I still remember my first WCHA Final Five like it was yesterday. I was 14 years old, the year was 2000 and I was a freshman in high school. While I grew up a Wisconsin hockey fan, and can remember as far back as watching the 1992 Frozen Four from Albany, N.Y., I had yet to really fall in love with WCHA hockey.
That was until I stepped foot inside the Target Center for the first time.
That year, Wisconsin had a loaded squad. Senior Steven Reinprecht was having a Hobey Baker-type season (he got robbed, by the way), freshman Dany Heatley burst on to the scene with a 28-goal, 56-point freshman season and the Badgers were ranked No. 1 in the country.
One of my good buddies had been going to the tournament for a few years, and he invited me to come along with his family for championship Saturday. It just so happened that the Badgers had won their semifinal game, advancing to the title game against No. 2 North Dakota.
A free ticket to see No. 1 Wisconsin vs No. 2 UND? Count me in.
Minnesota and St. Cloud were matched up in the early game, and we arrived in Minneapolis early to get a bite to eat before the third-place game started. I'll never forget walking around by the arena before the game, music blasting, fans from every team in the league represented -- just an all-out party.
I was sold immediately.
Minnesota and St. Cloud led off the day with a great game. The Huskies came out on top, 6-4, much to the dismay of the pro-Gophers crowd on hand. Little did I know the winning goaltender for St. Cloud that day would eventually be one of my bosses, but that's a story for another time.
After killing some time between games, we got back to the Target Center early for the title game. The Final Five always seems to coincide with the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, and this year was no different. Wisconsin was in the tournament as a No. 8 seed, and had a huge game that day with top-seeded Arizona.
We had seats in the lower bowl for the championship game, and as snoopy high school kids do, my buddy and I decided we needed to see the end of the basketball game. The hockey game wasn't set to start for another 45 minutes or so, so we found seats close to the suites where we could get a view of the TV's.
Little did we know what we were witnessing. Of course, you all remember -- it happened to be the day Dick Bennett's Badgers shocked the college basketball world, defeating Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats, 66-59.
By the time the basketball game wrapped up, the Target Center was filling up with Badgers fans waiting to see their team in the Final Five title game. When the PA announcer announced the score over the loud speakers, I thought the roof was going to blow off. I've never seen anything like it for a moment that didn't actually come in the game.
Anyways, North Dakota went on to win the hockey game, 5-3. While it was a bit disappointing at the time, my emotions from the day were sky high. Wisconsin could have been beat 50-0, and I'm not sure it would have changed my experience.
I was a Final Five junkie. I was hooked.
Thirteen years later, I'll be making my 14th straight trip to the Final Five. After my initial appearance, the tournament moved to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the new facility that was built for the expansion Minnesota Wild. What an incredible facility it is, too.
The best hockey game I've ever seen came at the Final Five in 2006. St. Cloud State and Minnesota met in the Friday night semifinals, they and put on one of the best shows I've ever seen on a hockey rink. Defense was optional, as the two teams combined for 15 goals.
The two teams traded goals in the first period before St. Cloud busted out for four in the second. Not to be out-done, Minnesota's Ryan Potulny scored a hat-trick in the second period alone. Down by a goal with the score 7-6 in the third period, Potulny added his fourth of the night to send the game to overtime with just 15 seconds to play.
St. Cloud got the last laugh, however, as Matt Hartman scored on a bad-angle shot in the extra session to advance the Huskies to the title game.
As I got older, the tournaments started to get even better. Of course, that's because I discovered beer. Hey, I am from Wisconsin, right?
As the tournament grew in popularity, so did the size of our tailgating group. At one time, we had a group as large as 40 people who would meet before and after the games every day of the tournament to grill, drink beer and talk hockey for three days.
What more can you ask for in a weekend?
The past few years, I've been covering the tournament as a working journalist, so my Spotted Cow consumption has decreased while my stress level has gone in the opposite direction. But it's still a fantastic tournament, and it kills me to see it go.
With Wisconsin and Minnesota leaving the WCHA for the Big Ten, and a number of other schools leaving for the newly formed NCHC, the Final Five will become a shell of itself.
Sure, going forward, we'll have the Big Ten Tournament to look forward to every other season at Xcel -- opposite years, it will be in Detroit -- but it won't be the same.
I'm going to miss the hoards of rowdy North Dakota fans taking over St. Paul, and hell, I'll even miss UMD's Drunk Hockey Guy.
The best thing about the WCHA was the Final Five, there's no debating that. After this weekend, it will be gone.
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