Champions at last
Quinnipiac men's hockey team makes history at the Frozen Four
November 10, 2023
November 10, 2023
He reached for the boards to steady himself and shuffled onward, crouching down to clear a stray stick impeding his path to a procession of congratulatory handshakes from the opposition.
The Bobcats had just secured the first NCAA Division I national championship in school history with a dizzying sequence destined to loop forever in college hockey lore, and their coach was doing his best to bottle his emotions. But now he was being asked to unbottle them before a crowd of 19,444 and close to a million more watching at home.
“I’m just trying not to cry. I don’t think I can do this,” Pecknold alerted his interviewer on the live telecast, his voice trailing off. “I’m just proud. Just … awesome. Awesome. Sorry. I can’t … I can’t. I … I need a hug. Gimme a hug.”
The 56-year-old had looked so composed a few hours earlier on this April night in Tampa, Florida, delivering the final pregame speech of this charmed third trip to the Frozen Four. In fact, the pep talk was remarkably similar to the 40 that preceded it.
After swatting away a crack about his appearance — no, this blue suit wasn’t new but, yes, of course, he’d “saved it for the natty” — Pecknold calmly outlined the Bobcats’ keys to victory. Then, for the last time, he invoked their mantra, the same one emblazoned on a sign outside the locker room.
“We’re relentless,” he said. “Relentless. Hunt the puck. We get our win, and we move on.”
Move on, they did. To immortality.
The clinching goal was a fitting coda for these relentless Bobcats: They blitzed the net with a crisply executed set play, scoring 10 seconds into overtime to stun top-ranked Minnesota, 3-2, after trailing for over 50 minutes in regulation.
The puck sailed out of play on the first attempt at the extra period’s opening face-off, resulting in a restart. Then it was as if the pro-regulation rink — home to the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning — had been tilted like a pinball machine. Jacob Quillan won the draw, tapping the puck to Collin Graf, who fired it backward to Zach Metsa, who slung it ahead to Sam Lipkin, who shoveled it sideways to a streaking Quillan, who deftly steered it over the goal line.
A Minnesota defenseman bowled over an official amid the bedlam. Discarded articles of hockey equipment soared through the air. A celebration three decades in the making was finally happening — on the ice, on the bench, in the stands, in bars and living rooms and at blue-and-gold gatherings in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas.
Gov. Ned Lamont showed his support for the state’s second helping of college sports supremacy in the span of a week, flying down to watch the game in a suite with Quinnipiac President Judy Olian after attending the UConn men’s basketball parade earlier in the day.
Back home in Hamden, a smartphone camera trained on the patrons at Eli’s on Whitney captured the wave of delirium gripping Bobcats Nation. Students spilled out of dorm rooms to revel on the Mount Carmel quad. The long climb to the sport’s summit, which started in earnest with the shift to Division I in 1998, was complete. The party was on.
“We had amazing fans here,” said Metsa, the Bobcats’ fifth-year captain. “We had amazing fans [at the regionals] in Bridgeport. So I'm happy for everyone, all the students back at Quinnipiac, all of our supporters. We couldn't do it without them. It’s a dream come true.”
Pecknold, the man who nurtured that dream, was hired in 1994 while he was a full-time high school history teacher, commuting over an hour from his day job to head a staff of part-timers. From those humble beginnings as a struggling Division II outfit without a home rink, Pecknold forged the Bobcats into a perennial powerhouse, instilling a culture that values character, unity and grit over pure talent.
No coach in the country won more games over the past decade, but the bitter disappointment of title game losses in 2013 and 2016 fueled the perception that the Bobcats were once again party crashers to a Frozen Four that featured three of the sport’s premier programs. All they did was knock off one of the NCAA’s signature brands, Ohio State, in the Bridgeport regional final; stifle an explosive Michigan squad in the semifinals; and outlast the uber-talented Gophers — a team that boasted two of the three finalists for the national player of the year award on the same scoring line.
For those scoring at home, that’s three Big Ten conference giants, slayed in succession by a school from outside the Power Five sphere of influence. But then, these Bobcats have long been Goliaths in David’s clothing.
They like it that way.
“We thrive off doubt,” said Tom Schutt ’17, one of about 20 former players who witnessed history in Florida. “It motivates us to prove people wrong.”
The doubters have been silenced for good. But even after the national championship banner was unfurled and the title defense began, there’s still plenty of noise to be made. From morning skates to alumni gatherings to rowdy postgame locker rooms, Quinnipiac Magazine got an inside look at the Bobcats’ coronation. These are the enduring scenes from the April getaway that changed everything.
The Bobcats were back in the same bayside hotel where they stayed for the 2016 Frozen Four. Quinnipiac branding was splashed on everything from columns at the valet stand to the front desk in the main lobby. A sand sculpture etched with the university’s ferocious feline logo greeted guests by the escalators.
It was all meant to signify that for this week, this little parcel of paradise known as Harbour Island was designated as Hamden South. But Pecknold — a Bedford, New Hampshire native who was a standout defenseman at Connecticut College, where he also began his coaching career — made it clear with his good-natured grumbling in the press room that this was “not a vacation,” but rather, a “business trip.”
Parents, siblings and significant others were obstacles to be kept “at bay” and tourist attractions — such as the Bay Rocket, a pirate-themed, 100-seat speedboat that requires riders to sign a waiver — were strictly off-limits. Some players had as many as 30 family members in their extended travel party, but lunch away from the team was a no-no, Pecknold revealed.
“We're not going to the beach,” he said. “We're not going to the pool. We're not going jet-skiing. We're here to win a hockey game.”
While the ultimate prize had eluded him until this year, it’s hard to find fault with Pecknold’s no-nonsense approach. He is every bit the program architect that in-state contemporaries Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun are, a visionary who forced the country to take notice of the fixer-upper he turned into a fortress.
Now the proud owner of a cabinet full of coaching hardware — including the 2016 Spencer Penrose Award, the American Hockey Coaches Association’s highest honor — Pecknold remembers what it was like to have a roster of nine or 10 players, to practice at midnight because it was the only time slot available at the old Northford Ice Pavilion. Quinnipiac College was technically a Division II program, but scheduled almost as many Division III opponents. The Braves, as they were then known, did not much resemble the team that would amass a program-record 34 victories en route to a championship.
Still, the foundation was being laid, brick by brick — a labor of love for which Pecknold collected a salary south of $7,000. Operating in self-described “survival mode” as an overextended young coach, he would squeeze in a few hours of sleep between gigs — one little pocket from 3-6 p.m. and another from 3-6 a.m. And somewhere during all that time he spent with his eyes open, the formula was revealed to him: leveraging long-term relationships with recruits who were, above all, quality people was the Bobcats’ ticket to sustained success, not borrowing blue-chip prospects for a season or two before they left for the professional ranks.
Thus, a culture was born — and, boy, do the Bobcats love to talk about culture. Ask a player, past or present, to explain the program’s steady ascent and you will invariably hear the word culture, over and over and over again. It’s what they’re told from the time they first pull on the jersey.
Pecknold has acknowledged how tenuous the concept is. It can be a catch-all, a crutch. But the sentiment is not contrived, and it starts with the way the Quinnipiac coaching staff targets tough, cerebral players who are willing to shed their egos and embrace the grind. To that end, the hockey team boasted a collective GPA of 3.69 this past spring with nine players on the Dean’s List to lead all Quinnipiac men’s athletic programs.
Along with a proven team concept — the Bobcats have won seven Cleary Cups as ECAC Hockey regular-season champions, made nine NCAA Tournament appearances and haven’t had a losing record since Pecknold’s second year on the bench — the coach and his assistants are now routinely sought for international team appointments, making Hamden an even more attractive destination for the players they covet.
Of course, wanting a player and determining whether he’s the right fit are two different things. Pecknold has total trust in the tandem of associate head coach Joe Dumais ’06 and assistant coach Mike Corbett to make that distinction. Charged with spearheading the program’s recruiting efforts, they are not opposed to talking Pecknold off a target.
“[They’ll tell me] you don’t want this kid,” Pecknold said. “He’s not a Bobcat. You’ll pull your hair out.”
Once a player is brought into the fold — sometimes after beginning his college career elsewhere as Graf had at Union College in Schenectady, New York — the current players are so attuned to the longstanding protocol that they police poor form themselves.
“Graffer, he came from Union, just kind of dumped whatever habits he had and adapted and became a Bobcat,” Metsa said of his new teammate, perhaps underselling an AHCA First Team All-American who matched Quinnipiac’s single-season Division I record for points (59) when he scored the tying goal in the NCAA final.
“There’s just a culture here about hard work and having your brothers’ backs,” said assistant captain Michael Lombardi. “I think that’s what separates us in those tight games. You see other teams. They’re yelling at each other. There’s bad body language. That doesn’t happen on our team.
So what does happen? According to Soren Jonzzon, MHS ’16, a defenseman-turned-neurosurgeon who captained the Bobcats in their last tour of Tampa, there’s a fair amount of bruising involved. Whether you’re an offensive or defensive player, you’re expected to clog shooting lanes, to hustle after every loose puck. And whether or not your efforts are rewarded on the stat sheet, your teammates take notice.
“If you watch the game, and you see a guy block a shot, you’ll hear the bench,” Jonzzon said. “There’s an emphasis — and it’s well highlighted — on guys battling in front of the net, screening a goalie. You don’t get a point. You don’t get an assist. But every single guy on that team is giving you a pat on the back, giving you a shout-out.”
“It’s about buying into something bigger than yourself,” said another former captain, Derek Smith ’17, a prolific shot-blocker who was pelted with close to 200 pucks over his four-year career.
“Culture is the program,” added John Kelly ’06, who was among the ex-Bobcats who brought his whole family to the Frozen Four. “It’s why all of us are here.”
The 2022-23 roster featured the optimum blend of youth and experience. Five regulars had exercised their right to an extra year of eligibility because of the lost pandemic season. And it didn’t hurt that the Bobcats were once again blessed with stellar goaltending, as in their two previous Frozen Four appearances. Sophomore Yaniv Perets took the torch from Eric Hartzel (2013) and Michael Garteig (2016), parlaying his only Division I scholarship offer into an NHL contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The nimble netminder from the Montreal suburb Dollard-des-Ormeaux only got better as the stakes were raised. He was named the NCAA Tournament Regional Most Outstanding Player for his performance in Bridgeport, adding to a resume that already included two ECAC Hockey Goaltender of the Year awards and consecutive appearances on the AHCA All-American team. Perets was also a top-five finalist for the Mike Richter Award (best goalie in college hockey) and was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award (best overall player in college hockey).
On April 6, Minnesota throttled Boston University, 6-2, to punch the first ticket to the national title game. Then the Bobcats took the stage, eager to avenge last year’s regional final loss to Michigan, the country’s highest-scoring team.
Pecknold had served as head coach of the U.S. junior national team at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in January, an assignment that helped him gather intel on several opposing players at the Frozen Four. Among them was Michigan star and Hobey Baker Award winner Adam Fantilli, a Canadian forward who notched a goal and an assist in a 6-2 defeat of the Americans in the semifinal round. He was selected third overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in June’s NHL Draft.
But even to the untrained eye, the Wolverines’ style was unmistakable — the nine-time national champions played a flashy, free-flowing brand of hockey one might associate with the video game version of the sport. Fantilli led an arsenal of offensive artisans capable of gathering the puck in the neutral zone, pirouetting through traffic and beating the goalie.
It's worth noting here that Quinnipiac is hardly bereft of world-class hockey talent. The program has been home to 20 NHL Draft picks, two of whom (Lipkin and Skyler Brind’Amour) were on the active roster in 2023. And eight of Pecknold’s former players have reached the highest rung on the professional ladder. But the Bobcats’ strength is in their disciplined approach to team defense, the perfect antidote to the Wolverines’ puck-on-a-string routine.
It worked once: Michigan freshman Seamus Casey converted a turnover into an unassisted goal to tie the game at 1-1 six minutes into a frenetic first period after Quillan had given the Bobcats the early lead with a heady bank shot off the back of Michigan goalie Erik Portillo. And Fantilli made his presence felt, netting a rocket from the right circle midway through the second period to wipe away another advantage delivered by Quillan.
For their part, the Bobcats were content to counterpunch, usually against a vulnerable Michigan defense. And Perets was the ultimate insurance policy, stopping 29 of the 31 shots he faced.
“He’s our guy,” Pecknold said of his goaltender. “He’s calm, cool, collected and he probably was the best player on the ice tonight.”
Lipkin, the ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year, scored what ultimately stood as the game-winner 1 minute and 24 seconds into the third period, depositing a rebound off Portillo’s skate from behind the net. Metsa then padded the lead with a lightning strike from outside the right circle at 7:00, allowing him to perform his signature celebration dance in front of the Quinnipiac bench. The moves call to mind but were not consciously lifted from Beyonce’s iconic “Single Ladies” music video, Metsa said.
Ethan de Jong’s empty-netter with under two minutes remaining made it 5-2 and the Wolverines were finished, undone by their own aggressiveness and the Bobcats’ meticulous preparation.
“I think it's something we knew they were going to do,” said Metsa, an All-American defenseman who possesses uncommon offensive instincts for the position. “They were run and gun. They love to try to make plays 1-on-1 and create offense. When we can turn that around and bring it right back down their throats — we always talk about playing north, playing with pace — that's kind of the result of that.”
Pecknold had been deferential to the other participants whenever the press asked him to consider history’s role in this Frozen Four. It was inescapable: Boston University, Michigan and Minnesota had combined to win 19 national titles. All three schools fielded varsity hockey teams prior to Quinnipiac’s founding in 1929. In a nod to another latecomer to national prominence of unlikely origin, athletic director Greg Amodio often refers to the Bobcats as “the Gonzaga of college hockey.”
But after taking the high road for so long, the coach was compelled to breathe a little fire on this night, his team having dispatched another blue blood without much drama.
“We don't mind being the underdog,” Pecknold said. “Nobody gave us a chance to win tonight. And nobody gave us a chance to win on Saturday [in the national championship]. But we'll find a way to figure it out.”
Trailing Minnesota 2-0 less than five minutes into the second period of the national championship game, the Bobcats looked tight. But the discussion on the bench and in the locker room painted a different picture of a team on the brink of another gutting defeat on this grand stage.
There was a prevailing sense that the deficit was fluky, that the tide was turning. They just needed to buckle down and find that relentless gear that brought them here.
“We were kind of nervous to start the game, to be honest,” said second-year forward Cristophe Tellier, who gave the Bobcats a pulse midway through the second, deflecting in Metsa’s pass to trim the deficit to 2-1. “Pucks were just bouncing off our sticks. We just tried to calm it down, hold onto the pucks a little longer, establish the game plan, move our feet.”
The story of this instant classic can be boiled down to two key decisions by the Bobcats’ coaches. The first came straight from the top. Pecknold had honed a reputation as a gambler and now, with precious time ticking off the clock in the third period, he felt the need to push in all his chips.
Still trailing by a goal with under three minutes to play and already staked to a man advantage after the Gophers were whistled for a high stick, Pecknold called a timeout and made the bold choice to pull Perets for a sixth skater. Graf rattled home the equalizer just after time expired on the power play, rewarding his coach’s faith and placing momentum firmly on the Bobcats’ side.
“As we all know, I like to pull the goalie,” Pecknold said. “I just feel like you're going to wait a little bit, go 6-on-5. Why not do it 6-on-4?”
The second key strategic move — one whose legend will surely grow as this season is savored for decades to come — was Dumais’ decision at the start of overtime to dial up “The Jet,” a neutral zone face-off play designed to flummox the defense.
Sudden-death periods often begin with a feeling-out process, both teams careful not to commit a mistake from which there is no recovering. Setting aside the minor detail that this particular play had been unsuccessful the other 150 times the Bobcats had run it, as Dumais later informed a pair of incredulous radio hosts in his native Maine, the Bobcats were banking on the Gophers lowering their guard.
“I think you get into overtime, a big moment, a big game like that — Frozen Four, national championship game, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup — your mind starts to wander a little bit as a player,” Pecknold told Hearst Connecticut Media. “You keep running plays like that hoping somebody’s mind wanders.”
Dumais, who declined an opportunity to become a Division I head coach in the offseason, was flooded with text messages from former players who recognized the play call. “‘The Jet’ finally worked!” read one.
The alumni who made the trek to Tampa were overcome with emotion. Jonzzon said before the game that he suspected either outcome would move him to tears. And he was true to his word, catching Metsa’s attention as he pounded on the glass in one corner of the rink. Metsa, wearing a championship cap adorned with strands of the freshly sheared net, spotted his fellow captain, pointed and gave a little fist pump.
“It’s unbelievable how deep Bobcat blood runs,” Metsa said. “And it means so much that we were able to bring this championship to them.”
With each passing minute, the anticipation built inside the visitors’ locker room at Amalie Arena. There were numerous false alarms – an equipment manager or a trainer would step into view from the hallway, drawing a collective groan from the Quinnipiac players and even a few members of the media eager to capture the moment when Pecknold rejoined the team after his postgame press conference.
A proper celebration couldn’t commence without the patriarch, so they waited and waited, like Vito Corleone’s kids on his birthday before the credits roll in The Godfather Part II. But all these fake outs were making the Bobcats restless.
In Pecknold’s absence, senior forward Joey Cipolone tried to anticipate a subdued speech. Think New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “We’re on to next week,” he mumbled with mock stoicism. Another player joked about a contractual bonus getting triggered and thus securing fancier airfare back to Connecticut.
Then, finally, the man in the blue suit and the gold tie appeared. Initially confused as to why he wasn’t being swarmed, he got his answer in the form of a water cooler held aloft by first-year players Timothy Heinke and Charles-Alexis Legault. Pecknold was doused and the circle tightened around him. With their skates still on, the players bounced, phones in the air and cameras rolling, as they chanted along with the riff to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” a hockey arena staple.
A cherished postgame tradition ensued as Quillan presented Lombardi with the yellow hard hat, bestowed on an impact player by the previous night’s honoree. As Lombardi began to address the team, his thoughts drifted back to a conversation he had with Dumais before the season. The popular assistant — “a rock star,” Pecknold said — had put his own career on hold because he believed the Bobcats were on the cusp of greatness.
“This team was special from the start,” Lombardi said, his voice catching. “It’s pretty crazy. Doomer told us, all the fifth-years, when we were coming back, that this was the year. I don’t know if I believed him at the start, but holy (smokes) was he right. I love you guys. I love this program. I love this team. I’m sad this is the last time we get to wear this jersey, but I’m glad we’re going out on top.”
Metsa, de Jong and TJ Friedmann — three of those fifth-years, all working toward graduate degrees as they skated in these pivotal games — danced to the pulsating beat of Meter Mobb and Too $hort’s “You Came to Party.” And that energy found its way back to the hotel lobby, where fans came to party with their heroes into the wee hours.
But if anyone from the blue-and-gold mob managed to catch the late-night highlights from the title game on ESPN, they were treated to one last injustice when a SportsCenter anchor put the emphasis on the wrong syllable in Quinnipiac. The name has been a godsend for media outlets fishing for content at NCAA events involving the Bobcats, yet there are apparently not enough phonics lessons to go around. “The faster you say it, the less time you have to mess it up,” Metsa advised reporters earlier in the week. “You just gotta rip it out.”
Of course, if that’s still too hard, there is an easier alternative now. Just say national champs.
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