- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

The cherry blossoms have bloomed and kites soar on the Mall, but Washington has become the top place for action on ice.

As the Washington Capitals wind down their regular season and prepare for sellout crowds during the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Verizon Center is home this week to college hockey’s Frozen Four championship.

Washington, usually on the margins of the sport, suddenly is a big hockey town. Whaddaya know?

Thousands of hockey fans have flowed into the city this week from chillier locales to watch Boston University play Vermont and Miami of Ohio take on surprising Bemidji State on Thursday for a shot at the NCAA title on Saturday.

They came by car, by plane and via a caravan of buses. The teams will bring bands, cheerleaders - yes, cheerleaders on ice - and an army of boosters. They also will bring their wallets: The NCAA expects the Frozen Four to pump about $18 million to the area’s economy.

“You can’t ask for a better situation for the Capitals being successful and also being in there helping host the event,” said Steven Cady, the association athletic director at Miami (Ohio) and chairman of the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Committee. “That’s a great combination.”

The Frozen Four would have sold out regardless of the Capitals’ success - fans of college hockey are just that intense about the game.

But four years ago, the notion of Washington as a hockey hotbed seemed as improbable as a goalie scoring on a 180-foot slapshot.

The NHL was coming off a lockout that resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. Interest in the Capitals was on the wane - the team had jettisoned its big-name players and finished in last place the previous season.

Yet the Capitals and the Greater Washington Sports Alliance bid hard to play host to the Frozen Four, going up against traditional hockey cities such as Philadelphia, Boston and Minneapolis.

“It was kind of a mess,” GWSA President Bob Sweeney said.

But officials were undeterred. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis floated a bond to help finance the bid, feeling certain the event would be well-attended. Mr. Sweeney said he was prepared with the argument that it would bring college hockey to a new audience.

“The bottom line is, we went in there saying: ‘Do you want to grow your sport?’ ” Mr. Sweeney said.

The argument clicked with the NCAA, which already wanted to occasionally move the event out of traditional college hockey markets. Anaheim hosted the Frozen Four in 1999 and St. Louis in 2007, and Tampa holds the rights for 2012.

“I think it’s great for the sport to have different venues and different areas,” Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon said. “It’s a beautiful spot to be in. Our guys will never forget this.”

NCAA officials said chances are good the Frozen Four will return to Washington, and the District risks little by hosting the event - even despite its lack of college hockey tradition.

Tickets are sold using a priority system that virtually guarantees a sellout regardless of the venue or teams involved, and the Frozen Four routinely is one of the NCAA’s most profitable events.

Moreover, officials say, the Frozen Four is more than just a hockey tournament. The event also includes a college all-star game Friday night and special youth clinics at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.

“It’s a blast,” said ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose. “The crowds are electric. You’ve got the bands in the building. People who normally come into the building for Capitals games, I think, will be pleasantly surprised. It’s a different crowd, a younger crowd, and you’ve got the intensity of college sports.”

This year’s tournament also comes with an element of fairy tale: Bemidji State arrives as the one of the most improbable Frozen Four teams in history.

The Beavers hail from a small liberal arts school four hours from Minneapolis and joined Division I less than a decade ago.

The Capitals, for their part, will be mildly inconvenienced by the Frozen Four - the event forced the team to end the regular season with a three-game road trip.

But no one’s complaining.

“It’s really great that there’s all this excitement about the Capitals in the last year, and with the Frozen Four, I think one adds to the other,” club President Dick Patrick said. “Hockey’s a big story in Washington in April, and that’s great to see.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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