It was just last year that Minnesota head coach Brad Frost sat beside two red-eyed seniors following the NCAA Championship game and discussed the culture of a program that, unlike the two seasons prior, could not be embodied in a title-winning performance.
To understand the culture that Frost has created here, it’s certainly important to take a step back and look at the Gophers’ on-ice accomplishments, especially over the past four years. Four-straight NCAA title game appearances. Three conference regular-season championships, three conference postseason titles. An undefeated season.
That kind of success is what we think of when we think of Minnesota lately. And that’s why, a year ago, when Frost spoke about having a good attitude, and playing for the person next to you, and fulfilling core values like toughness, discipline, gratefulness, and devotion, some might have said, “Of course.” Of course a team that fell short of the expectation of a national championship would default to talking about effort, and values, and success meaning more than just stringing together wins.
What is more remarkable is that now, one year later, after capturing the team’s third national championship in four years, Frost is talking about the same things.
“I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say again that it’s our culture, our values, the process and all those things,” Frost said. “I thought last year we exuded our values after the championship loss more than we’ve ever done before. It’s easy to embody those values when you’re winning, but to lose last year and still see our players still be so grateful for the opportunity to play here just makes this year that much sweeter.”
Minnesota took home its sixth national championship in program history on Sunday, defeating the Harvard Crimson, 4-1.
The Crimson this year shared some similarities with the Clarkson team last year that upset the Gophers in the title game, 5-4. For one, goaltending was the backbone of both teams. And the Golden Knights relied on a staunch defense to win their first NCAA Championship, which is a big reason why Harvard was so successful this season.
But, like Clarkson last season, the Crimson were sort of an upstart team just by getting to this point. There were some early-season bumps in the road. A trip to the national championship game seemed out of reach then, but they put it together after that and asserted themselves as an all-around good team for most of the year.
“We had to find our way back in November when we played Boston College and got spanked,” Harvard head coach Katey Stone said. “From that point on, we became a much better hockey team. We became better teammates, and if it weren’t for the leadership, who knows how our season would have been. It probably would have ended a long time ago. It’s a special group of kids and every one of them has done as expected.”
So, yes, it’s fair to say that coming into the championship match-up, Harvard looked like it could be another Clarkson for a few different reasons. But Frost will talk all day about this thing called “the process”, and that was maybe the difference this time around–at least when it came to the mindset.
“I honestly think going into this game was completely different from how we went into the game last year,” Minnesota senior captain Rachael Bona said. “I think last year we came in too confident thinking, ‘We’re playing a team from out east who has never won a national championship,’ and all that stuff. You could see today that all those sophomores who lost last year wanted it that much more and the freshmen who hadn’t won it yet had heard us talking about winning and losing it, and I think that definitely played in. I honestly thought before the game that we were the most ready we’ve ever been.”
One other striking difference from last year: the play of Amanda Leveille in net. It’s hard to blame a loss like that on any one player, even one as important as the goaltender, but Leveille was noticeably improved in this game, and made an impact right from the get-go.
“Tonight, you could tell she was confident,” Frost said. “She made a couple big saves early, which allowed us to settle in quicker. I think we settled in quicker tonight than we did on Friday. She came up very big for us and I’m happy for her.”
It looked like the Crimson were going to keep the game locked in a scoreless tie going into the first intermission, before the Gophers started to press one last time in the final minute. Megan Wolfe picked up a loose puck, circled around at the point and walked in, firing a wrister to beat Emerance Maschmeyer for just her third goal of the season and send a wave of maroon and gold rolling to its feet.
“Late period goals are no fun, number one,” Harvard head coach Katey Stone said. “These are the kinds of games where things happen like that and so you have an unsung hero. Someone steps up who has a point or two on the season and they make it happen.”
Even giving up a goal like that, and even walking into a packed, screaming building as the visitor, Harvard still proved itself to be a worthy contender. The Crimson made it hard for Minnesota to get comfortable with such a seemingly minuscule lead, holding the Gophers to just the one goal while pressing for the equalizer themselves.
“They are a very fast team and in my opinion, probably one of the fastest that we have played all year,” Minnesota senior captain and defenseman Rachel Ramsey said. “We knew that they were going to play as a team and as a full unit and they managed to do that. They were fantastic in the neutral zone and when they got the puck in our defensive zone, they were relentless.”
As the end of the game drew closer, Minnesota needed another goal to breathe a little easier, and it got one. Dani Cameranesi threaded a pass through the defense to find Hannah Brandt breaking in front, and she backhanded it up over Maschmeyer to double the lead almost halfway through the third period.
When plays need to be made, it’s players like Brandt who make them. But her making perhaps the biggest play of the game was fitting for another reason.
“When you get a bunch of great people on a team, then the organization creates a culture that’s pretty darn special and these kids are never about themselves,” Frost had said at the press conference on Saturday before the game. “I think Hannah is a perfect example of the type of person we recruit. Somebody that could care less about all the fame and the glory, and is more concerned about being a great teammate and a great daughter and a great sister. You put those ingredients together and it makes it pretty special.”
With the deficit now doubled, and the clock ticking down on its season, Harvard was not done yet. Defenseman Sarah Edney rushed the puck all the way up and threw it on net from a bad angle, finally getting one past Leveille.
“Getting that goal was huge for us and Coach always says, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get,'” senior captain Kalley Armstrong said. “Going into the third, we wanted to work as hard as we could. That’s all we asked of each other and we were just hoping to get a couple of bounces going our way. We were just trying to go out there as hard as we could.”
The Gophers came right back and scored themselves, however. Senior Meghan Lorence got on the board to stretch the lead to two again. Bona added an empty-netter for the 4-1 final.
“It’s tough because we just kept coming at them and we got our life back then [with Edney’s goal] and I think you have to take some chances to win a national championship, and things got a little risky for us,” Stone said. “But we have been kind of a high-risk, high-reward team all year. You’re going to have luck, you’re going to have bounces, and today it didn’t go our way because of the pressure they put on us. They had a great game plan and stuck to it.”
The horn sounding signaled not just the end of a hockey game but something much more than that for the program at Minnesota–something that has some wondering if the term “dynasty” applies here.
“I don’t know if the team or the players are ever the ones who want to say that, ‘Yes, this is a dynasty,’ but I will say that I think what we have done is incredibly special,” Ramsey said. “I don’t know if it will be done again and we will leave it up to you guys to call it a dynasty or not.”
But as Frost will repeatedly say, despite all the championships and on-ice success over the past four years, it is simply not about the wins.
“We have great administration, a great coaching staff and we have unbelievable kids,” he said. “We don’t talk a lot about winning. We talk about the process and then we end up winning three national championships in four years. It’s just kind of ironic how that works.”
The end result might vary from year to year when it comes to wins and losses, but Frost and his program are still telling a story of attitude and effort and fulfilling values. Even as the championships pile up, the story will continue to transcend that.