By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
The world of sports is full of great upsets and hockey boasts some of the best. I mean, did anyone expect the Los Angeles Kings, of all teams, to suddenly become unstoppable and win the Stanley Cup two months after barely making the playoffs?
College hockey has had its share as well. Just about every year, a small school upsets a traditional powerhouse and provides a great story for sportswriters and fans to behold. In some cases – Bemidji State in 2009 and RIT in 2010 – the teams pull off two upsets and make it to the Frozen Four.
Ask most college hockey fans to name the biggest upset ever, there’s really only one: Holy Cross’s win over Minnesota in the 2006 West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D.
This past weekend, Holy Cross returned to Grand Forks for the first time since 2006 so I figured now would be the perfect time to look back at their big win. (After all, they almost pulled it off again Saturday before North Dakota woke up in the third period).
The Holy Cross game is takes the mantle for many reasons, primarily because it had never been done before. The number one or number two overall seed (the Golden Gophers were number two that year) had never lost in the first round. Some thought it would never happen. The Crusaders changed all that, so without further ado I’ll take you back to March 2006.
That was probably a forgettable month for most, but not to me and certainly not Minnesota fans1. I attended UND’s first-round playoff series against Minnesota State with my friends for the first time, continued my family’s tradition of going to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul the following weekend and was set to attend the NCAA West Regional in Grand Forks the following weekend. College hockey really helped boost my spirits during a hard time, which is probably why I remain so devoted to it long after I graduated.
But this column isn’t about me. It’s about the two teams involved. For Golden Gophers fans, March was envisioned as the first step toward a third National Championship in five years. Minnesota was stacked that season, especially on offense with future NHL wingers Phil Kessel (now with Toronto) and Blake Wheeler (now with Winnipeg) along with Hobey Baker candidate Ryan Potulny. The Gophers won the WCHA regular season title and even went on a 14-game unbeaten streak heading into the Final Five. Most analysts were predicting a sure trip for Minnesota to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee.
However, cracks started to show in Minnesota’s foundation in St. Paul, most evidently on defense. Minnesota was surprisingly beaten in the first game at the Final Five, 8-7 by St. Cloud State. Starting goaltender Kellen Briggs looked awful in the game, letting in some easy goals from a decent but far from great Huskies team. Things didn’t get better the following afternoon as Wisconsin shut out Minnesota 4-0 in the third-place game. Despite the two losses, the Gopher fans I spoke to in St. Paul were supremely confident that this team was headed to Milwaukee. I remember one guy said, “There is no team out there that can stop this team. Yeah, they sucked this weekend, but they’ll really kick it into gear in the Regionals. 2006 National Champs baby!” Or something to that effect, minus the expletives.
While Minnesota came to Grand Forks with a lot of talent and hype, Holy Cross was barely noticed. The Crusaders had won the Atlantic Hockey title, but at the time the AHA was seen as a lesser conference. Holy Cross relied heavily on its star player, Tyler McGregor, and its unheralded but talented goaltender, Tony Quesada, to pull off the upset. Both would have to play their very best. Both would do so.
The grand majority of fans that walked through the doors of the Ralph Engelstad Arena on Friday, March 24, were Fighting Sioux fans who envisioned the outcome as a formality before North Dakota drew the archrival Gophers the following night for a berth in Milwaukee. Even Gophers TV analyst and former head coach Doug Woog was predicting it, saying Minnesota would win “8-0” over Holy Cross and would most likely face North Dakota the following night.
All that week leading up to the game, I kept trying to tell everyone I knew that Holy Cross was a good team. I wasn’t ready to pull a Joe Namath and guarantee a victory for the Crusaders, but I said no one should be surprised if Holy Cross won. They were coming in hot and Minnesota was sliding at the worst possible time. If any team was prime to be taken down, it was the Gophers.
Gophers head coach Don Lucia decided to start the tired Briggs against the Crusaders before the game. My guess is he figured the Gophers would probably win even if his goalie struggled. He could always start backup Jeff Frazee2 against the Sioux or Michigan.
Even though the Gophers insisted that they weren’t looking past Holy Cross, the looks on their faces in opening warm-ups said otherwise. Most had big grins while they chatted with each other, as if preparing for a throwaway game against Alaska-Anchorage. The Crusaders weren’t smiling at all. They appeared focused and determined, which is what I (as a Sioux fan) was hoping to see.
The first period was scoreless, but in talking to my relatives and friends at the game, they were impressed how Quesada had stopped the Gophers’ offense so far and how the Crusaders were keeping up with Minnesota in shots on net.
Holy Cross ended up striking nine minutes into the second frame when Dale Reinhardt beat Briggs glove-side. Sioux fans cheered wildly. Minnesota bounced back quickly when Mike Howe3 scored a short-handed goal. Howe’s first shot hit the post, but he was able to slip the rebound past Quesada.
Just 31 seconds later, the Crusaders took the lead again when McGregor fired a blistering slap shot past Briggs that again electrified the crowd. It was around this time that I looked up and noticed a sign in the upper deck that said “The power of Christ compels you” to inspire the Catholic university’s team. Chuckling to myself, I saw how quickly the crowd was embracing the Crusaders. They didn’t have too long to cheer – Kessel lept out of the penalty box and joined Evan Kaufman on a 2-on-1 break that ended with the star player beating Quesada five-hole and tying the game at 2-2.
When the Crusaders came out to start the third period, the crowd roared, showing signs of believing something great was about to happen. The small number of Gophers fans around me were stone-cold silent as their team came out of the tunnel. It was almost as if they were in silent praying, pleading that their team wouldn’t fall apart.
Two minutes into the final period, it appeared as if Minnesota had finally come to its senses. Future NHL defenseman Alex Goligoski fired a shot past Quesada and gave the Gophers their first lead of the game. Briggs stopped the Crusaders on a 5-on-3 power play, and the faces of Gophers fans started to relax.
Those faces turned to worry at the 7:53 mark when Holy Cross knotted the score at 3-3. After a Crusader shot hit the post, the puck rolled back into the slot where Pierre Napert-Frenette banged it past a stunned Briggs.
By this time, almost the entire crowd at the Ralph was firmly behind the Crusaders. The students started “Ho-ly Cross, Ho-ly Cross” chants and the Crusaders players were thoroughly enjoying it. The third period ended with the game tied and, as Holy Cross headed back into the tunnel for overtime, quite a few fans leaned over the railing for high-fives.
During the break, people discussed how they thought the game would end. I told my friends that if the Crusaders score, the Ralph was going to explode. Just 53 seconds into the extra frame, my prediction rang true.
After stopping a quick Minnesota rush, the Crusaders took off up the left side of the ice. Controlling the puck near the net, McGregor guided a pass across the ice, but the puck ended up hitting a Gopher skate and ricocheted back to his stick. McGregor then sniped a quick shot past a sprawling Briggs and into college hockey history.
As soon as the red light came on, the Ralph achieved a level of noise I had yet to hear and have yet to hear since. The entire arena was rocking as grown men embraced, students “sieved” Briggs and the Crusaders mobbed McGregor. All the while, the Gophers just stood stunned. Briggs kept staring up at the scoreboard in disbelief while his defensemen fell to their knees and hung their heads. Even Lucia, who tried to act stoic, had a look on his face that said “Well, I sure didn’t see that coming.”
The noise continued for a long time before the “Ho-ly Cross” and “Gophers suck” chants switched to “Let’s go Sioux.” North Dakota would go on to obliterate Michigan 5-1 and would also beat the Crusaders the following night to move on to the Frozen Four, but if you ask most Sioux fans, their favorite part of that Regional was how a small Catholic school from Worcester, Mass took down arguably the best team and one of the most storied hockey programs in the country.
In the following years, Holy Cross and Minnesota both started to slide. The Crusaders haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2006, but the Gophers went through a much more frustrating stretch. They made it back to Regionals in 2007 before losing to North Dakota in the Regional Final, got bounced by Boston College in the first round in 2008, then missed the tournament three years in a row (two of those years, they also missed the Final Five which had some fans clamoring for Lucia’s head). It was almost as if the loss to Holy Cross had killed the program and opposing fans loved to rub it in as often as possible. The following year at the Final Five in 2007, a large group of fans showed up in Holy Cross jerseys and gear which clearly annoyed the Minnesota fans in attendance.
Last year, however, the Gophers righted their ship, making the Frozen Four and they are currently the number-one ranked team in the country. Holy Cross is also having its best season since 2006 and was nationally ranked heading into last weekend.
Holy Cross’s upset in 2006 was huge not only because they beat mighty Minnesota, but that people actually started paying attention to the smaller programs and teams made sure they didn’t overlook them in the Regionals. (Well, some didn’t.) Some Minnesotans will disagree, but I think the upset was good for college hockey as a whole. It makes the tournament even more exciting and the sport has never been as popular as it is now. The Crusaders’ win was an important part of college hockey history and will still be remembered years from now.
1. I found out at the start of the month that due to some conflicts with the Education Department at North Dakota, I wouldn’t be graduating that May. As a result, I was forced to make some abrupt career changes and planned on transferring schools as soon as the semester was over. I was depressed and hurt, so I filled my large amounts of free time that month with college hockey and it was an amazing ride.
2. Frazee would become even more infamous as the guy who gave up a 180-foot goal against North Dakota.
3. Coincidentally, Howe, Reinhardt and Briggs would go on to become teammates in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign in 2008-09.