By CHRIS ADAMSKI
---- — PITTSBURGH — Cheerleaders and a pep band as soon as they stepped off the plane. A police escort on the ride in from the airport. Their school’s logo plastered about eight feet wide across the Consol Energy Center atrium. NHL ice awaiting for their use.
The NCAA sure rolls out the red carpet for teams that advance to the Frozen Four. And it’s fair to say this season’s qualifiers aren’t used to it.
“We were kind of in awe,” said UMass Lowell captain Riley Wetmore.
“Pretty cool,” teammate Chad Ruhwedel said. “I’ve never experienced that before.”
Join the club. As college hockey’s national showcase prepares to launch in Western Pennsylvania for the first time, there are three programs here — Lowell, St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac — that have never been to this far. And Yale, the fourth member, is hardly a grizzled veteran. In fact, it’s been 61 years since the Bulldogs have made it this far.
Indeed, power programs such as Boston College, Michigan and Minnesota aren’t here, and a first-time champion will emerge on Saturday night. Just further proof of the growth of college hockey, where the so-called little guys can catch up to the heavyweights of the sport ... quickly.
“You really see the parity throughout Division I,” Lowell forward Joseph Pendenza said. “Now, basically every team can win any night. You see the No. 1 team will lose to the No. 20 team in the country. It just shows how strong each team and each league is becoming and how anybody can make it.”
Lowell (28-10-2) will play Yale (20-12-3) in the first semifinal 4:30 p.m. today at the home of the NHL’s Penguins. Quinnipiac (29-7-5) and St. Cloud State (25-15-1) meet in the nightcap that follows at 8 p.m.
The sport’s competitive balance this season might not have been better illustrated than in one of the glamour conferences, Hockey East. Two points separated the top five teams in the final standings. More striking, it wasn’t the usual suspects — Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine — that emerged with the league title.
For the first time, Lowell did.
“The Hockey East championship was pretty surreal for us,” River Hawks sophomore Scott Wilson said. “It’s not like the BCs and BUs, they’re flashy offensively and have the high (NHL) draft picks. But right from the beginning, we came together and had good chemistry. For us to end up on top of Hockey East is pretty big for our organization.”
Hockey East wasn’t the only conference with almost unprecedented parity. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association had its top six teams finish within four points of each other.
The only conference that didn’t have a race for its regular-season title, the East Coast Athletic Conference, arguably provides the best case for parity on a national level.
Generally considered a second-tier conference, especially with neighboring Hockey East always lurking, the ECAC produced the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed — Quinnipiac — and two teams in the Frozen Four: the Bobcats and the Bulldogs.
“We’ve known that it’s a tough league and it always has been,” said Yale forward Antoine Laganiere, considered a top free agent sure to be wooed by NHL teams upon the tournament’s conclusion. “Traditionally, we don’t have as many teams in the NCAAs, but I’m just happy for the league. We’re finally getting the respect we deserve.”
Although Yale has been a longtime member of Division I, the Bulldogs had made just two appearances in the NCAA tournament before 2009. Lowell didn’t join college hockey’s most prestigious tier until 1983. And Quinnipiac moved up to Division I 15 years ago, 11 years after St. Cloud State made the leap.
So, without question, there is a new outlook for the sport here in town.
Yale and St. Cloud State were No. 4 seeds in their respective four-team regionals held March 29-31. The week prior, the Bulldogs had to sweat out the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship game just to get into the 16-team tournament. A Michigan upset of Notre Dame March 24 would have meant an at-large berth — that Yale ultimately earned — going the Irish.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the Wolverines lost, Notre Dame secured an automatic bid, and Yale squeezed in as the final team.
And now, here they are, a win away from playing for a national title. Just another sign of a new era in college hockey.
“I’d say college hockey is the best it’s ever been,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “I think it’s outstanding right now. The level of talent is fantastic.
“I think there is as much parity now that you’ve ever had.”
There are at least three other teams that agree with him.