, winning the first pennant for the conference with a win over Quinnipiac. The next year, Denver and Minnesota Duluth advanced together to an all-NCHC national championship, a feat it nearly executed again this year. The Pioneers won that year, but the Bulldogs returned in 2018 and 2019, winning at home in the State of Hockey last season before Saturday’s victory over UMass.

“I think it’s been an unbelievable league for the four years I’ve been here,” forward Parker Mackay said. “[The teams] really put themselves on the map since the start. They prepare you so well for the playoffs, I think, because you’re constantly going, playing playoff hockey for the entire year, it seems.”

With its fourth consecutive championship, however, the NCHC enters rarified air once occupied by the pre-realignment WCHA. That conference won five straight championships between 2002 and 2006, including two sets of back-to-back banners. Including the 2000 championship by North Dakota stretches a run to six championships in seven years and an era considered by some as the most dominant ever in the modern college hockey game.

Because the 2010s introduced an unprecedented era of overall parity, however, it stands to reason that the NCHC run is now encroaching and, to a degree, eclipsing that title. The league has had 10 Frozen Four appearances and the best non-conference winning percentage among Division I conferences with over 20 berths in the NCAA tournament.

“I remember that run [in the WCHA],” Sandelin said. “It was pretty unique. It was a strong conference. This one has been a lot of fun to be a part of. It’s certainly challenging. When we got in [the NCHC], there were some teams we were more familiar with. Western Michigan and Miami were from the CCHA.”

“There’s more parity in college hockey in general than there ever has been,” Fenton said. “If you look at it from that standpoint, [the NCHC success] can be construed as more difficult. But that was five in a row that the WCHA won in the middle part of the first decade of the 2000s. That’s an incredible accomplishment. We’re one away from five, but we’ll also just have to wait and see what happens when we get to next year. We know there are 52 other teams that will be ready.”

For now, it’s time for the NCHC to celebrate. The eight-team league arrived six years ago as the trumpeter of change in college hockey. It’s now the preeminent powerhouse. This is the NCHC’s era, thanks to its member teams and a commitment to remain the best, even as the nation continues to take aim at it.

“We believe in the number of games at 24 [conference games],” Fenton said. “We could play more and be in complete balance, but we believe in having 10 non-conference games [per team]. It’s the right amount to maximize the number of teams in the tournament. When you get into the postseason tournament with the Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center, there’s a premium in the NHL arena with that atmosphere that can help teams like Minnesota Duluth in the Frozen Four.

“We believe in our model. We obviously can get better at things, but we’re excited so far.”

“I think the second half in our league is just unbelievably hard,” Sandelin said. “I think you see different styles. When I watched UMass on tape, they reminded me a little bit of St. Cloud in some ways. We had seen that, plus the non-conference schedule we play. It’s been a lot of fun. Hopefully we can keep doing it. There’s a lot of people that have done a lot of work to make our league what it is. I’m just glad we can represent it and keep it in our league.”