By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009
The road from Bemidji State University to the District is about 1,300 miles. If you're on a bus, that's 28 1/2 hours, as Dave and Roxie Schumacher learned this week. Leaving northern Minnesota at 8 a.m. Wednesday, they and about 50 other college hockey fans arrived Thursday afternoon bleary-eyed and excited for the school's first Frozen Four appearance.
Just a few hours later, their beloved Beavers were eliminated in the semifinals, a 16th-seed Cinderella story meeting its end on the big stage. As victorious fans from Miami University of Ohio streamed across the rink hoping to snag tickets for tonight's NCAA championship -- perhaps adding insult to injury after the 4-1 victory -- the green-clad Bemidji faithful weren't budging.
"I'm absolutely glad I came," said Dave Schumacher, 53, as his wife added that it would be crazy to come all this way and then not watch the final game. "It'll be a long bus ride home, but this has been an incredible experience. This is hockey at its best."
The Schumachers have never seen a professional NHL game, making them a lot like many of the 17,000 people who packed Verizon Center on Thursday and who will return tonight. It is the first time Washington has hosted college hockey's championship, and while the city has been gripped by the Capitals' success this season, those surrounding the ice this weekend are part of a small but devoted flock of fans who are in on the secret of something quite different. Unmarred by fights and colored by pep bands and spirited students, college hockey draws fans not just of each team, but of the sport itself.
John MacKinnon, 42, of Falls Church, a member of the NCAA Frozen Four host committee, said about 15,000 of the college hockey fans here this week are from outside the area.
There will be lots of red-and-white garb on Miami and Boston University devotees for the finals, but a majority of the Frozen Four fans tonight will be from somewhere else. Thursday's sold-out crowd featured jerseys from the likes of Wisconsin, Boston College, Northern Michigan, Maine and Clarkson, schools that didn't even make the tournament.
"The Frozen Four is the most exciting thing," said Jeff Larson, 49, of Las Vegas, who sat with friends on the Bar Louie patio before the game. He was sporting gold and maroon Minnesota regalia, as were his brother and friend, attending the tournament finale for the ninth time despite his team's absence. Another friend was in the maize and blue of Michigan, his team evicted in the first round by Air Force. "It's something you do every year. It's like a reunion."
Thursday's crowd was energetic yet relatively polite for hockey, as there are no alcohol sales for the NCAA event and families from all over the country fill the seats. Concourse walkways sometimes clanged with tubas and horns and drums, while the corners of the stands reverberated with student-led chants and eruptions for spectacular saves or artful goals.
Representing the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the fans from Miami of Ohio brought with them a few conference cheers, including one after goals in which they tease the opposing goalie with: "It's all your fault!" College hockey might also be the only time you'll hear the word "sieve" outside of a cookbook, a term universally used to taunt net-minders.
University of Vermont fans sported kelly green wigs, cowbells, helmets and face paint and at times not-so-politely criticized the referees for penalty calls. Down 2-0 in the second period, the Catamounts scored three unanswered goals directly in front of their fans -- two of them just 45 seconds apart -- creating a frenzy. One student waved a hand-written sign: "Stinks to BU."
"Rally," the Catamount mascot, bounded up and down the rows, slapping high-fives. His costume head removed in the stadium's back room, he said there's nothing like donning the outfit.
"It's a blast," said Mike, a Vermont sophomore who asked that his last name not be used to protect the mascot's mystique. Mike is a club hockey player, and becoming Rally allows him to go on the ice for pre-game introductions and intermissions. "You're just the same as any of the players. It's like being a part of the team and being a huge fan at the same time."
Boston, the only No. 1 seed in the Frozen Four, ultimately overcame a scrappy Vermont team that had caused them fits this year. Before the game, Dan Wood, 20, a BU sophomore, was nervous, yelling out "Yeah, band!" in the hallways of Verizon Center as a cacophony of instruments passed.
Wood and two friends traveled from Boston on the band's bus, leaving at 5:30 a.m. Thursday and hoping to avoid a somber quick return. "I just don't want to come all the way down here just to go home," Wood said.
The games also drew locals, including Brian Cohn, 45, of Rockville, and his son, Bennett, 8. Bennett, a defenseman who plays on a Montgomery youth hockey team, is a Caps fan who had never before seen college hockey.
"We just love hockey," Brian Cohn said. "We started planning this two years ago. It's something we've always wanted to do."
Gary and Marlys Gustafson, of Roseau, Minn., have been to six Frozen Fours in a row, a trip that has become a family tradition. They're huge fans of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, since they live about 120 miles from Grand Forks, N.D.
The Gustafsons and their two adult children take the trip each year with another couple and their children, spending some time in the host city. They spent this week visiting museums and monuments a year after seeing Denver.
"It's a lot less stressful when your team doesn't go to the Frozen Four," Gary Gustafson said. "It's a great game, and it's a great way to see the country."