Matt Wellens column: UMD, Amsoil Arena exceed expectations, take NCAA Women's Frozen Four to new level
Veterans of men's and women's Frozen Fours called the week "amazing" even without the hometown Bulldogs taking part. NCAA has encouraged Duluth to bid again in the near future.
DULUTH — In my experience over the past nine seasons covering Bulldogs hockey for the News Tribune at NCAA tournaments, you know you’re at a big time event the second you walk into the building.
I felt it the moment I arrived at the 2017 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four at United Center in Chicago, and again a year later in 2018 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — despite that being a building I visit 2-3 times a season for various events.
I definitely didn’t feel it in 2015 and 2016 at the NCAA Northeast Regionals at the aging, dusty arenas in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Worcester, Massachusetts. Nor did that feeling exist at the last two NCAA Women’s Frozen Fours I covered in Erie and University Park, Pennsylvania — though the COVID-19 pandemic may be partially to blame for that.
I honestly wasn’t expecting to have the feeling when I arrived at Amsoil Arena last Thursday for the 100th time in the last seven months. It was just Frozen Four media day, after all, with some practices and press conferences going on for those of us already in town.
But the feeling was there, from the moment I walked into an Amsoil Arena that had been transformed for the Frozen Four, to the playing of “Jump Around” moments after the Wisconsin Badgers won their seventh NCAA title.
It had been a decade since Duluth last hosted the event, but the University of Minnesota Duluth and Duluth Entertainment Convention Center nailed it hosting the 2023 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four.
And I’m not the only one who thought so. Throughout the weekend, specifically on Sunday, I sought the opinion of various colleagues that I know, trust and have worked with over the years at NCAA tournaments and Frozen Fours. I talked to people who were going to be fair and honest with me, if not overly picky.
This was a professional event on par with the men in terms of amenities, access & production. We had everything we needed & then some. Communication was great. I saw the organizers and NCAA reps again and again and knew exactly who to go to w/ questions.— Nicole Haase (@NicoleHaase) March 20, 2023
That's down to @kgrgas
The word that kept coming out of people’s mouth was “amazing.”
That included Mark Bedics, the NCAA’s associate director of championships and alliances, who specifically used the words “frickin’ amazing” when I initially approached him. I’ve worked with Bedics at men’s and women’s Frozen Fours in six of the last seven seasons, and he’s always frank with me.
For Bedics, one of the highlights was the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award ceremony on Saturday morning inside the Amsoil Arena ticket lobby, known as “the Ice Cube.” The event was free and open to the public for the first time ever, and despite there not being a Bulldog, Badger or Gopher among the top three there that day, ‘The Cube’ was overflowing with attendees young and old.
Bedics said the goal of the NCAA is to make the Women’s Frozen Four a destination event, just as the Men’s Frozen Four has become, or the NCAA basketball tournaments. Bedics said the 2023 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four “was a great step in that direction.”
“I thought it was amazing. Truly every single aspect was taken care of,” Bedics said. “Abbey Strong from Minnesota Duluth, the whole athletic department was amazing, Jeff Stark at the DECC — literally everybody. Their deep attention to detail is second to none.
“I hope they bid again, because we’d love to come back.”
The NCAA should be back, and not just for another Women’s Frozen Four in 2027 (New Hampshire, Minnesota and Penn State host the next three years). It’s time to stop playing regionals outside of college hockey markets or in undersized junior hockey venues. Let a venue like Amsoil Arena — which reportedly drew rave reviews from both ESPN and NHL Network as a broadcast location — host the Midwest Regional instead of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Let’s bring the WCHA Final Faceoff to Amsoil Arena as well every few years instead of playing in aging Ridder Arena, home of the 2025 Frozen Four.
Tracy Dill, the retired Bemidji State athletics director who is signed on to serve a second season in 2023-24 as the WCHA’s interim commissioner, said it's likely the league will open up the bidding process for the 2025 Final Faceoff and beyond following league meetings this spring. The future of the league tournament is on the agenda, and while he wouldn’t commit to the league semifinals and final coming back to Duluth for the first time since 2012, he did call the 2023 NCAA Frozen Four at Amsoil Arena “first class.”
“It’s the little things that make these things the best, and you can certainly see it from when the teams arrive, to the way the media is taken care of down below for the press (conferences),” Dill said. “The Patty Kazmaier event (Saturday) that I attended, I mean, it was unbelievable. It was great to see the NHL Network involved with that as well. Just the overall appearance of what the building looks like, it looks very, very good. I've been to several Frozen Fours for men and this rivals what what they get there as well. So it's exciting.”
Badgers, Buckeyes, Gophers and Huskies fans descend upon Duluth
Drawing 3,425 fans for the semifinals on Friday and 3,940 for the championship on Sunday, the 2023 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four had the highest multi-day attendance since the 2011 Frozen Four in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The 2011 Frozen Four featured Boston College, Boston University, Wisconsin and Cornell and drew 7,487 fans over the two sessions while this year’s Frozen Four in Duluth with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Northeastern drew a total of 7,356.
Rank, Year, Site, Attendance (Result)
1. 2003, DECC Arena in Duluth, 5,167 (Minnesota Duluth 4, Harvard 3 (2OT))
2. 2006, Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, 4,701 (Wisconsin 3, Minnesota 0)
3. 2008, DECC Arena in Duluth, 4,031 (Minnesota Duluth 4, Wisconsin 0)
4. 2011, Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania, 3.965 (Wisconsin 4, Boston U. 1)
5. 2023, Amsoil Arena in Duluth, 3,940 (Wisconsin 1, Ohio State 0)
What others had to say about the Frozen Four in Duluth
“I though Duluth did an excellent job. It's very nice that they have a lot of Minnesota fans, obviously there was a ton of people in the building. That's great to see to grow the women's game. I thought it was one of the best Frozen Fours I've been to. They did a great job all week. We had fun events. The media, the photos, we really felt like rock stars out here. Amsoil did a great job.” — Buckeyes fifth-year senior forward Paetyn Levis
“I thought the event (Saturday) was fantastic, too, with the Kazmaier. I’ll admit, at first I was hoping more for the way we used to do it with the brunch and really celebrate it, but the way the NHL Network did it, I thought it was great. They honored the top 10 and then they focused in on the top three. Maybe I liked it, too, because we won.” — Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall on the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award show on Saturday
“We're the luckiest people in the world to have the fans and the community that supports us the way that they do. This is so special because the last time we did this, we were in Erie, and there was nobody there, just families. To have people driving up, flying in, we're so spoiled. We're so lucky. There's so many people that care about us and root for us. I'll this cherish forever.” — Badgers redshirt senior goaltender Cami Kronish comparing 2023 Frozen Four to Badgers’ last Frozen Four in 2021 in Erie.
“My son was in Arizona, he changed his flight back to Minneapolis. My three grandkids, they made it over (Sunday). I thought the atmosphere was good. When they played “Jump Around,” oh man, it doesn’t get any better than that. That was awesome.” — Mark Johnson, seven-time NCAA championship head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers