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NCAA Frozen Four teams get warm Tampa welcome

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:23 AM
TAMPA -

When the Union College hockey team left its campus in Schenectady, N.Y., on Tuesday morning, the temperature was 45 degrees.

When the Dutchmen touched down at the Tampa Jet Center by midafternoon, it was 87 degrees. And talk about a sunny outlook. They arrived on a DirectAir 737 charter flight that carried the national champion University of Kentucky men's basketball team back to Lexington, Ky., earlier in the day.

"Hopefully, there was some magic left on it,'' Union freshman forward Daniel Ciampini said.

Welcome to a very different Frozen Four.

It's definitely a new experience for Union College, a 2,133-student liberal arts school that doesn't offer athletic scholarships, and the Ferris State Bulldogs. They are the two Frozen Four novices meeting in Thursday's first national semifinal at the Forum.

As the players exited their aircraft onto a red carpet, they marched through the raised hockey sticks from dozens of youth hockey players, boys and girls from as far away as Daytona Beach. A reggae band played in the background. Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn was there for greetings.

"We were not expecting that at all,'' Union sophomore forward Josh Jooris said. "All of the guys were sitting on the plan, looking out, whispering, 'Look at that, look at this, oh my God, look at all the kids with sticks.

"The whole plane experience, that was pretty surreal, too. Having a charter. Just us on there.''

Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said his team usually takes buses to away games. Asked if the team had ever been on a charter flight before, Ferris State senior defenseman and captain Chad Billins burst out laughing.

Billins was holding a Florida orange. Other players held up their oranges as teammates snapped photographs. A few players even took pictures of nearby Raymond James Stadium.

"What a great day for these kids,'' Buckhorn said. "I'm sure they love being here in our community. I see some pale faces, though. They'll probably be sunburned in about five minutes.''

For the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Boston College Eagles, things seemed a bit more routine, perhaps appropriate for programs that have participated in a combined 43 Frozen Four events.

Minnesota made its arrival after dark, several hours after a light workout in Minneapolis. BC, meanwhile, was scheduled to land at Tampa International Airport just before midnight.

All four teams will be on the Forum ice today for workouts, open to the public. The Tampa Bay Sports Commission will treat players and coaches to a sunset cruise tonight on Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, BC alum Ryan Shannon, a forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning, called ahead and got a few large tables reserved on Wednesday night – at Bern's Steak House.

After that, it's time to decide a national championship.

"We're going to prepare the same way we've prepared all year,'' Union coach Rick Bennett said. "We're pretty simple. We don't try to reinvent the game at all.

"The focus has to be about us. I know Ferris is an excellent hockey team. We respect them a lot. At the same time, both teams look like they are in uncharted waters. It's going to favor the team that comes out and executes its system. At this stage, you tend to reinvent things and we're not going to do that.''

Daniels said the parity of college hockey makes it a "different animal'' when it comes to opportunities for smaller schools to succeed on the big stage. Either Union College or Ferris State will be playing for a national title on Saturday night – and that won't be considered a huge surprise.

Nor is it shocking that BC and Minnesota have advanced to Tampa.

"Boston College and Minnesota, this rivalry goes back a long, long way,'' BC coach Jerry York said before the Eagles arrived in Tampa. "It's not just the color of the uniforms that are the same. These are two teams that value hockey on their campuses and have great, great traditions. We are honored to be looking across the ice at the Gophers.''

Minnesota coach Don Lucia, whose Gophers are in the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005, said he's appreciative of the Tampa trip.

"It's not easy getting here and it's even harder to win it all at the end,'' Lucia said. "For a couple of years, it didn't go like we hoped. For this group, the work began a couple of weeks after we lost in the first round (of the 2011 NCAA Tournament).

"We had nobody to blame but ourselves. The Frozen Four (last season) was right down the road (in St. Paul, Minn.). So to go from there to the locker room after beating North Dakota (in the West Region final), to see the joy and happiness in the faces of our players, it was just great. That being said, we're not done yet.''


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