There's a team out there I'd like you to meet: the University of Minnesota women's hockey team.
At the risk of embarrassing the reigning national champions, I want to tell you just how good they are. They have been in the last four national title games and won three of them. During that span, they had a 62-game winning streak, which included a perfect 41-0 season in 2012-13, the first—and only—in NCAA women's hockey history.
Minnesota is to women's hockey what Duke is to men's basketball. Yet nobody knows who they are. Last March, when Minnesota hosted Harvard in the women's national championship, you had to watch the NCAA stream online to see it—the game didn't attract enough interest for a network to broadcast it on television. You could listen to the radio broadcast in the Twin Cities, if you knew where to look. It seems almost nobody outside the 3,400 fans at Ridder Arena, the Gophers' home rink, knew it when they won.
It was Minnesota's sixth national title in 16 years. Only the University of Connecticut women's basketball team has won more titles (eight) in this millennium. The general public appears indifferent.
"It kind of sucks," says senior forward and team co-captain Hannah Brandt. "We have won three of the last four championships and we don't even sell out this place."
Brandt scored the game-winner in last year's final. Stole the puck at her blue line, whisked a pass to her linemate, broke for the Harvard goal, collected the return pass, and flipped a backhand over the goalie's shoulder. Quintessential Brandt. Nothing flashy, just a complete combination of skills that wins hockey games.
Many consider Brandt the nation's best female college hockey player, including her coach, Brad Frost. "It's debatable who you ask, but personally, I think she is," Frost says. "We play in the toughest conference in the country [the Western Collegiate Hockey Association] and she was player of the year of that conference the last two years."
OK, so he's probably biased, but as her coach the past four years, he knows her game and what she's capable of. Brandt's performance backs up her coach's opinion. Brandt was a top three finalist the past two years for the Patty Kazmaeir Award (women hockey's version of the Heisman) and a frontrunner again this year. Of all the great players to play for the Minnesota dynasty (including a dozen Olympians and Kazmaier Award winners Krissy Wendell and Amanda Kessel), Brandt has scored more points than any of them. She's averaging 2.1 points per game this season, which puts her on pace to break the nation's scoring record of 303 points set by Meghan Agosta from 2006-11 at Mercyhurst University.
Yet Brandt remains anonymous. If she's wearing a Gophers Hockey hoodie or UM warmup in a campus restaurant, someone might say hello, but generally she remains unnoticed in the Twin Cities, where she grew up. Elsewhere, no one gives her or her team a second thought even if they walk right in front of them.
"We aren't well known throughout the country," Brandt says. "In that way, we don't get credit."
As good as Brandt is, she is not the sole reason for her team's dominance. The Gophers are loaded with stars, such as returning All-Americans Dani Cameranesi (currently second in the nation in scoring) and Lee Stecklein (a 2014 Olympian); Kelly Pannek, Sarah Potomak, and goalie Amanda Leveille.
Despite all of this talent and success, as well as a 15-3 record, the Gophers are averaging only 1,944 fans at home games this season. The largest turnout yet is 2,335 for a game against St. Cloud State, with many of those cheering for the visiting school located 65 miles north on I-94. Even with modest numbers like that, the Gophers have led the country in attendance every year since its program began in 1997. Across the country, women's college hockey has drawn more yawns than anything.
Understandably, the Gophers succeed at a relatively niche sport, but in hockey-mad Minnesota, where more girls play hockey than in any other state in the nation, you would think that a few more folks would show up for their games. Among their competition in town, they are the only hockey team to have won a championship in the past decade. Their male counterparts at the U have not won a national championship since 2003; the NHL's Wild have never made it past the third round of the playoffs since its inception in 2000. Yet the fourth-place Wild are averaging 19,011 so far this season, and the male Gophers, who are having a subpar season (8-9 to date), are pulling in near capacity crowds of 9,624 a game at Mariucci Arena, next door to Ridder.
The local press follows the fans—or vice versa—basically ignoring the women champions in favor of the mediocre men's team. They tend to prefer the faster, harder-hitting game even if the final results don't favor the home team. You might have thought a border battle against their conference rival, the No. 1-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, would stir up some local excitement last month. The showdown in Madison provided the Badgers the chance to exact revenge for the way the Gophers ended their season last year in the semifinals (Brandt scored the first goal and setup the other two).
Yet with all of those storylines, the Gophers' hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, did not even preview the series. Meanwhile, it devoted over half a page to previewing the men's series against hockey lightweights Ohio State. Media day drew four reporters: the St. Paul Pioneer Press beat writer, a student from the Minnesota Daily newspaper, a freelancer writing for SB Nation, and me. Noticeably absent: anyone from the Star Tribune, any radio or TV reporters.
Going into the Wisconsin series, the Gophers had outscored opponents 80-18–averaging six goals a game–and lost only one game, upset by the University of North Dakota. The Gophers had not lost to the Badgers since 2011, winning 16 games and tying two in 18 meetings.
But Wisconsin exposed Minnesota's mortality, sweeping them with a 3-2 overtime win on Friday night and a 3-1 victory in the Saturday afternoon sequel. They limited Brandt to just one point, an assist in the second game.
That dropped the Gophers' record to 15-3 record and dropped them to No. 3 in the national rankings at the season's midpoint, but they are by no means out of contention. "This is a pretty similar team to last year's, talent-wise," coach Frost says. The implication: they are good enough to win another national title.
Since taking over in 2007-08, Frost has a 258-41-21 record. He has won eight games out of every ten he's coached. That sort of winning percentage is the stuff of legends, especially when you add in the three national championships, five conference titles, and six NCAA Frozen Four appearances.
Yet when asked if he ever gets stopped around town and asked for his autograph, Frost laughs. It's a silly question. "Not real often," he says, meaning, basically never. "I'm not quite Mike Yeo (Wild head coach) or Don Lucia (head coach of the Gophers men's team and winner of a pair of national titles)."
Frost is a mild-mannered guy, 5'10" with black-rimmed glasses, a former Division-III hockey player who is still fit. He is only the second coach in the program's history, taking over from Laura Halldorson, who had a 278-67-22 record with three national titles over ten years. The program's success makes recruiting easier—the University of Minnesota is the school of choice for most locally grown talent—but some prospects still manage to get away, so he has to look to places like Ontario and Illinois to fill out his team. Among his best finds, he managed to lure Olympic netminder Noora Raty from Finland to anchor the teams that won 62 straight games.
This weekend, the Gophers season picks back up with a pair of games against Ohio State—a chance to rebuild confidence against the next-to-last place Buckeyes. The Gophers will get a chance to even the score against Wisconsin this season, with a two-game series at home in February. More important, though, they have the weekend of March 18 circled on their calendar. That's when they hope to be in Durham, New Hampshire, for the Frozen Four with the chance to burnish their dynasty. Maybe this time you'll notice.